When to feed bees? When they need it and, in our opinion, ONLY when they need it…which may be several times over the course of a year. If you are beekeeping newbie getting your first bees you should start out with a spring feeding.
First we’ll talk about what to feed and when to feed. Then we’ll get into how to feed.
What To Feed Bees
Honey is the best food for bees…when they make it. Do not feed them honey unless it’s from your own disease-free colonies. Honey from other sources may contain spores of American foulbrood or other kinds of contamination that will infect your hive.
Sugar syrup is your main feed source, a simple mix of sugar dissolved in water. The ratio of sugar to water depends on the time of year.
In the spring or summer, you should feed thin, 1:1 sugar syrup mix. That’s one part sugar to one part water. It’s often not explained that this measurement is in terms of weight.
Thanks to Google I learned that 2 cups of water (16 ounces) weighs about 1.04 pounds. That is close enough if you don’t have a scale. If you want to be more precise an inexpensive scale like this will do just fine.
A fall mix is 2:1 (sugar to water) for a thicker syrup.
Heat the water and slowly dissolve the sugar in it. It’s a good idea not to boil the water. The escaping steam will lower the water content and change the ratio of sugar to water.
Once the sugar dissolves remove it from the heat and let it cool.
Use only white granulated sugar in your syrup. Do not use corn syrup, molasses or other items as they may contain flavoring and other ingredients not suitable for bees. WHITE GRANULATED SUGAR.
Our first nuc came with a small pollen patty to assist in the production of brood. Since then we’ve tried some patties in the spring and once used special winter patties. We found that in both cases the patties went relatively uneaten so we’ve cut back our use of them. Your experience may differ.
Fondant, Dry Sugar or Sugar Bricks
Hopefully, your bees go into winter with enough honey to survive until spring. We provide sugar as a supplemental emergency source of food even when we think they have enough honey. It’s too cold for the bees to drink syrup in the winter so fondant or sugar is a good alternative.
Bee fondant is similar to the fondant you’ll find on cakes in your local bakery minus certain ingredients not suitable for your colony.
You can buy fondant or make it yourself at a much lower cost. Making your own bee fondant requires cooking a sugar/water mix, using a candy thermometer to assure the proper temperature and some sort of mixer. While it’s not overly difficult, I think using dry sugar or sugar bricks is just as effective and a lot less work.
If you use dry sugar, simply place newspaper over the frames and pour some sugar on it. It helps to spray it with water so it hardens a bit and doesn’t fall through to the bottom of the hive in small granules.
We make “sugar bricks” that go in a candy board between the top hive box and the inside cover. Bricks are more or less a hardened version of dry sugar application. To make bricks mix together:
- 10 pounds of white granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup of water
- 1/4 cup of vinegar
- if desired, 1 tsp of essential oil supplements (see below)
Add the liquids gradually. Once the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, put it into a foil container (or even on to paper plates). After it dries out you’ll have “bricks” for the hive. You can speed up the drying time in the oven at a very low temperature like 100° F (about 38° C).
A variety of supplements are available to assist your beekeeping. One that we’ve seen mentioned quite often is Honey B Healthy. It’s made from essential oils and designed to boost bee immune systems. Many recipes for sugar bricks include Honey B Healthy or similar essential oils.
So far we’ve avoided the use of these oils. In a rural area, our bees seem to have plenty of food options. We prefer to keep our beekeeping as natural as possible. We may yet give something like this a try to see if it makes a significant difference in the health of our colonies.
When To Feed Bees
As we said, the time to feed bees is when they need it. This could be several times a year…or not at all. You need to pay attention to the level of stores in your hives and nectar flows and make a judgement call. We err on the side of caution being careful not to overfeed.
New Bees/Spring Feeding
With your bees arriving in early spring, natural food resources may be limited for them. This also applies to overwintered hives starting to ramp up for the new year.
Your new bees arrived in one of 2 formats: a package or a nuc.
In a package, the bees came with a can of sugar syrup to keep them fed for the journey. A nuc should have some frames with food already stored in them. In either case you’ll want to feed your bees. It gives them a boost in the production of honeycomb, brood and food stores.
We only feed in the spring until it’s obvious that the bees can fend for themselves as natural resources become plentiful. If you overfeed the hive, it could become honey-bound leaving too little room for brood which may result in swarming. The risk of this is probably greater with an overwintered hive than a spanking new one.
This past season our bees had some stores left in the hive and were bringing back pollen early in the spring. We decided not to feed them and they did just fine fending for themselves.
Summer Nectar Dearth
As summer progresses and plants die off with the change of seasons. You may experience a nectar dearth in your area. Your bees may become more aggressive and search for food in unusual places. Robbing behavior increases as bees compete for limited resources.
If you think the bees are not finding enough resources on their own, consider feeding them 1:1 syrup. Providing syrup in a dearth may attract robbers who are keenly aware that the scent of food is in the air…especially if anything spills or leaks.
In the event of robbing, use the entrance reducer to minimize entry points for robbers. Give your bees the smallest possible opening to defend. Defending against robbers takes a toll on your bees. It could result in substantial losses if your hive is overrun.
For more information see Summer Nectar Dearth (How To Recognize & Deal With It)
In the fall, while temperatures permit, you can feed your bees a different sugar syrup mix: 2:1 sugar: water. The purpose of this feeding is not for brood production but for food storage. With winter coming, the queen should slow down and stop laying new eggs. This will limit the size of the winter colony to preserve food for those remaining.
We feed our bees in the fall until they stop taking it. If your bees have plenty of honey stored up, fall feeding may not be necessary. However, because our winters can get extremely cold, we err on the side of caution.
Going into winter you want to make sure your bees have adequate food stores to survive. Providing some sugar for emergency stores could be the difference between a surviving colony and a dead out hive come spring. We ALWAYS provide sugar for overwintering bees.
How To Feed Bees
The method used to feed your bees depends on what you are feeding. Pollen patties, dry sugar and sugar bricks are simply placed on top of the frames (being careful not to crush bees, especially the queen). There are many options for feeding sugar syrup.
An entrance feeder (also called a Boardman feeder) is a common device. Fill a clean jar with syrup. Attached a perforated lid and stand the jar upside down in the feeder. Don’t worry about syrup running out. It will be held in place by a vacuum. Slide the feeder into the lower hive entrance for the bees to access the jar without exiting the hive. Entrance feeders are simple to use but don’t hold much syrup.
We’ve used entrance feeders primarily for nucs and splits. Watch out for robbing activity.
A top feeder is exactly what it sounds like. A box or similar device placed atop the hive that the bees can access through an opening. Syrup goes in the feeder with some method to protect bees from drowning like a floating platform.
The advantage of these is that the whole hive does not have to be opened. Some of them hold a rather large quantity of syrup. Larger capacity means fewer trips for you. Despite the protection offered some bees will still drown.
We’ve avoided these top feeders because of the drowning issue.
A pail or bucket feeder is a cross between a Boardman feeder and a top feeder. These feeders are filled like the jars in a Boardman and turned upside down over the hole in the center of your inner cover. They hold a lot more syrup than a jar reducing your number of trips. You cover them with another hive box (either a deep or 2 mediums).
We have not used bucket feeders. Instead, we made a stand that holds multiple jars of syrup above the inner cover for the same result. The jars are covered with another hive box. This is our favored method of feeding syrup.
You can also supply syrup by baggie feeding. Place syrup in a plastic storage bag of your choice. Lay it on top of the frames but make sure it is sealed tight.
Avoid crushing bees. Once the bags are in place, carefully cut slits in them for bees to access the syrup. You should use a spacer shim (or a medium box) to give adequate room for the bags.
We’ve used this method with mixed results. The bees seemed to love it and rapidly consumed the syrup. However, we had some spillage which resulted in major robbing activity. Spillage was more my fault than an issue with the method.
Frame feeders are exactly what they sound like. You drop them into the hive in place of a frame filled with syrup. The bees use a ladder or grooves to access the syrup and avoid drowning (hopefully). We’ve never used one of these partially because we don’t want to take up the room in hive.
Open feeders are pretty much a DIY project.
A common type of open feeder is a large (5-gallon) bucket with small holes drilled through the inner wall of the reinforcement rib. When it’s filled with syrup and inverted (with the lid securely attached), syrup will fill the small area of the reinforcement rib where bees can feed.
Open feeders are placed in a central location for all the bees to feed.
We think this only makes sense in very large apiaries far from any neighbors. This type of feeding will attract other types of bees, ants, wasps, and yellow jackets and could increase robbing.
Candy boards are placed on top of hive boxes to hold fondant or sugar bricks. They are shallow in depth providing just enough room for the food and possibly some insulating material like burlap.
The board has an opening for bee access. It may also be a mesh base giving the bees access to the candy across the board. In either case it should have an opening for ventilation.
Feeding bees is a judgement call. We suggest that as a new beekeeper you feed in the spring until you know that nature is providing nectar flow for the bees.
Particularly in your first year, it’s likely your bees will be a little light on stores heading into fall. Fall feed until they stop taking it. Don’t start too early as it’s not the time to ramp up brood production.
If you live in a cold climate, provide some sugar for overwintering. Even if you think they have enough honey stored, you’re better off with this insurance. It’s not fun to open a dead hive in the spring. We’ve been there…you will be too. Do the best you can to help them make it.