Feeding Honey Bees Sugar Water
Sometimes we beekeepers need to feed our bees. Learning how to mix sugar water for bees is one of the first tasks most new beekeepers learn. Feeding new colonies can mean a big boost in development. But, you need to do it right to avoid problems.
If you see someone pushing a buggy full of sugar through the market, that person might be a beekeeper.
Each year thousands of beekeepers invest time in making and feeding bees sugar water. That’s a lot of work.
But the big deal is not just the time involved but the money as well. Cane sugar gets expensive when you are buying 50 bags at a time.
So why do we beekeepers go to all this effort? There must be a good reason, right?
Why would anyone want to waste the time and money otherwise? Are beekeepers nuts? Well, yea – sometimes but not in this case.
Don’t Bees Feed Themselves?
Wait a minute, bees collect food from flowers. Why would anyone need to spend time feeding bees sugar water? Well, there are several reasons for that approach.
The concept of feeding honey bees often creates a division among beekeepers.
Some beekeepers feel that you should never feed bees, period. They feel that honey bees should be able to make it on their own. Their opinion is to let the weak bees die.
Other beekeepers accept the need to feed their honey bees when conditions warrant. During a drought we feed cattle, should we not feed bee colonies when needed? How is management of bee livestock different in this respect?
Why Use Sugar Water for Bees Food?
What exactly is sugar water and why should we use that for bee food? In respect to beekeeping, it is a mixture of white granulated cane sugar and water.
When cane sugar is dissolved into water, it makes consumption by the bees easier. It mimics what bees eat naturally – nectar.
But it does not take the place of nectar which has additional nutritious qualities. Our goal is to aid our colonies in food collection. Hopefully they will still be able to find some local food sources.
It is important to only use white sugar when feeding your bees. Never use molasses or brown sugar as this will make your bees sick – or dead.
Healthy bee colonies should not survive on sugar water or sugar syrup alone. They need plant nectar too. This is why we do not want to be feeding colonies year-round.
Choosing Bee Feeders
Top Hive Bee Feeder
There are different ways to feed bees and all have advantages and disadvantages. The search for a perfect bee feeder will span decades. Many of us never find one we are 100% pleased with.
Top feeders are designed to sit on the top of the hive – just under the top cover. Several different styles of top bee feeders come and go in the marketplace.
Top feeders are used to feed sugar syrup and sometimes dry sugar too.
Top feeders are a good choice but they can be messy. This is especially true if you need to get inside the hive to inspect frames. But their advantage is that they hold a lot of food.
They are especially helpful to beekeepers who have set up an apiary away from their home. Or, a great way to feed bees while you are away on vacation.
Just fill it and your colony should not need observation every day. Top Feeders do get heavy .
Try to avoid spilling sugar water in the bee yard. You may start a bee robbing frenzy.
Honey Bees Are Not Lazy
I do not believe that bees are lazy or that feeding bees will prevent them from foraging for nectar.
Some bee hives will need to be fed and some may never need it – depending on local conditions. Weak or small colonies benefit the greatest from sugar water feeding.
Why Feed Your Honey Bees Sugar Water?
There will be times when your honey bee colonies will need your help to survive. I am not saying that you need to feed every hive all the time.
If this is the case, something is wrong. But some colonies may thrive with a little boost occasionally. This is especially true when you start a new beehive.
Offering these colonies a helping hand can be the difference between a strong colony going into Winter or a weak one that is dead before Christmas.
(If your bees are slow to draw comb, check out my drawn comb building tips page.)
Feeding bees can help the colony get off to a good start. But, you should not have to do it forever.
When to Stop Feeding Bees
Never feed bees sugar water when honey collection supers are on the hive. I am referring to boxes of honey that are intended for human consumption.
The bees will use any nectar (or nectar-like substance) to make honey. Honey produced from sugar water instead of nectar – that’s a no no. And, its not real honey.
Established colonies can usually survive on their own unless you are in a drought. It you know that your hive has enough food stored for Winter. Don’t feed.
It is most often new colonies or small swarm that get into trouble. Failure to feed your small colonies that are in need may leave you with hungry bees in the fall.
When the temperatures fall, less nectar is available and colder temps make foraging difficult.
Weak colonies may not be able to make enough honey to survive the Winter. You can not wait until the last minute to intervene.
Check your hives in mid to late Summer, are you seeing some honey being made. Are the bees on track to have the hive full by late Fall?
If not it’s time to dig out those feeders and feed your bees.
Beekeeping Kits with Jar Feeders
Each year, new beekeepers begin their adventure with beekeeping kits. Perhaps, they ordered the kit for themselves or maybe it was a gift.
Beekeeping kits can be a good purchase – depending on the quality of items included. Beware of beekeeping kits that come with small jar feeders.
The small jar bee feeders can be a hazard in the hands of inexperienced beekeepers. They make look cute hanging on the front of the hive but should only be used inside the hive.
Let me repeat that as it is very important – Jar Beehive Feeders should only be used INSIDE a hive. This is especially true if you have more than 1 hive in the location.
A kit without a feeder is a better value for most new beekeepers. Then, you can choose the style of feeder that you would like to use.
Jar Bee Feeders – You Need More than 1
Quart jar feeders can be done with materials at home or you can purchase the jar holders – also called Entrance Feeders or Boardman Feeders.
If made at home, sugar water is mixed well and poured into the glass jars. Granulated cane sugar is the sugar of choice when making bee sugar water.
Using a small nail, punch several tiny holes in the metal jar lid. When inverted and placed on the hive, bees will access sugar water through the small holes.
If placed directly on the top bars of the hive, you will need an extra deep box to enclose the feeder.
Some beekeepers use a temporary hive top with a 1″ – 2″ hole in the top. (You can use a wide drill bit to do this. ) The upside-down jar is placed over the hole.
Be sure to secure the jar to the hive in some way. i.e. Cover it with a plastic bucket and place a brick on top etc.
We do not want the wind or a raccoon to push the jar over. Of course, you can also use an empty deep box (with a top) to enclose jars inside the hive.
A Tip for Jar Bee Feeders
One easy way to use jar feeders is to purchase or make 4 jars feeders. Place all 4 inside the hive – sitting on the inner cover.
Use an extra deep hive box to enclose the jars and then put the top back on the hive. This allows the bees to have access to a gallon of sugar water inside the hive.
Beekeepers come up with some genius ideas for keeping ants out of sugar water too.
Bees Should Not Need Constant Feeding
Nectar availability ebbs and flows in most areas. It is subject to climate conditions such as drought or a late freeze.
Strong winds, cold temperatures or rain can affect foraging conditions. If the population of your beehive is small, you do not have as many workers to collect nectar.
Too little food during Spring build up causes the bees to sacrifice brood or developing bees. Poor foraging conditions in the Fall prevents storage of food for Winter survival.
The bottom line is that we cant always rely on natural nectar. This is especially true because we keep more hives in a one area than you would find in nature.
Feeding New Honey Bee Colonies
Let’s talk about package bees. The majority of new bee hives established each year begin with purchased package bees.
This small wooden and screen box contains about 10,000 bees and a queen. Other than a small can of sugar water, the bees have no resources but themselves.
Experienced beekeepers often freeze excess frames of honey. These are fed back to colonies at a later time. Unfortunately, the new beekeeper does not have this option.
When providing sugar water supplemental feeding for package bees, caution is required to avoid causing robbing or other issues.
What to Use for Bee Syrup or Sugar Water
Avoid powered sugar, brown sugar, molasses etc when feeding bees. These sugars have indigestible components that can make your bees sick.
Again I prefer, pure cane sugar. If the bag does not say pure cane sugar, it probably is not. You should be able to find pure cane sugar in your local grocery .
Some beekeepers, especially those with a large number of hives use any regular granulated sugar. This product is readily available at discount stores. It is most likely made from beets.
This should work well as far as we know. There are some concerns about using beet sugar but I do on occasion.
Sugar Water Recipe
2 Types of Sugar Water Ratio For Feeding Bees
There are 2 basic recipes for sugar water used by beekeepers . We call them 1:1 (1 to 1) and 2:1 (2 to 1) ratio.
Let’s break this down because to a new beekeeper it can be so confusing.
You can measure by weight or volume it does not matter. New colonies are fed 1:1 to encourage brood rearing. 2:1 ( 2 parts sugar to 1 part water) is used in the fall to encourage storage of food for winter.
Sugar water honey will keep your colony from starvation but it is not real honey. A golden rule to remember when feeding bees sugar water.
Remember, never feed bees when honey supers on your colony are meant for human consumption.
Many beekeepers use a feeding supplement in their sugar water. It promotes good feeding and prevents your syrup from becoming moldy.
Containing essential oils, these products are reported to promote good health in our bee colonies. These products are concentrated add only a small amount to the sugar water for your bees.
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Types of Honey Bee Feeders
A multitude of feeders are available for feeding honey bees sugar water. Each type or method has pros and cons. Lets explore the most common bee feeders.
A Boardman Feeder (Entrance Feeder)
Use this feeder with a regular glass canning jar. It fits into the front hive entrance. A beekeeper can easily see when to refill.
But, this type of feeder does have its problems. It does not hold a lot of sugar water and will require refilling often. A hungry colony can drain this in a couple of hours.
The smell will attract wasps and bees from other hives to the entrance. This may result in fighting and robbing.
If you want to use a boardman feeder, place it inside the hive. The entrance feeder can be placed on top of the frames needs an empty box around it to close up the hive. You can use several feeders at one time!
The Hive Top Feeder
Hive top feeders sit on top of the hive under the telescoping top. They may be made of wood or plastic. This is a great option for the new beekeeper who is not able to visit their hives daily.
The feeder will hold around 1-2 gallons of bee syrup and will feed the colony for several days. One disadvantage of hive top feeders is their tendency to leak over time.
They are also heavy when filled and care must be taken to avoid spilling syrup around the hive.
A frame feeder takes the place of one frame in the hive body. Most frame feeders hold approximately 1 gallon of syrup. Being inside the hive, the bees have easy access to the food.
Frame feeders have some cons. You have to open the hive to refill. And, you will always have some bees drown in the feeder.
If you choose to use frame feeders, put some type of floating material inside. I have used small sticks or wooden Popsicle sticks to reduce bee drowning.
Open Feeding Sugar Water
This methods for feeding bees has some merits but it is also risky. Honey bees drown very easy. Also, it is not an economical way to feed. You are feeding every bee and wasp in the neighborhood.
If you do plan to try open feeding, ensure that the feeders are well away from your hives. At least 50 feet, more is better or you increase the risk of creating a robbing frenzy.
Bucket Feeders (Or Pail Feeders)
The bucket feeder is one of the most popular bee feeders. A small plastic bucket with a mesh feeder hole holds 1 gallon of sugar syrup. (You will also find larger styles available.)
Fill the bucket with sugar syrup. Put the lid on tightly. When you turn the bucket upside down, some syrup will escape until a vacuum forms.
Put the upside down bucket directly on top of the frames. Bees will feed from the mesh feeder hole in the bucket ( or small holes drilled by the manufacturer).
Like the boardman feeders, this method requires extra equipment. An empty hive body around the bucket allows the hive to be closed.
If you choose, you can use a temporary hive top with a small hole drilled in the center.
Place your upturned bucket over the hole. A brick or rock on top of the bucket will prevent wind damage.
Refilling the bucket can be accomplished easily without disturbing the colony. And no drowned bees !
Outside feeding is interesting to watch but it causes frenzy activity. Never use outside feeders near your hives!
You can even make your own bucket feeder! Click Here.
#1 Problem New Beekeepers Face When Feeding Honey Bees Sugar Water
The biggest mistake made by new beekeepers is failing to feed a new colony long enough. Feeding honey bees sugar water can not have a set time frame of when to stop.
When bees first arrive, they are hungry and feed heavily. In a few weeks, a natural nectar flow (or honey flow) may occur in your area.
A beekeeper who stops feeding in April may find a surprise in the September hive.
No food stores for winter and frames that do not have honeycomb drawn out are common. The new colony full of potential in the spring now faces starvation.
The moral of this story is feed your bees. If they lose interest in the sugar syrup, remove it for a few weeks. Then offer a small amount of food. If they take it quickly, you will know it is time to start feeding again.
You should stop once they colony has drawn out the comb in all your frames and filled some with honey. (How much will depend on your climate. In my area, I want a deep and a shallow full by September.)
The simple answer for my bees is : when they have enough comb drawn and honey stored for Winter. You should not have to feed bees all the time.
We want to step in when help is needed and help new colonies. But feeding all the time can cause other problems and its expensive!
Feeding Sugar Water in Winter – NO
If you have colonies that need additional Winter stores, feed them while the weather is warm. Bees can not make good use of sugar syrup in cold temperatures.
Preventing Robbing When Feeding Bees
I love my bees but they are all little “robbers and thieves” . Especially during times of a nectar shortage or complete lack of nectar (we call that a dearth)you may experience robbing.
The stronger or more aggressive hives with fight the weaker hive and steal honey(sugar water). Once this begins it is difficult to stop.
If you see a fighting frenzy at the front of your hive, cover the hive with a damp towel. The towel hanging down loosely over the entrance of the hive tends to calm the situation.
If that is not successful, I have turned a water sprinkler on the hive for a few hours.
Robbing is best avoided. Be vigilant when feeding bees, keep entrances small enough for the colony to defend.
If a small colony, entrance should be only about 1 inch, a larger colony of strong nuc can have a bit larger opening.
Feeding bees is a lot of work and expense. How much you need to feed will depend on your climate and foraging conditions.
This is another example of why it is important to connect with local beekeepers.