Honey bees are very industrious little insects. They work hard to gather what they need to keep the colony functioning. Beekeepers are often faced with the need of feeding their bees sugar water. While this is an important part of most beekeeping management plans, it is not always a great idea. Let’s learn about times you should not be feeding bees sugar syrup.
When You Should Not Be Feeding Bees Sugar Syrup
What is Bee Syrup?
Bee syrup – also called “sugar water” – is a sweet mixture that is fed to any honey bee colony in need of food.
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Backyard beekeepers and small producers normally create a mixture of white granular sugar and water.
This liquid bee food provides nourishment for hungry bees. The ratio of sugar to water depends on the purpose intended for the hive.
Feeding bees an equal mix of 1:1 (1 part sugar/1part water) promotes colony growth. Building wax for comb, rearing young and general colony expansion is encouraged with 1:1.
This is the mixture that most closely mimics the sweetness of natural nectar.
The honey bee colony needing to create stored honey for Winter, benefits from a 2:1 ( 2 parts sugar/1 part water ) sugar water recipe.
This stronger sugar concentration encourages the bees to store the liquid as “honey”. Though of course is it not true honey – it will help them survive.
Why Beekeepers Feed Honey Bee Colonies?
The beekeeping community loves to argue about the importance of feeding honey bee hives. Some feel that it is unnecessary and may even be harmful to the honey bees.
Others of us, feel that feeding a colony in need is a proper management plan that can save a hive in distress.
In nature, the amount of nectar available during the warm season will fluctuate. There are many flowers bees love that provide both pollen and nectar.
However, sometimes those blooms are dry. This can happen as a result of weather conditions in recent months or perhaps a late frost or freeze.
Add this to our tendency to place more colonies closer together than would occur in nature and you are left with hungry bees.
However, feeding is not always a good thing. It can cause problems too and make the situation worse for the beehive and the beekeeper.
Do Not Feed Bees When Honey Supers are on the Hive
Empty hive boxes (usually shallow size) are placed on top of a honey bee colony, in order to, collect excess honey. This is the beekeeper’s share of the crop.
Sometimes, these boxes contain wooden frames of drawn comb that the bees produced. It is ready for the worker bees to clean and fill with honey.
The super box may contain frames and bare sheets of foundation (beeswax or plastic). The members of that colony will have more work to do.
These bees must make beeswax and create the hexagonal cells of drawn comb. Then, they will fill the wax cells with a honey crop.
Do not feed a hive that has collection boxes 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.
Feeding Bees Sugar Water in Winter is Dangerous
In a perfect beekeeping world, we want each colony to be well prepared for the cold Winter months. Plenty of stored food resources is the goal.
How much honey is needed for your bees to survive Winter, depends in part on where you live. Colder regions with long Winters need more food stored.
Unless you live in a tropical region, do not feed bee sugar syrup during Winter. You may be creating more problems for your colonies and there are better ways to provide emergency Winter feeding for bees.
Often, the bees can not access the liquid feed during cold temperatures when they are clustered together. And, the presence of sugar water inside the hive increases the internal moisture.
Save the sugar water for the times of the year when the bees can move around and fly freely from the hive to expel wastes etc.
Feeding Bees During a Dearth Use Extreme Care
What is a nectar dearth? It 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?
Strong honey bee colonies will attack and rob out weaker hives. Once honey bee robbing situations start they are difficult to stop.
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 feed only the 1 in dire need – this might cause a problem.
Danger of Using Feeding Stimulants
Like many beekeepers, I do 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.
Are there any health benefits? Maybe – but the first 3 reasons are enough for me.
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.
Foragers feel the same way about the sweet syrup. Use care, scale back your essential oil blend and watch for any signs of trouble.
Stop Feeding Sugar Water to Bees that Don’t Need It
Proper feeding at the right time can be a life saver to a weak colony. Why does the hive have a small population? Perhaps, it is through no fault of the bees.
Hives started from package bees are often slow to take off. Perhaps, a hive swarmed and has been slow to build back up?
Or maybe a nectar dearth played a role in the colony being weak? When the colony recovers or is bringing in plenty of nectar – stop feeding.
However, 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 your area has too many bees for the natural forage to support.
How Long to Feed Sugar Water to Bees?
I don’t believe bees are lazy – that trait is reserved for us humans. How much should you feed and when should you stop?
Again, we must refer to climate. Unless you live in the southernmost regions of the USA, your colony needs more than just 1 deep to safely overwinter.
That food box may be another deep, a medium or a shallow – but I urge to make sure they have a food box. Don’t try to overwinter the bees in one box.
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.
Our bees face many obstacles and Winter is not a good time for them. However, you have done what you can to help them succeed.
A Final Word on Knowing When to Stop Feeding Sugar Syrup
Honey bees have a miraculous plan for storing food to sustain them during the cold months of Winter.
When we beekeepers take on honey bee management, we have the responsibility of doing what we can to ensure their survival. There will be times that we can help by feeding our bees but it is just as important to know when to stop.