Feeding Honey Bees for Beginners

My first year of beekeeping I was surprised to discover how often I had to feed my new pets.  I shouldn’t have been surprised – like all animals honey bees have to eat.

Unfortunately I had done a lot of reading on the Internet and heard that feeding your bees is bad – unnatural, unhealthy, makes them lazy, and swarmy, can cause them to produce brood at the wrong times, etc, etc…  Anyway if you don’t take too much honey from them then they won’t need to be fed.

Well, that last statement may be truish – in a good year, with an established hive.  But not in most years in Mid TN, and certainly not for first year hives that are not yet established.

But to quote Randy Oliver – who is a very reputable researcher and writer for American Bee Journal and  www.Scientificbeekeeping.com If you want to maintain colonies that are as big (and strong) as Sumo wrestlers, they must continually eat like Sumo wrestlers—either from natural forage, or by supplementation. You can’t wait until the last minute to beef up a contender! “  And I agree with him.

In My Opinion making sure that your bees – or your dog, or your bird, or your kids – have good nutrition year around is fundamental to keeping them healthy and productive.

Yes – natural pollen and honey may be more ideal bee food than sugar and pollen sub, but tell me this would you let your kids starve because fresh produce is out of season and canned beans aren’t ideal?  How about your dog? Not much dog chow available in nature is there?

So assuming that we agree that you will sometimes need to feed your bees, we are mostly talking about plain old table sugar in one form or another.  Stock up on it, and watch for sales – 4-5 pound bags are often cheap, and simpler than bulk sugar until you have several hives.  But always keep some on hand just in case.

Most of the time you will be mixing sugar and water to make either 1-1 or 2-1 syrup.  Some people use something along the line of 1 1/2 – 1 syrup year round.  Those ratios are by weight, and  just so it would be simple for us they made it so that a pint of water weighs just about one pound.  So if you want to make some 2-1 syrup just mix a 4 pound bag of sugar and 2 pints of very hot water in a gallon jug.  For 1-1 it would be 4 pints of hot water and a 4 pound bag of sugar.  Very simple.  It’s easy to do a little math to scale up to however large a batch you need.

As a general rule you will use 1-1 (light) syrup as needed during most of the beekeeping season because it works well to help the bees produce brood and wax.   Starting sometime in September you will want to change to 2-1 (heavy) syrup because you want the bees to store it away for winter, and heavy syrup contains less water so it is easier for the bees to process before winter.  Starting in December more or less you may want to feed dry sugar or some kind of dry sugar candy as winter feed.

How do you know When to Feed?

Very Simple – Do Your Inspections.  Any hive that does not contain at least 15 pounds of honey and open nectar combined – with good amounts of both should be fed.  Starting in about mid September that number changes to 50 pounds of cured “honey” – and heavy syrup.  Once those goals are met you can stop feeding – until they use some of it up and need to be fed again.  Which you will know because you are going to Do your Inspections.

While you are doing your inspections you need to watch out for backfilling of the brood nest – If you see nectar being stored in the brood nest then stop feeding, and remain watchful.  Allowing backfilling to continue – either because you are feeding, or because of a natural nectar flow – will result in swarming if it goes on for just a few days.   In addition to not feeding you can also give them more empty drawn comb to work with or open the brood nest by inserting a foundationless frame – they will build comb in it and the queen will lay eggs in the new comb.  Both of those activities help to delay swarming.

Fortunately there is usually abundant pollen available in our area almost any time that the bees can forage – so you don’t really need to worry about using pollen substitutes during your first year.  But 1 warning just  in case you decide to experiment – during warm weather pollen sub – especially  in the form of “patties” – usually will be infested with hive beetle larva very quickly.

What kind of feeder to Use?

  • Inverted quart jars or in the fall when I use inverted 2 gallon pails so that I can get the job done much quicker.  Cheap and don’t kill bees. They also put the feed right on top of the  bees where they can get it even in cool weather.  You can either put them on top of the hive if it has a hole in the cover – how I do it – over the hole in the inner cover enclosed in an empty super, or directly on the top bars.  If you use jars don’t let sun shine on them – it will heat the syrup and make it expand out into the hive – cover it with an empty super, coffee can, aluminum foil – anything to keep the direct sun off.
  • Miller feeders are popular – easy to fill and they hold a lot of feed. Expensive and usually drown some bees.  If you leave them on during the season they may be filled with comb.
  • Boardman feeders – not recommended because they can set off robbing.
  • Frame feeders – Require opening the hive to feed, drown some bees – but they put the feed where they can get to it even in cool weather.
  • Ziplock baggies – cheap one use solution – don’t kill bees if done correctly. They don’t hold very much feed, and require opening the hive to change – you can’t refill them.

Suggested Reading:

Randy Oliver on Fat Bees

Mountain camp style feeding – dry sugar

Notes and Tips:

Heavy syrup almost will not freeze – so it is safe to store in the garage over winter – the same is true of honey.

1-1 syrup will ferment or grow funky mold in it very quickly during hot weather if it is not used up.  Adding honey-bee-healthy (or equivalent) or bleach will prevent it.

Never never feed your bees honey that did not come from your own apiary – it is entirely possible that if you do they will contract American Foul Brood – the Black Plague of honey bee diseases.

Also don’t feed your bees brown sugar, raw sugar, molasses, or maple syrup, chocolate, or any other – “it seemed like a good idea at the time” sweet dark substance.

You can however make summer syrup out peppermint candy and other – “that’s nothing but sugar” kind of hard candies, also things like jams and jellies.  These are all mostly sugar or corn syrup – which are OK.

HFCF – high fructose corn syrup – Nutritionally it is fine for bees according to good research.  Hard to get in small quantities anyway.