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How to Feed a New Beehive
Every year thousands of new beekeepers start their hives with bee packages. The beekeeper who invests time in feeding a package of bees correctly increases the chances of colony survival. 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 to help them get started. Having abundant food resources is important to new bees.
Some lucky beekeepers live in a regions where feeding bees is just not necessary. The bees get by fine and grow on their own. That’s great. 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. Established hives can usually handle the ups and downs.
But, it is very important to keep a close eye on new colonies during the first season. If your hive is failing to grow, you need to know why. The first consideration is to make sure they have plenty of food.
What are Package Bees?
Thousands of bee packages are sold each Spring to new beekeepers and those wanting to grow their apiary.
Buying a package of bees is the most common way to acquire new honey bee colonies. They are readily available early in the season and 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.
Knowing how to feed a new package of bees is very important to the novice beekeeper. Understanding why is even this can make such a big different for new bees is even more important.
Why Feeding New Bees is Especially Important
To understand the importance of feeding a bee package, we need to thing about their origin. The bees in your package didn’t have hive building in mind.
These bees are not primed to build comb – they did not “pack for the trip”. They arrive 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 when they enter their new home.
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.
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.
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.
Worker bees need full stomachs to encourage wax production. Feeding your new bees helps those wax glands start producing wax.
Packages Bees 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.
Feeding Bees Does Not Make Them Lazy
Beekeepers do not have to fear that providing feed for their new bees will cause them to be lazy. Bees are not like humans.
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.
Blooming Flowers Do Not Always Mean Food for Bees
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
When possible use an in-hive bee feeder for your new package 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 adults. The colony population must build up to a sustainable level.
What to Feed Package Bees
The new colony made with a package of bees needs to build and grow. While they could survive on any mix of sugar water, we know that a 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 for their bees. However, if you do have frames of capped honey from a larger hive or stored 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 that will destroy your new colony.
How Much Sugar Will You Need for a New Bee Hive?
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. 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.
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 many gallons of syrup over the Summer.
Bee Feeders for Your New Hive
In my article, 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 like the one above, 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.
Jar Feeders Inside the Hive
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.
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 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.
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.
Of course, it goes without saying – once your colony is ready for bee 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.
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. 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.
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 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 and feeding a package of bees through the first season will increase your chances of successful beekeeping.