Why Bees Require Supplemental Feeding

Got questions about supplemental honeybee feeding? We've got the answers.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Kristina Urquhart

When I first started keeping bees, the instruction to supplement your colonies with a homemade sugar syrup seemed standard practice. Despite my initial reaction that it simply wasn’t natural (and I wanted to be as “natural” as possible), there are many good reasons to feed your bees, not the least of which was this: You put your bees in a box, you keep them there, you tend to them in that box, and you harvest their honey—they are your responsibility.

A Case For Supplemental Feeding

The natural beekeeper in me got quiet … quick. While I wanted to think that my honeybees could forage for all the nectar they would ever need (still supplying my family with a honey surplus, of course), and be healthy, fight pests and disease, and thrive year after year, the truth of the matter is that we are tending to a domesticated species. These are not feral bees—Apis melifera is not even native to North America. Not only do we tend to them in artificial conditions, we ask them to live in a non-native land! Especially if we manipulate that hive with a honey extraction, it’s absolutely our responsibility to offer it a leg up when they need it. And sometimes, that looks like supplemental feeding.

Syrup In Spring & Fall

Good beekeepers won’t feed willy nilly. If you do, you waste a lot of time and resources at best. At worst, you could unintentionally spark a robbing frenzy that puts your hives at risk.

Many beekeepers feed their hives because the colony’s stores are low. For this reason, feeding often happens in the fall and in the spring. Fall feedings are for hives that are a bit light on stores going into winter and need a leg up. Spring feedings are for hives who have mostly survived the winter, but are falling short before the spring flowers have begun to produce nectar. Spring feedings also get the queen laying again; the feeding of syrup simulates a flow, and she can rather quickly increase the numbers in the colony, preparing for a blast-off when the honey flow is in full effect. It’s important to keep this in mind when you start feeding, and not feed too quickly if winter in your region isn’t truly over.

Because seasonal feedings serve different purposes, the ratio of sugar to water in the syrup will differ slightly, too. In fall feedings, you’re helping the bees convert syrup to stored nutrition, so it may contain less water for easier storage Most beekeepers use a two parts sugar to one part water ratio for fall feedings. For stimulating growth and for the lighter spring feedings, it’s common to mix one part sugar to two parts water. However, neither suggestion is by any means a hard and fast rule, and honeybees have a serious sweet tooth—they will happily gobble up any sugar syrup mixture you offer them. When it doubt, concoct 1:1 ratio and you’ll be just fine.

How To Feed Your Bees

Now we get to the fun part—and the bees would agree! There are many types of bee feeders available commercially, and which is the best is simply a matter of what works best for you. Here are a few tried-and-true favorites:

Subscribe now

Hive Top Feeder

This feeder is available in the standard eight- or 10-frame sizes to fit a Langstroth hive. It has two long and narrow compartments that run the length of the feeder, with plastic floats in each side for the bees to grab onto while they slurp up the syrup. The center is open for the bees to come and go from within the hive. The benefit of this feeder is that it is contained in the hive, which reduces robbing from outsiders. It holds a fair bit of syrup, too. The drawback is that you have to open the hive each time you need to check the syrup levels or refill.

Division Board Feeder

This apparatus is the same size and dimension as a Langstroth frame and fits within the body of the hive. It’s open at the top to allow easy access to the syrup. The pros and cons to this feeder are the same as the hive top with a few additions; with the division board, you lose a space of frame, and you run the risk of a particularly wax-happy hive building burr comb all over it. It is, however, a feeding apparatus that is situated closer to the broodnest, which is easier access in cold weather. It also provides food closer to where the bees will ultimately store it.

Entrance Feeder (aka Boardman)

This feeder holds syrup in an inverted mason jar or plastic container, which sits rested on a wooden platform that slides into the entrance of the hive, where it allows access to the syrup. The drawbacks to this feeding system are that it allows—and even encourages—robbing, leading to sparring between guard bees and robbers, and a potential for loss of life of many bees, not to mention stress to the hive. While it’s easy to see when stores get low and easy to replace without opening the hive, I prefer to use these feeders as a quick way to offer a colony some fresh water.

Plastic Baggie Method

You’re not likely to see this trick in beekeeping books, so brace yourself for this trade secret. My local beekeeping chapter taught me this amazing technique: fill a zipper-top bag three-quarters full with syrup, lay on the top-most super of frames, and with a box cutter, cut two to three slits across the flat bag. The syrup holds the tension so it doesn’t spill everywhere, and the bees easily hop up to slurp up the syrup. Unlike the other methods, there is practically zero loss of life from drowning with the baggie method. The only drawback that concerns me is that it’s quite wasteful for a non-renewable resource, such as one-time-use plastic.

What To Feed Your Bees

Organic, white table sugar is an excellent source of carbohydrates and quick fuel for your bees, especially if it means the difference between life and death for a colony. It’s an invaluable resource and asset that we are lucky to source easily, but truly natural beekeepers recognize that sugar syrup is ultimately devoid of the nutrients that honeybees need to be truly healthy. The only really sustainable source of food for honeybees comes from the honey they make from natural plant nectars, which each have their own nutritional make up. Because we know this, beekeepers are encouraged to save a portion of their harvested honey to feed back to the bees should the need arise; you can offer it to them in one of the methods above, or simply save several capped frames of honey in your deep freezer for a “just in case” scenario. Your honeybees will be stronger and healthier for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *