Providing supplemental nutrition can be an important part of beekeeping. But, there comes a time to stop feeding bees sugar water or syrup. Natural nectar is always the best food for honey bees. But, it is not always available and some colonies need a bit of help. Learn how to gauge the needs of your colonies and understand the times you should not be feeding your bees.
Beekeepers are taught how to provide sugar water for bees. Of course not every hive needs additional feed – and this should not be a constant thing. Some hives do quite well on their own -that is what we always hope for.
Feed Sugar Water or Not
One of the best situations when sugar water is appropriate as bee food is for new colonies. They benefit greatly from supplemental feed – especially if you recently installed a package of bees or captured a swarm.
And sometimes, established colonies can use a boost too-if conditions merit. A weak colony or when the area is experiencing a nectar dearth – these are the times when feeding makes such a big difference.
Done properly for the right reasons, this additional food can make the difference between life and death for the colony. But, this practice can cause problems too.
Times to Stop Feeding Sugar Water to Your Beehives
The beekeeping community loves to argue about the importance of feeding honey bee hives. Some feel that it is unnecessary. Others believe that it is a proper management plan that can save a hive in distress.
However, having liquid feed (sugar water) in the hive is not always a good thing. It can cause problems too and make the situation worse for the hive and the beekeeper.
- do not feed when honey supers are on
- avoid sugar water in Winter
- do not feed continuously
- when to stop Fall Feeding
No Sugar Water if Honey Supers are On
Empty bees boxes – beekeeping supers (usually shallow size) are placed on top of the hive stack to collect excess honey. This is the beekeeper’s share of the crop.
In general, when those honey supers go on – feeding stops. Experienced beekeepers may have boxes with frames of drawn comb- the bees have built. It is ready for the workers to clean and fill with honey.
In the beekeeper or equipment is new, the frames may hold bare sheets of foundation (beeswax or plastic). The bees must make beeswax and create the cells of drawn comb.
A lot of food is required for the production of this much wax. This causes a beekeeper to want to help by providing extra food.
However, even if your bees need to draw out new comb-feeding is not advised while collection boxes are on – that are intended for human consumption.
The bees will make and store “honey” made from the sugar syrup. While it certainly won’t kill you, it’s not real honey either. Just don’t do it.
Avoid Sugar Water in Winter
We want each colony to be well prepared for the cold Winter months with plenty of stored food. If this has not happened before cold arrives – the colony could be in trouble.
Unless you live in a tropical region, do not feed bees sugar syrup during Winter. The bees will struggle to process it – turn it into honey.
Even if the sugar water is inside the hive, the colony may not make good use of it. Often, the bees can not access the liquid feed during cold temperatures when they are clustered together.
And, the presence of liquid feed inside the hive increases internal moisture. Too much moisture inside can kill a colony without proper hive ventilation.
Stop Feeding Bees that Don’t Need It
Proper feeding at the right time can be a life saver. Perhaps, it is a new colony or a hive that has swarmed and is slow to build back up.
These should be temporary situations – a little feeding may help. But, when the colony recovers and is bringing in plenty of nectar – stop feeding sugar water. You should not be having to feed your bees year round every year.
If you find this is happening, either you are doing something wrong or you have too many hives in one location. There is not enough natural forage to support them.
When to Stop Fall Feeding
No one can tell you how long to feed sugar water to your bees in Fall -as you prepare for Winter. Again, we must refer to climate.
When your hive has all of the food boxes needed for Winter full, your job is done. This is no guarantee that the colony will survive of course. But, you have done your part as a keeper of the bees.
Using internal jar feeders inside the hive can extend the feeding opportunity by a few week in Fall. But in general, finish with liquid feed before it gets cold. Constantly using liquid feed inside the hive should not be a part of Winter beekeeping.
Save the sugar water for the times of the year when the bees can move around more and fly from the hive to expel wastes etc.
Caution During Dearth
A nectar dearth is a time during the warm season when very little to no nectar is available.
This can happen for a short time period when one type of plant has stopping blooming and the next has not started.
It is also common during the hot dry Summer. In my region, very little nectar is available after the Sourwood Honey trees stop blooming in July and before the fall flowers begin.
Do not feed sugar water during dearth conditions without extreme care. This may sound strange – why would I tell you to not feed hungry bees in a time of need?
Actually, this is a precaution that you must do so “with extreme care”. This is especially true if you have several colonies in your bee apiary.
Strong colonies will attack and rob out weaker hives. Once honey bee robbing situations start they are difficult to stop. If you must feed – internal feeders are a better idea.
Danger of Feeding Stimulants
Like many beekeepers, I use some essential oils in my bee syrup. I find that it encourages the bees to drink, prolongs the freshness of the syrup and it smells good too.
The problem arises when you are feeding this delicious smelling bee syrup to small, weaker/young colonies in a yard filled with strong hives.
It’s much like myself walking down the street and getting a whiff of a nearby Kilwin’s Chocolate store. I want some of that.
Foraging bees feel the same way about the sweet syrup. Use care, scale back your essential oil blend and watch for any signs of trouble when feeding during dry conditions.
Honey bees visit millions of flowers to collect resources needed for the colony. But, even in nature, the amount of nectar available during the warm season will fluctuate.
Of course, if your colonies need fed to prepare for Winter – do so. However, it is much better to equalize the stored honey provisions among your hives. And then, feed everyone.
Try to avoid having 1 hive with 3 extra boxes of honey and 1 with nothing. If you try to feed only the 1 hive in dire need – this might cause a problem.
How long bees should be fed sugar water depends on many factors: the size of the colony, local foraging conditions and the goals of the beekeeper. Healthy strong colonies can fend for themselves if natural nectar is available.
Bee syrup – also called “sugar water” – is a sweet mixture that is fed to any honey bee colony in need. Commercial beekeepers purchase bee syrup ready to use. Backyard beekeepers and small producers normally create a mixture of white granular sugar and water.
It is common for beekeepers to feed sugar water a bit in early Spring to aid in colony build up. One the weather has warmed and abundant nectar is available – most hives will not need to be fed.
A Final Word
I don’t believe bees are lazy – that trait is reserved for us humans. As the beekeeper, you are responsible for good hive management. No one can tell you exactly when to stop feeding sugar water to your bees – or when to start. You much learn how to evaluate colony and foraging conditions so you can make the best choice.