The Importance of Feeding Bees

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A common practice in beekeeping is providing extra nutrition to honey bee colonies in need. The importance of feeding bees (when needed) are certain. Good nutrition is vital for healthy productive beehives. However, as with any management technique, this process can be overdone and possibly cause harm to your colonies. Here, I share how beekeepers can use supplemental nutrition in a positive way.

Beekeeper giving important sugar water feeding to weak colony.

As a beekeeper, I always say that if you are constantly making sugar water for bees – you have a problem. A healthy hive should not have to rely on the beekeeper for nourishment every day. Feeding bees should compliment natural forage – not take the place of it.

Why Feeding Bees is Important (Sometimes)

Honey bees have a great plan for collecting needed resources for the hive. However, sometimes things go wrong and a colony may lack important nutrition.

Poor nutrition results in colonies not capable of raising a strong work force and even increased instances of disease and pest problems.

Supplement bee feeding is a valuable tool. You must learn how to evaluate the needs of the hives and provide extra nutrition – when and if needed.

The beekeeper that can recognize when beehives need to be fed can aid a struggling colony. But, you should not find yourself stuck on the feeding treadmill.

Honey bees sipping supplemental syrup from a improvised feeder.

Identifying When Bees Need Fed

As beekeepers, we have a responsibility to monitor colony conditions. After all, that is why we perform routine hive inspections during the season.

There are several factors involved in deciding if you need to feed your beehives. Some are related to the hives themselves, while others have to do with outside factors.

Signals from the Hive

These are some indicators to consider:

  • seasonal variations in foraging
  • hive weight monitoring
  • bee behavior
  • empty comb
  • weather conditions
  • hive status

Seasonal Foraging

Every region has an ebb and flow of nectar and pollen producing flowers. For most beekeepers, late Winter/early Spring is a time when hungry colonies are coming out of Winter.

Checking food stores during this time and possibly feeding to help build bee populations may be advisable.

Hive Weight

I am not one of those beekeepers who is a master at judging colony weight – but some folks can. If you gently lift the hive from the back (just a bit) you can tell if it is “light or heavy”. If all the hives in your apiary are heavy except for one – that colony may need help.

Bee Behavior

Seeing a decline in bee brood production in the hive- during a time when it should be very active-can be a sign that you need to feed your colonies. Of course, there are other reasons for sparse brood – but the colony will reduce brood when food is scarce.

Likewise, seeing bees foraging on sources they don’t normally visit: bird feeders, bees swarming hummingbird feeders, etc – are all signs that there may be a decline in natural forage.

Two images with empty honey comb on left and comb with some capped honey on right.

Empty Comb

It is normal to have some empty comb inside a beehive. But, if an inspection during the warm season does not reveal some stored honey and fresh nectar. Feeding these bees is vital if you want to sustain the colony.

Weather Conditions

In addition to seasonal forage plants, weather conditions affect the collection of nectar and pollen.

Long periods of rainy weather can be a problem for colonies – especially new hives. Likewise, a prolong drought – causing a nectar dearth – can set back your hives.

Hive Status

The most important aspect of feeding bees has to do with hive status. I feel this is much more important than any of the other hive signals.

Regardless of weather, most new hives with a freshly installed package of bees will benefit greatly from supplemental feeding.

The same also applies when beekeepers split their hives to create new colonies. Having extra food is a big bonus that the bees will make use of at night and on rainy days.

Benefits of Feeding

When done properly (and for the right reasons), supplement feeding benefits honey bees in several ways.

  • Avoid food scarcity
  • Builds colony strength
  • Boost honey production
  • Promote health and well-being
Honey bee forages on pollen from a hosta bloom.

Avoid Nectar Scarcity

Worker honey bees have earned their title. Throughout the season, they are outside on every good weather day looking for nectar and pollen.

But, sometimes, there may be little for the foraging bees to collect. Lack of rainfall, late season frosts and other issues can lead to a reduction in the available nectar. 

In a situation where little food is coming in, more and more foragers are sent into the field. This leaves fewer individuals to serve as nurse bees tending to young or perform other important hive tasks.

This is why it is important to feed bees to fill these gaps – when they go for more than a short time. This prevents colony stress.

Honey bee using proboscis to drink honey from comb.

Builds Colony Strength

What makes a strong colony of honey bees? A good population of healthy colony members. Each type of bee in the hive has an important role to play. Workers, drones and a queen – we need them all.

A good diet full of all the things bees eat : all the sugars, vitamins, proteins and minerals needed for good health is the goal.

Well-fed healthy bees are less likely to fall prey to diseases such as European Foulbrood or other stressor pathogens.

A beekeeper can provide an additional source of nutrition (sugar or pollen) in a time of need. Thereby, knowing for a certainty that the colony has all the necessary fuel to reach their maximum strength.

Boosts Production

If you keep bees with a desire of harvesting honey, you need strong well-fed colonies. Sick hives that are weak and just hanging on – these hives are not going to make honey in abundance.

The colony that is struggling to find food in the weeks prior to the honey flow, will not be at top strength.

Providing supplement food for bees, even in the short term can prevent the colony doing into panic mode.

The incoming food promotes brood production. A queen bee is less likely to slow down or stop laying eggs. Well-nourished colonies are more likely to thrive and grow in population.

Promotes Health

Supplemental feeding for bees is a viable way to reduce stress. Strong healthy colonies are more likely to survive and be productive.

A well fed colony is a happy bee family. Reducing stress is good for humans and it is good for bees too.

Less stress in the beehive is also good for beekeepers. It is not uncommon for bees to become more aggressive or defensive in times of stress. We sure don’t want that.

Beekeeper gives jar of liquid feed to hive.

Types of Feeding Supplements

Beekeepers have a variety of honey bee feeders and feeding supplements to use for their hives.

In addition to sugar water, you may provide pollen in the form of making pollen patties or construct a type of dry pollen feeder.

Some situations call for non-liquid bee food. This is often the case for Winter beekeeping practices where emergency sugar cakes or even hard candy boards are the better option.

Internal bee feeders provide liquid food inside the hive.

Risks

When trying to decide where or not to put that jar bee feeder (or whatever kind you wish) in the hive, think about your reason for doing so. There are some risks and challenges involved in feeding honey bees.

Having sugar water exposed can increase the chances of robbing bees that will attack, a serious problem for small colonies.

And, there is a time to stop feeding sugar water. Perhaps your colony no longer needs it – or maybe the cold season approaches and it is time to consider a making a candy board for your bees or some similar method.

You are the beekeeper and your hives are your responsibility. Incorporate proper feeding methods into your seasonal management strategies -only when your hives need help.

In most situations, your colonies will be able to find everything they need on their own – most of the time. This is what we want.

FAQs

Is it good to feed bees?

It is a good practice for beekeepers to provide supplemental feeding to honey bee colonies to prevent starvation or promote strength. This should be a short term process.

Can you feed bees outside the hive?

Open feeding (with a bucket feeder) or similar is an option. However, it is not the most economical method of feeding honey bees and it can cause robbing in the bee yard.

Why do bees need to be fed?

Feeding bees is important in times when there is little or no nectar available in the field. It can also be beneficial to very small colonies just starting out.

Is it possible to feed honey bees during Winter?

Feeding bees in Winter can be done as a way to lessen chances of starvation. However, liquid food is generally not the best option – sugar cakes and fondant are better for cold weather.

Final Thoughts

Some beekeepers will say you should never feed bees. I do not agree with that statement. I do agree that their own honey is the very best food they can have. Our sugar water is no true substitute.

However, feeding bees can provide life saving nutrition in some circumstances. It can help any colony survive during a food shortage