Why Feeding a Package of Bees Matters?
Feeding a package of bees correctly increases chances of colony survival. Every year thousands of new beekeepers start their hives with bee packages. Don’t think your job as a beekeeper is done once those bees are in a hive. It is not. In most locations, the beekeeper should also have a plan for feeding bees sugar water . Having abundant food resources is important to new bees.
Of course, you may live in a region where feeding bees is just not done. The bees get by fine on their own. That’s great. But most beekeepers do not live in that type of climate.
Local forage conditions and summer droughts affect the condition of all colonies. It is very important to keep a close eye on new colonies – especially during the first season.
If your hive is failing to grow, you need to know why. Do they have plenty of food and do they have a good queen bee- these are the first 2 considerations.
What are Package Bees?
Buying a package of bees is the most common way to acquire new honey bee colonies. Thousands of bee packages are sold each Spring.
This is only one way to acquire bees but it is easy for new beekeepers. They can even be shipped in the mail.
The most common size is a 3# package that contains about 10,000 bees including 1 queen. This is enough bees to start a new hive. The workers will build comb and take care of the queen and then young.
Knowing how to feed a new package of bees is very important to the novice beekeeper. Understanding why is even more important.
Why Feeding New Bees is Especially Important
The bees in your package didn’t have hive building in mind. They were suddenly shaken into a screened box and shipped out. They are not primed to build comb – they did not “pack for the trip”.
When feeding a new hive of bees, you need to think in terms of gallons not quarts. Depending on where you live, you may need to feed that colony gallons of syrup over the Summer.
If you use a small jar feeder like the one above, that’s fine but don’t hang it on the front of the hive.
Instead, get 4 of them and an extra deep hive body – place the feeders directly on the top bars or inner cover of the hive and use the extra hive body to enclose the feeder jars – telescoping top on top of that.
Now your bees have the equivalent of 1 gallon of sugar syrup. It is really easy to make your own mason jar bee feeders.
How Package Bees Differ From a Swarm
First, lets examine how a package of bees is different from a natural swarm. When a honey bee colony decides to swarm, preparations began weeks earlier.
A good mix of bees of different ages (many at optimum wax producing age) leaves the hive with full stomachs of honey. The swarm will be primed to build comb.
A commercial package of bees has been shaken from multiple colonies. They had no plans to go anywhere. They are not prepared to begin comb building immediately.
This is one reason a beekeeper needs to feed bees sugar water. Especially true for a new package of bees – their wax glands are not producing.
Packages only Have Food for Traveling
Honey bees must have almost constant contact with food. They will starve in a relatively short period of time without carbohydrates.
A natural swarm of honey bees fills up their stomach before leaving the mother colony.
Bee suppliers will feed the package of bees with a can of syrup installed inside the cage. A tiny hole in the can allows bees to feed during their journey over a couple of days.
This is another way a package differs from a swarm. The package bees did not leave the hive with full stomachs of honey.
Feed A New Package of Bees For A Boost
In order to produce beeswax, honey bees must consume a lot of food. By having a full feeder inside the hive, the colony gets a big boost.
Bees will still go out and bring in nectar. But others will gorge on the sugar syrup and start producing wax and making honey. We need this to happen for our colony to grow.
It is important to remember that not all blooming flowers produce nectar. Some flowers are more bee friendly than others.
Also, weather conditions affect the amount of nectar available. You may have a field of blooms and a starving honey bee colony located in the same area.
How to Feed a New Bee Hive
The new honey bee colony with a feeder has another advantage over non-fed colonies. Using an in-hive bee feeder is the best option for your new bees.
Having access to food overnight allows the bees to continue working. They can also eat and work on rainy days or days too windy for bee flight.
Why are we in such a hurry? Well, the bees have a lot of work to do before Winter. Frames of honeycomb have to be made and filled with honey before cold weather.
Baby bees have to be produced and nurtured to adult. And, the colony has to carry on daily activities all summer.
What to Feed New Bees
We feed a mixture of 1:1 (equal parts of cane sugar and water) to promote wax production and brood rearing. The total amount of sugar you need for each colony will depend on several factors.
Your climate, foraging conditions and the bees themselves play a role. Some colonies are slower to draw comb than others.
We beekeepers often get funny looks from cashiers as we check out a shopping cart full of cane sugar.
Feeding a package of bees to a point of self sufficiency requires more sugar than you might think.
How Long To Feed A New Package of Bees?
Like most things in beekeeping, there is no “hard and fast” answer. Be prepared to feed until your bees have drawn out and filled all the boxes they need for Winter.
In upstate South Carolina, my colonies have 1 deep and 1 shallow. I will offer sugar water to my new colonies until both of those boxes are mostly finished.
This means that a beehive established in April may be fed until July or August.
It is easy to see why local forage conditions and weather play a big role. In mid Spring, we have ample nectar available. But our Summer is hot and often very dry.
Common Mistake in Feeding New Beehives
This scenario happens way too often in my region. The new beekeeper starts off with a bang. Bees are installed in a hive and well fed.
The colony establishes itself drawing out comb and rearing brood. The beekeeper is keeping the feeder filled and then something happens.
The colony continues to grow and prosper but they don’t want the sugar water.
Bees May Temporarily Refuse Feeding
What is happening? Suddenly the new bees don’t want the sugar water. We beekeepers don’t want to waste our time and money.
Sugar water will spoil in the feeder if not consumed. We assume that the bees are ok and no longer need our help.
The landscape is filled with blooms and warm weather is here. Our job of feeding bees is done, right?
Maybe and maybe not. In my online beekeeping class, I encourage my students to monitor their colony progress throughout the Summer.
Of course, I would much rather have my bees collecting natural nectar and making honey. It is better nutrition than anything I can provide.
However, what often happens in my area is that the natural nectar sources dry up. The hot months of Summer do not provide enough nectar to encourage colony build up.
Resources are limited and the honey bee colony does not have what it needs to grow.
Meanwhile, the beekeeper may think all is well inside the beehive. A late Summer or early Fall inspection reveals a hive that is not prepared for Winter.
Perhaps only half the frames have comb and bees. It is more difficult to get bees to produce comb in the second half of the year.
The bees know Winter is coming and there is no use to build comb without food to put in it.
If your package bees stop taking sugar water, remove it for a few weeks. Then offer a small amount again -2-3 weeks later. If the bees don’t want the sugar water, remove the feeder again.
Repeat this process throughout the first Summer until the bees have a well provisioned hive.
Keys to Success in Feeding New Packages of Bees
- use a larger feeder or several small ones – 1 quart is not enough
- keep the feeder full – check it every few days
- if bees refuse to drink – offer sugar water again a few week later
When to Stop Feeding Your Package Bees
Don’t stop feeding your new bees until they have enough food stored for Winter. This means that all comb is drawn out and honey stored and capped in the hive.
How many boxes you use for your beehives will depend on your climate and preference.
Regardless of the size or number of boxes on the hive, your bees need enough frames of honey to survive the Winter.
Monitoring the progress of your hive and feeding a package of bees through the first season will increase your chances of successful beekeeping.