Updated on September 13th, 2022
Honey bees collect nectar, pollen, and water to create three nutritional foods: honey, bee bread, and royal jelly.
If naturally available resources seem insufficient for a colony’s nutritional needs, a beekeeper may feed honey bees protein supplements for pollen or sugar substitutes for nectar.
The choice of a substitute and its delivery method can vary based on the beekeeper’s preference, the colony’s health, and environmental conditions.
In this article we’ll give a quick overview of they honey bee diet then discuss why they might need supplemental nutrition, what to give them to meet those needs, how to best deliver the additional foods and when it should be done.
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What Do Honey Bees Eat?
Honey bees forage for three primary sources of nutrition:
- Pollen which provides protein, essential amino acids, lipids, sterols, vitamins, and minerals;
- Plant nectar for carbohydrates; and,
- Water for essential hydration, bodily functions, and thermoregulation of the hive.
Pollen, combined with nectar and honey and fermented with lactic acid bacteria, is used to pack comb cells with “bee bread.” Beebread is consumed by larvae and young, developing bees.
Nurse bees convert bee bread into a complete food called royal jelly. Royal jelly, a milky white secretion, is fed to larvae for its first three days and queens for their entire larval stage.
Bees consume nectar, converting carbohydrates to energy. Bees combine most of the nectar gathered with enzymes. Nectar is stored in comb cells and converted to honey for future consumption.
See our article What Do Honey Bees Eat? for more information on this topic.
Why Feed Honey Bees?
The best food for honey bees is what they make from the pollen, nectar, and water they gather themselves. So why do you feed them anything else?
Your primary job as a beekeeper is tending to the needs of your livestock. Sometimes, natural resources are scarce or insufficient for your colonies’ health and growth.
Feeding bees adds to or temporarily replaces the nutrients they usually get from pollen, nectar, and water when needed.
If resources are scarce, bees may cease certain activities (like comb production) and deplete their food stores below acceptable levels. Supplementing a colony’s diet may not only preserve existing stores but add to them.
New colonies, especially those that started with bee packages, greatly benefit from feeding. Bees expend enormous energy building comb for brood and food storage. Giving the new colony a nutritional boost can accelerate the process and grow the colony faster. Extra protein stimulates brood rearing.
Some beekeepers practice “treatment-free” beekeeping. At a minimum, treatment-free beekeepers avoid the use of any chemicals. However, some also considered feeding as a form of treatment. We do not follow this approach; however, we only feed our bees when we think it is necessary.
For more information, see our article What Is Treatment-Free Beekeeping? (A Controversial Topic).
What Do You Feed Honey Bees?
If you opt to supplement your colonies’ diet, provide bees food aimed at fulfilling the same needs as their natural diet.
Honey is a primary food source for bees, and there is no perfect substitute for it. You can move honey frames from strong, healthy hives to assist weaker ones.
We move honey frames to assist new installations such as bee packages, nucs, splits, or trapped swarms. We also move honey in the fall if a hive seems to have plenty, and another is coming up short for the winter.
To avoid contamination from pesticides or harmful spores and bacteria, do not feed honey from sources other than your own colonies.
Supplement or Substitute?
Some beekeepers refer to pollen supplements only for items that contain pollen. We use the words “substitute” and “supplement” somewhat interchangeably. Everything we discuss here is about augmenting the bees’ nutritional needs in some fashion.
There are a variety of things you can feed honey bees to supplement the supply of pollen.
You Can Use Pollen (Carefully)
When pollen is plentiful, you can collect it from your colonies for future use. It can be dried out or frozen for storage to avoid mold.
Like honey, only collect pollen from healthy, disease-free colonies.
Pollen can be mixed with other ingredients to extend it and make patties.
Also, like honey, we do not recommend using pollen from other sources. You can purchase pollen that’s been irradiated or fumigated to destroy pathogens; however, pollen can also contain pesticides. There is evidence that fumigation can reduce the needed amino acids in pollen.
Pollen substitutes use various ingredients to replace the proteins, amino acids, and other nutrients derived from pollen. You can purchase pollen substitutes in dry form or patties.
Ingredients in pollen substitutes may include:
- Soy flour (proteins and texture)
- Brewers yeast (proteins, B vitamins, minerals)
- Dry milk (proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals)
- Dried egg (fat, proteins, and vitamins)
- Sugar (carbohydrates – sugar also helps attract the bees to consume)
- Vitamins (such as A, C, D, Biotin, and Folic Acid)
- Oils or shortening (fats, minerals, and vitamins)
- Essential oils (often thought to stimulate feeding and assist in the control of pests and disease)
Alternatively, mix a homemade protein supplement. Visit our resource page of Pollen Supplement Recipes.
How To Feed Pollen Substitutes To Bees
Proteins are essential for larvae and young developing bees. Place pollen substitutes inside the hive on the top bars of the brood box. Patties are covered with paper that you can leave on; the bees will deal with the paper.
You can place dry substitutes outside the hive. Sprinkling it for bees to forage doesn’t seem to be the most efficient method. A feeder keeps the substitute from blowing away or getting wet.
For large-scale feeding, you can get Dry Bee-Pro Feeder like this on Mann Lake. However, a homemade feeder is a lot less expensive and gets the job done.
Plastic buckets and bottles, PVC piping, and any box container with a tray (and access) can work as feeders. Place them some distance from the hives to avoid attracting unwanted visitors to your beeyard. Elevate the feeder on a tree, stand or post, so it’s easily accessible to the bees.
Substituting Sugar For Nectar
As we mentioned, bees cannot make honey from sugar. However, they can use sugar as a replacement for nectar and store it for future consumption.
Only use white, granulated cane sugar to feed honey bees. Brown sugar, molasses, raw sugar, palm sugar, and high fructose corn syrup may harm your bees or cause digestive problems such as dysentery. Never feed artificial sweeteners.
Feed sugar to bees in several different forms:
- Dry sugar;
- Sugar bricks/cakes;
- Sugar syrup; or,
Feeding dry sugar is often called the Mountain Camp method and is the simplest method of sugar feeding.
The only additive to consider is a little spray of water, causing the sugar to clump together. Dry sugar may clump together naturally from condensation in the hive. Bees are less likely to remove clumped sugar and take it out of the hive as trash.
Some beekeepers suggest superfine sugar as more appealing to the bees.
Sugar Bricks Or Cakes
You can buy “candy bricks” or winter patties, but for less money, you can make sugar bricks yourself. Bricks (or cakes) are just a denser version of dry, clumped sugar. They require no cooking. We’ve used this method.
To make bricks, mix together the following:
- 10 pounds of white granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup of water
- 1/4 cup of apple cider 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 onto paper plates). After it dries out, you will 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). Vary the volumes as needed for your situation.
Sugar syrup, a simple mix of white granulated sugar dissolved in water, is probably the most common way to replace nectar. The ratio of sugar to water depends on the time of year.
In the spring or summer, you should feed a thin, 1:1 sugar syrup mix. That’s one part sugar, to one part water. Measurements are in terms of weight.
Thanks to Google, I learned that 2 cups of water (16 ounces) weigh about 1.04 pounds. That is close enough without a scale. If you want to be more precise, an inexpensive kitchen scale will do just fine for measuring.
A fall mix is 2:1 (sugar to water) for a thicker syrup heading into winter.
Sugar will dissolve without heating the water. We heat the water ever so slightly to speed the process, especially for the 2:1 ratio.
Be careful with heating the water. You only want to get it warm, not HOT. Bringing it to a boil will evaporate some water, changing the ratio of ingredients. Also, cooking the sugar will alter some of its properties and may harm the bees.
Let the syrup cool before feeding it to the bees. Store excess syrup in the refrigerator if possible to prolong its life.
You are probably familiar with fondant as icing or covering on cakes. Bee fondant is similar but does not contain all the ingredients you find in fondant for human consumption.
Bee fondant is available for purchase like this Priddy Acres Sweet B fondant available here on Amazon.
You can make fondant yourself; however, making fondant is time-consuming. While it is a perfectly acceptable nectar alternative for bees, we think that dry sugar or sugar bricks are a lot simpler to make.
Here’s a video from Vino Farm on YouTube showing how to make fondant.
How To Feed Sugar To Bees
Like pollen substitutes, sugar can be fed to bees outside or inside the hive.
Inside the hive, sugar is fed either from the top of the hive or at the entrance. Outside the hive (“open feeding”), sugar syrup is placed a good distance from the beeyard.
How To Feed Dry Sugar To Bees
The Mountain Camp method is quite simple.
Remove the hive covers. Smoke any bees on the top bars to move them in between frames. Place paper (newspaper works great) on top of the bars and pour sugar over it. Wet the sugar lightly if you want. Close the hive.
Depending on how much sugar you pour, you may need a spacer, so the covers sit firmly on the hive.
Bees will shred and remove the paper as they consume the sugar. As we mentioned, even if you don’t wet the sugar, it may clump together from condensation in the hive.
Quick hive inspections will let you know if and when the bees stop eating the sugar. Remove any leftover sugar when they don’t seem to need it.
How To Feed Sugar Syrup To Bees
Sugar syrup can be fed to bees using a variety of ways. The most common is an upside-down jar or pail with a perforated lid.
When the container is inverted, some syrup may leak at first, but a vacuum seal keeps the syrup from running out. A bee’s proboscis can access the syrup through the lid perforations.
If you make your own feeder keep the holes in the lid small for the vacuum effect. We use a 1/16th inch drill bit. A little nail does the trick too.
Note: Try to avoid spilling syrup in and around the hive. It will attract other bees, yellow jackets, wasps, and ants. You also don’t want to drench your bees with it and drown them.
Only feed sugar syrup in warm weather. Bees will not consume cold syrup rendering it worthless.
An entrance feeder (also called a Boardman feeder) is a common device that holds an inverted jar over an opening accessible to the bees. The feeder slides into the hive’s lower entrance while the jar remains outside the hive. Bees get to the syrup without exiting the hive.
We do not recommend entrance feeders. Located at the entrance, they invite robbing. We prefer syrup feeders enclosed at the top of the hive. However, entrance feeders are convenient for nuc boxes that have limited space inside.
Unlike entrance feeders, top feeders are placed above the colony inside the hive.
Top Feeding Hive Boxes
You can purchase specially designed boxes that hold the syrup and provide access from below. The boxes include a screen or float intended to limit the risk of bees drowning (though you may not avoid it altogether).
The primary advantage of top feeder boxes is the large volume of syrup they hold, limiting how often you need to open the hive and replenish.
We feed our bees on a limited basis and have not found the need for this much syrup at one time.
Jar And Pail Feeders
Feed sugar syrup with inverted jars or pails of syrup placed over the opening of the inner cover.
Pails with screened openings in the cover generally hold more syrup than jars. Feeding pails are available from Amazon and most bee suppliers.
Elevating the container with a couple of wood strips helps. You can also use a candy board with a circular opening designed to hold a jar in place (like an entrance feeder does).
Enclose the feeder with a covered hive box.
Place syrup in a tightly sealed plastic storage bag of your choice (hence, “baggie feeding”). We’ve found this an effective way to feed honey bees.
Smoke bees to move them off the top bars of the upper box and lay the bag down.
Once the bags are in place, carefully cut slits (razor cuts are best) in them for bees to access the syrup. Use a spacer shim (or a medium box) to give the bags adequate room. (You don’t want the bags compressed, squeezing the syrup out all over the bees).
This method worked well for us. The bees seemed to love it and rapidly consumed the syrup.
Frame feeders (like this one on Amazon) hold syrup and are placed inside the hive in lieu of other frames. The bees use a ladder or grooves to access the syrup and avoid drowning (hopefully).
We used a frame feeder once. It was included in a nuc box and contained hardened sugar, and was meant to feed the bees while temporarily confined to the box.
We prefer that frames serve other purposes for the bees.
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 reinforcement rib’s inner wall. When filled with syrup and inverted (with the lid securely attached), syrup accumulates in the reinforcement rib where bees can feed.
We think open feeding only makes sense in very large apiaries far from any neighbors. Place buckets a reasonable distance from the beeyard to avoid unwanted visitors to your hives and robbing.
How To Feed Sugar Bricks And Fondant To Bees
Sugar cakes and fondant are mostly used to feed bees in winter. They can be placed directly on the top bars of the upper hive or loaded on candy boards.
Candy boards are available in a couple of styles (or can easily be made at home). Candy boards are about 3″ deep. The bottom can be either solid with a ventilation/access hole or hardware cloth with ½” openings.
The hole in the middle of an otherwise solid candy board is also designed to hold an inverted jar of sugar syrup in warmer weather.
Pack a sugar brick mixture tightly on the candy board and let it harden in place. You can also place fondant on the board.
With a solid board, do not cover the ventilation hole. A jar lid temporarily placed in the hole will help.
Using hardware cloth, place a block of wood on the board before packing the sugar. Remove the wood after the sugar hardens for ventilation.
Candy boards have a hole in the side to vent moisture and provide an upper entrance if the lower opening is blocked by snow.
A Vivaldi board is a particular type of candy board. A screen box goes over the center hole of the board. Fondant or other feed is placed inside the screened box, not blocking the hole. The remainder of the board can be used for burlap or other material to serve as insulation.
When To Feed Honey Bees
We suggest you only feed your honey bees when it seems necessary because of resource scarcity or to assist for specific reasons.
Bees do not need supplements when there are abundant pollen and nectar available naturally. The bees may signal that resources are plentiful by ignoring any supplements you provide.
With plenty of pollen and nectar available, don’t feed during honey flow with the supers on the hive.
The most likely times to feed honey bees are:
- Early spring to boost wax and brood production;
- During a summer nectar dearth;
- In the fall to increase stores for the coming winter; and,
- Winter to fend off starvation if the honey stores prove insufficient.
Feeding Bees In Early Spring
When nectar and pollen are limited in early spring, newly installed bees and overwintered hives both need to ramp up wax and brood production for the coming season.
Protein from pollen substitutes may stimulate brood production. Sugar syrup can give bees the energy needed to build out comb faster.
Where we live, there is usually plenty of pollen and nectar available in early spring. We are often surprised to see how early bees are returning to the hive with pollen baskets. So we generally avoid feeding in early spring with one exception.
A newly installed bee package has no comb for food storage or brood. Having existing colonies, we may have the option to steal a few frames of honey and comb for new packages. New beekeepers don’t have that luxury.
Even if pollen and nectar are available naturally, feeding new packages may give them the jump start they need.
For information on plants that can feed your honey bees throughout the seasons, check our article 11 Best Plants For Honey Bees ( And 5 To Avoid).
Feeding During Summer Nectar Dearth
As summer progresses and plants die off, 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.
See our article What Is Summer Nectar Dearth? (What To Do For Your Bees) for more information.
You’ve probably also taken some honey from the colonies, depleting their reserves. It may be time to feed 1:1 sugar syrup and help your bees through the dearth.
Feeding sugar may help your bees keep honey stores adequate as fall and winter approach.
If your bees are regularly bringing in pollen and rearing brood steadily, pollen substitutes are unnecessary. Any substitutes you provide will be ignored in favor of the real thing.
If you notice that bees are NOT bringing back pollen and brood-rearing has declined, consider providing them some additional proteins.
Fall Feeding To Build Up Winter Stores
Fall feeding is all about helping bees build up adequate stores to survive the coming winter.
Fall is an excellent time to feed 2:1 sugar syrup. It is easier for bees to preserve thicker syrup as there is less water to evaporate.
Sugar feeding supplements whatever nectar they collect to build up stores for winter.
Do not feed pollen substitutes in the fall.
Bee populations should be declining in the fall as the queen stops laying eggs. Anything that might stimulate brood production is a bad idea.
New brood will consume much-needed stores and energy right before winter when the colony can least afford it.
Winter Feeding To Avoid Starvation
Hopefully, your bees accumulated enough honey to get them through the winter. How much is enough depends on your environment.
In northern, colder climates, colonies should have 80 – 90 pounds of honey going into winter. In the deep south, colonies may get by with 30 – 40 pounds.
You can weigh your hives or estimate the amount of honey based on the number of full frames.
Deep frames of capped honey weigh approximately 8 pounds; medium frames are about 6 pounds. These are averages and should be used only to approximate how much honey your colony has.
No matter how much honey our bees have, we add sugar for the winter. Honey estimates can be wrong; winter could be harsher than usual. We’d rather provide excess sugar they don’t need than have them starve because they came up a little short.
Do not feed pollen substitutes going into winter. Without brood production, additional proteins are unnecessary. If the bees consume pollen, they may need to defecate (yes, bees do poop} when it’s too cold to exit the hive for cleansing flight.
However, in late winter, when temperatures permit quick trips outside the hive, pollen substitutes may help start brood production before pollen is readily available.
Essential Oils As Food Additives
Many beekeepers add essential oils to food substitutes in small amounts. The most commonly used oils are:
- Lemongrass oil
- Spearmint oil
- Thyme oil
- Tea tree oil
Follow directions carefully. Too much of some essential oils can harm the bees.
Honey B Healthy® (available here on Amazon) is a very popular food additive and stimulant. It contains, among other things, spearmint and lemongrass essential oils.
We have not used it, but some beekeeper videos show the results of testing sugar water with and without Honey B Healthy. As you can see below, the results can vary.
Given its popularity, you may want to give it a try.
There are other similar additives you can try:
- Pro Health (available here on Amazon) also contains spearmint and lemongrass essential oils to stimulate feeding and calm bees.
- Brood Booster (also available on Amazon) includes amino acids and essential oils to stimulate egg-laying.
- Hive Alive (available here on Amazon) contains a blend of seaweed extracts and claims to boost brood production and improve intestinal well-being.
Some beekeepers mix their own versions of these additives to save money. Don The Fat Bee Man has several videos showing how to mix oils, such as the one below.
In addition to stimulating feeding and brood production, essential oils are reputed to increase acceptance of plastic foundation when applied, inhibit mold growth in sugar syrup, and help control mites and Nosema.
Bees obtain their essential nutrients from pollen and nectar, which are converted into bee bread and honey, respectively.
Sometimes, nature fails to provide enough pollen and nectar to assure your colonies’ well-being and survival. When that happens, consider helping out your bees with pollen substitutes and sugar and adding essential oils into the mix.
You can feed honey bees substitutes in various forms and with a variety of delivery systems. Try out some options and pick what works best for you and your bees, depending on the season and the situation.
This article is part of a series on managing beehives, a beginner’s guide to basic, year-round beekeeping tasks.
See the next article in this series about spring beehive management.
Sugar For Bees in Bee Culture Magazine
A Comparative Test Of The Pollen Subs (Part 1 & 2) at ScientificBeekeeping.com