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How to Feed A New Package of Bees

Every year thousands of new beekeepers start a new beehive with bee packages. There is a lot to learn and do during that first season. The beekeeper who invests time in feeding a package of bees correctly increases the chances of colony survival. New colonies have a lot of work to do including building the wax for their home. Don’t think your job as a beekeeper is done once they are in a hive. It is not.

Feed Bees in a New Colony

In most locations, the beekeeper should also have a plan for feeding bees sugar water to help them get started. Some lucky beekeepers live in a region where feeding is not as necessary.

New package of honey bees on frame of foundation from the hive image.

But, most beekeepers do not live in that type of climate. Local forage conditions and weather patterns affect the condition of all honey bee colonies-even established hives.

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But, it is very important to keep a close eye on new colonies during the first season. Several weeks of delay in colony growth could mean them not being for Winter.

What are Package Bees?

If you have never purchased bees before, you may wonder what the term “package bees” means. In fact, buying a package is the most common way to acquire new honey bee colonies.

Usually pre-ordered during Winter, packages are readily available early in the season and can even be shipped in the mail.

The most common size is a 3# package that contains about 10,000 bees including 1 queen.  Time and experience has taught the beekeeping industry that this is a good size for a new colony start.

Honey bees in a wooden and wire package image.

However, even if your bees arrive in great shape, they still need care.  Understanding why new colonies have a special need for food is even more important. 

Why Feeding New Bees is Especially Important

To understand the importance of feeding a bee package, we need to understand their situation. This small bee family is very different from a natural swarm.

A commercial package of bees has been shaken from multiple colonies. They had no plans to go anywhere. Most of them do not even know each other and they are not prepared to begin comb building immediately.

Unlike a swarm, the workers are not primed to build comb – they did not “pack for the trip”. When a honey bee colony decides to swarm, preparations began weeks earlier.

In a swarm, 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.

Your package arrives with a small can of food to sustain them until they are installed in the hive. Even if they are not hungry, they certainly are not well fed.

Worker bees need full stomachs to encourage wax production. Feeding your new colony well helps those wax glands start producing wax.

Feeding Bees Does Not Make Them Lazy

Beekeepers do not have to fear that providing feed for their new colony will cause them to be lazy. Bees are not like humans.

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Some foragers will go out and bring in nectar and pollen. But others will work inside the hive feeding on the provided sugar syrup.

This gives the colony a boost and helps them start producing wax and making honey. We need this to happen for our colony to grow.

Bee brood inside a new colony of bees image.

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 Beehive

When possible use an in-hive bee feeder for your new hive. Having access to food overnight allows them 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 colony has a lot of work to do before Winter. Frames of honeycomb have to be made and filled with honey before cold weather.

Babies have to be produced and nurtured to adults. The colony population must build up to a sustainable level. This requires a lot of calories over the warm season.

What to Feed Package Bees

A mixture of sugar and water is the closest thing to nectar that we can give our honey bees. While they could survive on any mix, 1:1 mixture is best for feeding bee packages.

The 1:1 ratio is equal parts of cane sugar and water. This mixture promotes wax production and brood rearing. This ratio mimics watery plant nectar as closely as possible.

Most new beekeepers will not have the option of having honey to feed. However, if you do have frames of capped honey from a larger hive or stored honey frames in your freezer-that is a great bonus.

Do not feed honey from other beekeepers or unknown sources (even store bought). It may contain disease (such as AFB) that will destroy your new colony.

How Much Sugar Will You Need for a New Bee Colony?

Feeding a package of bees to a point of self sufficiency requires more sugar than you might think. 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.

When feeding a new hive, you need to think in terms of gallons- not quarts. Depending on where you live, you may need to feed that colony many gallons of syrup over the Summer.

Bee Feeders for Your New Hive

In Feeding Bees Sugar Water, I go into depth about the advantages and disadvantages of common bee feeders.

I do want to mention the small feeders that as often sold to beginner beekeepers. If you use a small jar feeder that’s fine but don’t hang it on the front of the hive with sugar water.

Yes, I know that is what you are told to do. However, it can be a recipe for disaster. Sugar water feeders on the front of the hive often leak a bit.

They also encourage robbing behavior in the bee yard. It is okay to use them to provide water.

Instead, get 4 of these feeders 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.

Two mason jar feeder lids on top bars of hive image.

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. A beehive established in April may be fed until July or August or beyond.

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.

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. Your colony has enough frames of honey to survive the Winter.

How many boxes you use for your beehives will depend on your climate and preference. The amount of stored honey needed depends greatly on location. But most beekeepers will require 2 boxes for the colony to live in and store food.

Of course, it goes without saying – once your colony is ready for boxes that will hold honey for harvest – stop feeding sugar water. Otherwise, the bees will process and cap the sugar water honey. It’s not real honey.

Most Common Mistake

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 bee 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.

What is happening? Suddenly the new bees don’t want the sugar water. Beekeepers don’t want to waste money and have spoiled syrup in the feeder.

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.

Honey bee foraging on a flower for plant nectar image.

What often happens 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 a colony to produce comb in the second half of the year. They 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 they don’t want the sugar water, remove the feeder again.

Repeat this process throughout the first Summer until the colony has a well provisioned hive.

Tips for Success in Feeding Package 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 weeks later

Monitoring the progress of your hive through the first season will increase your chances of successful beekeeping.

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