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Feeding Bees Sugar Water-A Complete Guide

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How to Feed Honey Bees Sugar Water

When honey bees are not able to collect enough food through natural sources, beekeepers need to help. The most common way to help a hungry colony is by feeding bees sugar water. While sugar water or sugar syrup is not exactly the same as plant nectar, it will keep a colony alive. However, supplemental feeding is not without its challenges. Failure to do it right may create more problems for your hives.

Honey bees drinking sugar water from a bee feeder image.

If you see someone pushing a cart full of sugar through the market, that person might be a beekeeper. We beekeepers do get some funny looks when shopping for so much cane sugar.

Yet, each year thousands of beekeepers invest the and money making supplement food for their colonies. 

So why do we beekeepers go to all this effort? There must be a good reason, right?  Are beekeepers nuts? Well, yea – sometimes, but not in this case. For the colony low on food stores, feeding by the beekeeper can be the difference between life and death.

Sugar water bee feeders image.

Should You Feed Your Bees Sugar Water?

In the beekeeping industry, opinions vary a bit on whether or not feeding bees sugar water is wise. The topic is debatable and depends on the location and condition of each colony.

The absolute best food our colonies is plant nectar and pollen. Natural nectar has an abundance of nutrients that can not be replaced with plain sugar and water.

But, sometimes a colony is low on food stores through no fault of the bees. This could be due to a new colony just building their home, swarms starting from scratch or even weather conditions.

Faced with the fact of letting a colony starve or feeding them, most beekeeper choose to feed the hives.

However, the concept of feeding honey bees often creates a division among beekeepers. Some beekeepers feel that you should never feed your hives, period.  Other beekeepers accept the need to feed their hives when conditions warrant.

What is Sugar Water & How You Make It?

What exactly is sugar water and why should we use that for bee food? This recipe for bee feeding is made by mixing white granulated cane sugar and water.

Granulated sugar dissolved into water, mimics natural plant nectar. While it is not exactly the same nutritionally, it is very similar in sweetness. And, honey bees are accustom to collecting liquid food.

When making sugar water for your bees, it is important to only use white sugar. Never use molasses or brown sugar as this will make your colonies sick – or dead.

Many beekeepers use a feeding supplement added to the bee food. This is usually in liquid form and encourages good feeding. It also prevents your syrup from becoming moldy.

Other than the products available commercially, there are homemade recipes for using essential oils to feed bees. This is thought to promote better bee health. These products are concentrated- add only a small amount.

Bee Food Recipes

There are 2 basic recipes for bee sugar water commonly used by beekeepers . The ingredients in bee food recipes varies only in sweetness.

We are mixing a percentage of water to a percentage of dry granulated sugar. You can measure by weight or volume it does not matter.

How to Make 1 Gallon of Sugar Water for Bees

Mix equal amounts of granulated sugar and water to create 1:1 sugar water. You can measure with cups or use weight as the unit of measure. It does not matter because either method of measuring will result in a 1:1 sugar : water syrup.

1 Gallon of 1:1 Sugar Water

  • 10 2/3 cups of granulated sugar
  • 10 2/3 cups of warm water

Do not stress over exact measurements. Even in the field, nectar sources vary a bit in sweetness.

2:1 Sugar Water Recipe

A 2:1 ratio contains twice as much sugar as water. For example, 8 cups of sugar to 4 cups of water.

When using this mixture, use very warm water to dissolve the sugar easier. However, do not boil your bee syrup, this is not good and it is not necessary.

Bee food recipe chart with ratios for feeding honey bees sugar water image.

Feeding Bees By the Season

Why are these 2 different ratios used in feeding bees? I’m glad you asked. While both bee syrup recipes provide carbohydrates, feeding them has different results on the colony.

Feeding Bees in Spring or for Colony Buildup

Spring is a time of growth as over-wintered colonies are busy raising bee brood. New hives that are started from buying packages are struggling to get their colony established.

Feeding honey bees a 1:1 ratio, promotes brood rearing. This thin mixture is closest to the sweetness of natural nectar.

With “new nectar” being placed in the comb, the bees are not afraid of starvation and are more likely to ramp up brood rearing.

This same method of feeding 1:1 applies to any time throughout the season when you have a colony in need of food. Perhaps a new split hive could benefit from some supplemental feeding.

Feeding Bees in the Fall

It is not uncommon to find colonies that are not quite ready for Winter. These colonies run the risk of starvation without supplemental feeding.

The ratio of 2:1 is fed to honey bees to promote food storage. This mix is not as likely to encourage brood rearing and more likely to end up stored in comb for Winter.

Of course, this will not be really honey but the colony will store it as such. It is much better to feed your colony rather than have them starve in the middle of Winter. Fall feeding should be complete before cold weather arrives.

When Should I Start Feeding Bees Sugar Water?

There are two situations where a beekeeper must consider providing supplemental food for colonies. The new colony started from scratch and established hives that are unable to harvest enough nectar are both in need.

If you purchase bees in a package, they arrive on the scene with no resources. They have  no drawn beeswax comb, food stores, or brood. Begin feeding a new colony 1:1 immediately and continue until all of their comb is drawn out.

Because they begin with nothing, understanding how to feed a new package is critical to their growth. This can not wait several days.

Problems with your queen honey bee, a late freeze that causes a nectar dearth and other issues can make hive buildup very difficult for new colonies.

Even established colonies may benefit from supplemental feeding at times. Weeks without rain that create a nectar dearth or other weather conditions may cause a deficit of incoming nectar.

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.

Best Bee Feeders for Sugar Water

There are many different types of honey bee feeders available. Each type of feeding method has advantages and disadvantages. These are the most common feeders.

  • boardman feeders
  • mason jar feeders
  • hive top feeders
  • frame feeders
  • pail feeders
  • open feeding

Boardman Feeder (Entrance Feeder)


The boardman feeder is the most popular type that appears in most beekeeping kits. It is used with a regular glass jar and fits into the front hive entrance. A beekeeper can easily see when to refill.  The jars are easy to replace and clean.

But, this type of feeder does have its problems. A hungry colony can drain this in a couple of hours -are you available to refill it several times a day?

An even bigger issue, food hanging on the front of the hive can encourage robbing behavior. If you want to use a boardman feeder,  it is best to place it inside the hive – with an extra box to enclose the feeder.

Boardman bee feeder for sugar water inside beehive image.

Pros:

  • easy to refill
  • inexpensive
  • clear container shows when its empty

Cons:

  • smell will attract wasps and other insects
  • may increase chances or robbing
  • does not hold much syrup

How to Make a Mason Jar Bee Feeder

It is really easy to make a mason jar bee feeder, because almost everyone has an extra glass jar around. This is basically the same as the mason jar feeder without the fancy wooden holder.

Some beekeepers use a temporary hive top with a 1″ – 2″ hole in the top. The upside-down jar is placed over the hole. Weigh down the jar with a brick or strap.

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.

You can even order special plastic tops that don’t rust and are dishwasher safe!

Mason jar used as sugar water jar feeder for bees with holes in lid image.

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 food inside the hive.

Hive Top Feeders

Hive top feeders sit on top of the hive under the telescoping top. They may be made of wood or plastic. This feeder will hold around 1-2 gallons of bee syrup and will feed the colony for several days.

Pros:

  • easy to fill without disturbing colony
  • holds a lot of food

Cons:

  • they have a tendency to leak over time
  • they are heavy when filled
  • care must be taken to avoid spilling syrup around the hive
  • if the lid does not fit tight – a robbing frenzy may result

Frame Feeders

A frame feeder takes the place of one frame in the hive body. If the hive normally holds 10 regular frames, you will use 9 regular frames and 1 feeder frame.

Having the same dimensions as a frame of honey comb, this frame has 2 solid walls with an open cavity to hold sugar water.

Pros:

  • holds up to 1 gallon of syrup (or more)
  • located inside the hive close to the cluster
  • good option in cool weather because bees can access the food easily

Cons:

  • beekeeper has to open the hive to refill
  • some bees will drown in the feeders
  • they may leak over time

If you choose to use frame feeders, put some type of floating material inside the compartment to reduce drowning. I have used small sticks or wooden Popsicle sticks.

Pail Feeders

The pail feeder is one of the most popular ways to feed colonies. A small plastic pail with a mesh feeder hole holds 1 gallon of sugar syrup.

To use, fill the bucket with your sugar water and close the lid tightly. When you turn the bucket upside down, some syrup will escape until a vacuum forms. (It’s a good idea to have a bowl or something handy to catch this extra syrup).

Place the upside down bucket directly on top of the frames or over the hold in the inner cover. Bees will feed from the mesh feeder hole in the bucket ( or small holes drilled by the manufacturer).

Like the boardman feeders, pail feeders require extra equipment. An empty hive body around the pail 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 pail over the hole. A brick or rock on top of the bucket will prevent wind damage.

Pros:

  • lightweight and easy to handle
  • holds at least 1 gallon of food
  • can be inside the hive – accessible to bees in all weather
  • easy to refill without disturbing colony very much

Cons:

  • requires extra equipment
  • mesh hole may be filled with propolis if you let it become empty
  • a small amount of liquid is wasted when first inverted

Open Feeding in the Bee Yard

Some beekeepers enjoy providing food in an open container. Commercial beekeepers often use this method because is it easy to feed a lot of colonies at once.

This method for feeding bees has some merits but it is also risky. It is not economical because you end up feeding every bee, wasp and yellow jacket in the area. Some bee death also results from fighting at the feeder or drowning.

If you do plan to try open feeding, ensure that the feeders are well away from your hives. A distance of at least 60-100 feet is best.

Honey bee feeding in an open tub filled with straw and sugar water image.

Pros:

  • easy to do – not filling individual feeders
  • no feeders to clean
  • no special equipment needed
  • provides a lot of bee syrup

Cons:

  • not an economical way to feed
  • bees will drown in the container
  • bees can’t access food in bad weather
  • can cause robbing if used near the hives

Open feeding can be worthwhile in certain situations. I use it as an indicator of natural forage. If the bees are getting a lot of natural nectar, they will ignore the open feeder.

If they attack the feeder in mass, they are not finding a lot of food in the field. Then I know it may be time to consider feeding internally.

One easy method to practice open feeding is to make a bucket feeder. At least in this case, there is no drowning to worry about.

Does Feeding Bees Make Them Lazy?

Feeding bees does not make them lazy. In fact, honey bees prefer natural nectar when good sources are available.  Some bee hives will need to be fed and some may never need it – depending on local conditions.

When to Stop Feeding Bees Sugar Water

Feed new colonies, or captured swarms, until they are established and have some food stores. Check your hives in mid to late Summer, are the bees filling the box with brood and food?

The biggest mistake made by new beekeepers is failing to feed a new colony long enough.  This is why I devote so much energy in my Online Beekeeping Class, outlining the importance of proper feeding of new hives.

Established colonies can usually survive on their own unless you are in a drought.  If you know that your hive has enough food stored for Winter-you don’t need to feed.

One of the best secrets to successful Fall feeding. is to get out there and get it done in late summer before the weather cools.

When You Should Not Feed Bees Sugar Water

Yes, there will be times when you should not be feeding bees syrup . These include times of cold weather, when your honey collection supers are on and a few other situations.

Bees can not make good use of sugar syrup in cold temperatures. It’s important to get those colonies ready before cold weather arrives.

Remember, never feed bees 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.

Final Tips on Feeding Sugar Water to Honey Bees

Feeding bees is a lot of work and expense. How much you need to feed will depend on your climate and foraging conditions.

Too little food during Spring build up causes the bees to sacrifice brood or developing young bees. Poor foraging conditions in the Fall prevents storage of food for Winter survival.

Especially when keeping many hives in one location, remember that we can not always rely on natural nectar. This is another example of why it is important to connect with local beekeepers – they will know the key times when you may need to consider feeding your bees.

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