So let’s say that you’re now convinced that you do need to feed your honey bees. You go buy some sugar, mix it with some water, and you want to feed it to your bees. But how do you get it to them? That’s actually a slightly more complex question than you might think. Let’s take a look at some of your options (listed in no particular order) for delivering liquid syrup to your bees along with the pros and cons of each. NOTE: The more stars given in a category, the better that feeder is in that category.
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1) Bag Feeder
Method: Take a gallon ziploc bag, fill it with sugar and water (at ratios to make your desired consistency of syrup), zip closed, shake to mix. Place the bag of syrup on top of the top-bars of the top box on your hive, use a needle to make holes or a razor blade to make 1-2 inch slits on the top of the bag. The syrup will stay in the bag, but is accessible for the bees to drink from. Put a 2 or 3 inch spacer on top of the hive to make room for the bag.
Ease of use: Bag feeders are very light-weight and easy to setup and use… if you’re feeding lots of hives, mix syrup on-site w/ a hose if possible to save on lugging full bags around. Cleanup is fairly easy too… just throw it away when you’re done. Not that great if you have much concern for the environment though.
Robbing: Robbing is pretty much a non-issue with bag feeders. They’re internal to the hive and generally do not cause or initiate robbing.
Drowning: It’s fairly rare for bees to drown from a bag feeder simply because there are no open pools of syrup for them to drown in.
Hive Inspections: You pretty much can’t do inspections while you’re feeding with a bag feeder. You have to wait until the bag is empty (or mostly empty), then take if off to do your inspection.
Capacity: If you put much more than 3 qts. of liquid syrup into a bag feeder, you’ll start having leakage problems.
Cost: Gallon ziploc bags are cheap, but not permenant… so you’re always buying more as you go through them. Using them also requires you to have a spacer or an empty super on top of the hive.
NOTE: In early spring, bag feeders require the bees to “break cluster” in order to climb up on top of the bag to get syrup.
2) Hive-top Mason Jars
Method: Fill a mason jar (any size you want) with sugar & water and mix to create syrup. Use a hammer & a small nail to poke aprox 10-15 holes in the top of the lid. Invert the jar over the hive so that the bees can access the holes in the lid. Cover with an empty super so that robbers cannot access and so that the sun does not shine directly on the jars. Syrup is “licked” out by the bees over time… it does not continually drip out of the holes because of a vacuum is created above the syrup in the inverted jar.
Ease of use: Mason jars can be a bit awkward & clunky to tote around… I’d recommend carrying them in a 5 gallon bucket if you’re going to be moving more than 2 or 3 at a time. But they are easy enough to setup and use once on-site. Be sure you hide them from direct sunlight or they’ll get hot and squirt syrup out.
Robbing: Robbing is pretty much a non-issue with inverted mason jars. They’re internal to the hive and generally do not cause or initiate robbing.
Drowning: It’s pretty much impossible for bees to drown from an inverted mason jar feeder simply because there are no open pools of syrup for them to drown in.
Hive Inspections: In order to do inspections you must remove the mason jars from the top of the hive. This is a fairly small inconvenience but still of note.
Capacity: Quart jars are the most common size jar for feeding. For small amounts of feed this is perfect (i.e. when feeding nucs), but when you’re wanting to deliver several gallons of syrup in a short amount of time, quart mason jars just a little more trouble than they’re worth.
Cost: Mason jars aren’t terribly expensive, and you can frequently find used jars for sale on craigslist… but they’re still a notable up-front cost. Using them also generally requires you to have an empty super on top of the hive.
NOTE: Mason jars can be set directly on top of the top-bars of the frames… therefore the syrup can be in direct contact with the cluster. In early spring this can be a huge advantage.
3) Boardman Entrance Feeder
Method: Fill a mason jar (any size you want) with sugar & water and mix to create syrup. Use a hammer & a small nail to poke aprox 10-15 holes in the top of the lid. Place the filled jar into the boardman entrance feeder, and slide the feeder into the entrance of the hive. This also works on the inversion-vacuum principle and does not allow syrup to continually drip out.
Ease of use: Again, mason jars can be a bit awkward & clunky to tote around… I’d recommend carrying them in a 5 gallon bucket if you’re going to be moving more than 2 or 3 at a time. But they are easy enough to setup and use once on-site.
Robbing: Robbing is one of the worst problems with boardman entrance feeders because they’re located right at the entrance of the hive – a place robbers already frequent. Boardman entrance feeders can initiate larger-scale robbing, not only of the hive you’re trying to feed but of other hives in your apiary (once bees get going, it can be hard to get them to stop).
Drowning: It’s pretty much impossible for bees to drown from a boardman entrance feeder simply because there are no open pools of syrup for them to drown in.
Hive Inspections: Boardman entrance feeders are a non-issue when it comes to inspections because they’re all the way on the bottom. However, if you’re going to be taking the bottom box off you’ll need to make sure to take the feeder off first… or it will likely fall.
Capacity: You’re very limited in terms of capacity with a boardman entrance feeder. You’re pretty much stuck with quart jars or smaller… one at a time unless you buy multiple boardman attachments so you can feed multiple jars simultaneously.
Cost: Mason jars aren’t terribly expensive, and you can frequently find used jars for sale on craigslist… but they’re still a notable up-front cost. Also, you’re going to have to purchase the boardman feeder attachment for every jar you want to feed, but they’re not too expensive either.
NOTE: Boardman entrance feeders are not useful for early spring feeding as bees have to break cluster to run down to the entrance to get syrup.
4) Division-board Feeder
Method: Division-board feeders take the place of frames inside your hive. Take 1 or 2 frames (depending on the width of your feeder) out of your hive and set to the side. Place the feeder in the hive in the empty space. Mix up syrup in another container (make sure it has a spout or something to pour with) and pour into the division-board feeder. Close up the hive and do something with the extra frames.
Ease of use: Division-board feeders aren’t terrible to get setup initially or maintain. They do take up frame space, and this must be considered when calculating the size of the hive. Cleanup and movement of the feeder between hives is quite disruptive to the colony since it always involves removing or adding frames to a colony. Refilling also requires opening up the hive.
Robbing: Robbing is a virtual non-issue with division-board feeders as they are internal to the hive and no syrup is ever required to leave the front door.
Drowning: Drowning has historically been a problem with division board feeders because of the open pools of syrup they hold. Many designs now employ ladders or floats to help with this, but drowning can still occur.
Hive Inspections: Division-board feeders are not in the way too much when you’re doing inspections, but because most are made of plastic you do have to be careful not to damage them while prying propolized frames and feeders apart or moving boxes around.
Capacity: Most division-board feeders hold between 1 and 2.5 gallons. They can give some fairly decent capacity if you need to deliver a lot of syrup in a short period of time.
Cost: Division-board feeders are mid-range in terms of cost (usually between $8-$15 plus tax & shipping), but when you consider capacity they do end up being cheaper than some other options.
5) Hive-top Feeder
Method: There are lots of different styles of hive-top feeders, but they all have in common that they hold a reservoir of syrup that rests on top of the top box, and they cover the entire top of the hive. You set the feeder on top of the hive, pour syrup into the reservoir, and the bees come up via some apparatus to drink it.
Ease of use: Hive-top feeders aren’t terrible to get setup initially or maintain. Refilling is not disruptive to the bees at all, and can be done without opening up the hive. The feeder will get propolized down to the hive, so be prepared to do some prying to get it off.
Robbing: Robbing is a virtual non-issue with hive-top feeders as they are internal to the hive and no syrup is ever required to leave the front door.
Drowning: Because most all hive-top feeders are designed differently drowning rates can vary greatly. Some hive top feeders have eliminated almost all drowning issues whereas others still have problems.
Hive Inspections: Hive-top feeders are about the worst in this category simply because they’re right on top of the hive, which is exactly where you need to get to in order to do your inspections. Some hive-top feeders can be quite difficult to work with when they’re still holding syrup and they’re propolized to the top-bars.
Capacity: Most hive-top feeders hold between 2 and 5 gallons and usually provide easy simultaneous access for a large number of bees. They almost always give very decent capacity if you need to deliver a lot of syrup in a short period of time.
Cost: Hive-top feeders are pretty costly compared to most feeders (anywhere from $15-$30 plus tax & shipping)… you’re really paying for capacity + speed of feeding.
NOTE: Please note also that hive-top feeders tend to squish a variable number of bees when you’re doing inspections and replacing the feeder (some feeders are worse than others). Also, they’re not a good early-spring feeding option as bees will have to break cluster to crawl up and get the syrup.
6) Bucket Feeder
Method: Fill an empty bucket with sugar and water to make syrup. Use the smallest drill bit you can find to drill 20-30 small holes in the lid of the bucket near the center. Put the lid on the bucket and invert it over the top of the hive – directly on the frame top bars or over the top of the inner cover (both work just fine). Cover with an extra super or hive body. The syrup does not leak out because of the same vacuum principle that is employed with the inverted mason jar feeders.
Ease of use: Bucket feeders are about as easy as it comes. Simple to work with, carry / transport, fill, and clean. They do require an extra super or two to cover them up though.
Robbing: Robbing is a virtual non-issue with bucket feeders as they are internal to the hive and no syrup is ever required to leave the front door.
Drowning: Because there are no open pools of syrup, drowning is a non-issue with bucket feeders.
Hive Inspections: Bucket feeders are a small inconvenience when doing inspections as they must be removed from on-top of the hive, but this is almost always a very minor task.
Capacity: Bucket feeders can hold 2-5 gallons depending on how big of a bucket you decide to employ. They provide easy simultaneous access for a medium number of bees. They are one of the go-to feeders if you need to feed a lot of syrup in a short period of time.
Cost: There are commercial 1, 2, and 3 gallon bucket feeders available that usually run around $5-$7, but my walmart sells used 2 and 3 gallon icing buckets at the bakery counter for $1 so I always go that route.
NOTE: Because bucket feeders can be set directly on the frame top bars, it can put syrup in direct contact with the cluster in early spring for stimulative feeding.
7) Open Feeding
Method: Fill one or more very large containers (5 gallon buckets, a feed trough, livestock watering tub, a children’s swimming pool, a large hole in the ground lined with a tarp) with syrup, then ensure that drowning will not be a problem. With large pools this is typically done with a layer of straw, hay, or styrofoam peanuts on top of the syrup.
Ease of use: One of the huge advantages to open feeding is that it’s really easy. You’re not messing with each hive individually… you can feed everyone at once.
Robbing: Open feeding both initiates and perpetuates robbing behavior in bees. This is a huge draw-back to open feeding.
Drowning: This varies based on what method of open feeding you’re employing, but in-general anything with an open pool of syrup is going to cause a good bit of drowning no matter how well you cover it.
Hive Inspections: There is nothing at all to remove or replace for an inspection when using open feeding. The structure of the hive’s woodenware is completely unaffected.
Capacity: How big of a container do you want to use? You’ll likely be limited by the amount of syrup you want to make / buy before you run out of capacity.
Cost: Per hive, you usually can’t beat open feeding. A $15 kid’s swimming pool is a cheap way to feed 100 hives.
NOTE: Most hobby or small-scale commercial beekeepers simply don’t run the numbers of hives that would demand open feeding. Also… note that you end up feeding more than just your bees with open feeding – wasps, yellow-jackets, bumble bees, and all kinds of other insects love to eat your syrup too.