How To Feed Bees – A Practical Beekeeper’s Guide

A beekeeper pouring sugar syrup into bee feeders

Most of the time, honey bees are self-sufficient and will happily feed themselves. In spring and summer, they usually have a ready supply of nectar and pollen. Their priority is building up reserves of honey to get them through winter and times when flowers are scarce.

Things don’t always go to plan for honey bee colonies. Bad weather may keep the foragers inside, or an over-zealous beekeeper could over-harvest the colony’s honey stocks. Whatever the reason, bees will starve to death if they run out of food.

This article looks at how to feed bees the right way. You’ll discover how to provide hives with the correct food to help them survive tough times.

How do I feed bees?

You can keep a hungry colony alive for weeks by feeding them granulated sugar, simple syrup, or a pollen substitute. Only feed bees honey from your own hives that are free from disease. Using honey from the grocery store or another beekeeper may introduce infection into the hive. Beekeepers occasionally keep a supply of dark or “off” honey for emergencies.

Whatever you choose to feed bees, keep in mind that placing food sources inside the hive is best. Doing so will reduce the chance of robber bees from nearby colonies taking the food.

1. Granulated sugar

Use regular dry sugar if the colony isn’t too weak. Place the sugar under the hive lid in trays or on a hive mat. The bees will then mix the crystals with hive condensation or an outside water source.

It is best to avoid using dry sugar if your climate is hot and dry. Liquefying the food source will be challenging compared to humid, cooler conditions with plenty of moisture.

Over time, if the bees find a new source of pollen and nectar, they may store some of the sugar in cells as a liquid. The rest will either be left where it is or moved outside the hive entrance.

2. Sugar syrup

Making a simple syrup of sugar and water is quick and easy. Take a small pot and combine water and sugar, then heat it on medium until simmering. Mix the solution until all the crystals dissolve, ensuring the liquid doesn’t boil.

As soon as the sugar has melted, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool completely before use.

  • Use a 1:1 ratio, 1 part sugar to 1 part water, to encourage brood rearing and help bolster honey stores.
  • Use a stronger 2:1 ratio, 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, when honey stores are low, and your bees are starving.

Important: Boiling the syrup may cause the sugars to caramelize, which is toxic for honey bees.

Pouring sugar into a pot of water
Water and sugar make sugar syrup.

3. Pollen substitute

Pollen substitute is a feed supplement designed to replace pollen in bees’ diets. It is typically made from sugar, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals and is used to supplement the natural pollen that bees usually collect from flowers.

Pollen substitutes are most commonly used during the winter when flowers are scarce or when colonies are weakened due to disease or other factors.

Ways to feed bees sugar syrup

There is a range of options for distributing food to your bee colony. A plastic bag, container, frame, or shallow tray feeder will all work well.

1. Plastic bag feeder

Half-fill a zip-lock bag with sugar syrup before squeezing out any air and sealing the top. A freezer bag will also work well, but you’ll need a rubber band to tie up the top.

You can place this bag in the hive’s top box on the frames’ top bars. To allow the bees food supply access, poke 5-10 holes in the top of the bag using a small nail. The bees will access the liquid the same way they’d get nectar from a flower stamen.

Tip: Allow space between the top of the hive and the bag for the bees to access the sugar syrup.

2. Container feeder

Any clean container, like a jar with a sealable lid, will work fine as a bee feeder. Fill it with sugar syrup, then drill six holes through the top.

To make a space between the feeder holes and the hive’s top bars, make two ½” high risers out of wood and position them on the frame’s top bars. Next, flip the jar upside-down and place it on the risers.

3. Frame feeder

Frame feeders replace one of the hive’s regular brood frames. They are the right length and width to fit neatly into the box.

The feeder has an open top for the bees to access the sugar syrup. Flotation material is essential to stop bees from drowning themselves.

4. Shallow tray feeder

A shallow tray like the aluminum ones used for BBQs is an excellent bee feeder. They’ll easily fit under the hive lid, providing quick access to food for hungry bees.

To stop bees from drowning in the liquid, toss in some floating material that your bees can land on while feeding. Anything that’s small and floats is okay, but ensure the material isn’t treated with chemicals that could harm the bees. Small twigs or wood straw are good choices.

How much should I feed bees?

A colony low in honey will consume different amounts of sugar syrup depending on various factors. Colony size, feeder volume, and amount of brood will all play a part in consumption needs. It is better to overfeed a beehive than not provide enough and allow the bees to starve.

Offer up to 2/3 gallon (3 liters) of sugar syrup for the initial feed. Check how much syrup is stored in the comb, then decide how much more is needed. Most stronger colonies will empty the feeder within a few days.

How to feed bees at home

If you’re not a beekeeper and like feeding bees in early spring, use a 1:1 sugar syrup mix of water and sugar. Offer roughly one quart (1L) of the liquid solution and replace it every few days until nectar-filled flowers begin blooming.

Should I feed honey bees?

Beekeepers can save their bees from starvation by moving them to an area with a higher supply of nectar-yielding flowers.

There are three common reasons to feed honey bees:

  1. A newly installed package of bees will benefit from feeding until they start filling their comb with pollen and nectar.
  2. During periods when floral sources are in short supply, usually in early spring.
  3. When the hive has little or no resources stored in the fall, and it needs some help increasing food supplies.

Is it okay to feed my bees artificial sweeteners?

No, feeding your bees artificial sweeteners or anything besides granulated white sugar isn’t recommended. Bees have adapted to feed on the sugars found in nectar, and artificial sweeteners or different types of sugar may not provide the nutrients they need. Also, some artificial sweeteners may be harmful to bees.

Quick tips for feeding bees

Bees can become lazy, so don’t keep feeding them just because they’re taking it. If foragers return to the hive with full pouches, stop feeding them.

Remove honey supers before feeding, as sugar syrup affects the honey’s flavor and texture.

If possible, avoid feeding in late fall, as it’s counterproductive to the bee’s goal of building enough honey supply for winter.

Open vs. closed feeding

Open feeding involves providing bees with a food source out in the open. The food, often sugar syrup, is served in a feeding vessel like a bucket, shallow container, or birdbath.

  • Pros: Quick and easy way to feed bees. It may also help you attract a bee swarm.
  • Cons: Incites robbing and may feed pests or other people’s bees.

Closed feeding is where the bee colony is fed inside their hive using an in-hive, entrance, or hive-top feeder.

  • Pros: Allows individual hive feeding based on their needs. Less robbing of food from feral bees or pests. Easier to assess how much your bees are consuming.
  • Cons: More time-consuming, having to feed each hive individually. Extra cost if purchasing a separate feeder for each colony.
A squirrel feeding on sugar syrup next to a honey bee.
Open feeding can introduce disease and pests to the colony.

Summing up

When nectar-producing flowers are in short supply, bees do it tough. A prolonged food shortage results in starvation, and the colony will soon die without adequate nutrition.

As humans expand into the bee’s natural habitat, food supply issues are becoming more prevalent. The best way to help counter this problem is by growing a variety of bee-friendly flowers.

If your bee colony is hungry, you can feed them with granulated sugar, a 1:1 solution of sugar and water, or a pollen substitute. Honey is also a good option, but it needs to be from the same hive. Honey from another beekeeper or store-bought products is unsuitable as it may introduce disease into the colony.

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