Should I Feed my Bees?

This is an incredibly common question for beekeepers, especially those just starting out.  The answer is, as with most things in beekeeping….it depends.  Some of the factors influencing the decision to feed your bees are:

  • Is this a new package?
  • Is this a new NUC?
  • Do your bees have enough stores?
  • Are you in a flow or dearth?
  • Do you have honey supers on?

Before anything else, you must understand a bit about bees.  Honeybees are herbivores.  They get all of their carbohydrates from nectar, and all of their protein, fat, vitamins, and nutrients from pollen.  Nectar gives them the energy they need to, well…be busy bees.   Protein is critical for raising all that those babies, so bees certainly need a good supply of forage.  In the beekeeper parlance, nectar and pollen are called “forage.” Some areas have plenty of forage all year, so the bees live well and produce large yields of honey.  Other areas, such as the Mid Atlantic where we live, forage is often limited to pollen with only about 4 months of solid nectar flow.  So, depending on where you live, your feeding requirements will vary.

While there are plenty of “family recipes” for sugar syrup, for simplicity I am only using 1:1 and 2:1 ratios for this article.  1:1 is a simple ratio of 1 part sugar to 1 part water.  2:1 is a ratio of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water.  1:1 is very similar to natural nectar and is used in spring and summer feeding.  2:1 is much heavier and is used in fall feeding.  Pollen substitute is usually a plant-based powder with 40-60 percent crude protein with a variety of supplements added.  Pollen patties are often a mixture of pollen substitute mixed with sugar syrup to form a thick paste-like patty.

Feeding New Honeybee Packages

Packages of bees installed on foundation with no drawn comb will need to be fed heavily with 1:1. A steady supply of syrup throughout the first year of colony build up is just a good idea.  Honeybees need honeycomb to survive.  They do everything on comb…it is the base of their entire existence, and honeybees will die without honeycomb.  Queens lay their eggs in comb, brood is raised in comb, pollen and nectar are stored away in comb, and of course, honey is created in honeycomb.  Bees need a lot of energy to build that honeycomb.  New packages also need a steady supply of protein, usually in the form of a patty.  Keep in mind that new packages have nothing stored up, so as they build comb, they will be both raising brood and storing away resources for all that brood rearing.

Feeding New Honeybee Nucleus Colonies

Nucleus colonies or “nucs” are a great way to get started in beekeeping.  So many variables are immediately removed by installing a fully functioning – albeit small – colony with a laying queen and bees of all ages.  Besides that, most nucs will come with 5 drawn frames, or frames that the bees have already drawn out honeycomb from the foundation.  The drawn frames will almost certainly have some stores in the form of pollen, nectar, and/or honey, and most likely all three.  So, should you even bother feeding?  The short answer is yes.  The goal for any first-year beekeeper is to draw comb, period.  Whether using 8 or 10 frame equipment, you still need to fill the rest of your frames with honeycomb.  Everything you do for a new package is required for a nuc as well; you just get a head start with 5 frames of drawn comb.

Feeding to Boost Brood Production

Bees have one purpose for existence….survive next winter.  As beekeepers, that makes our jobs much easier.  We only need to help them survive next winter.  Location plays a huge part in successful overwintering your bees.  Honeybees form clusters inside the beehive to survive the winter.  They shiver and keep the colony warm, and that takes a lot of energy in the form of stored honey.  By the time spring arrives, many colonies are very low on stores prior to the spring “flow.”  Beekeepers will often feed bees 1:1 syrup and pollen supplement to encourage queens to start laying eggs and building up brood production to take advantage of the coming flow.

In our area in the mid-Atlantic, winters are insane.  Temperatures usually range from sub-zero to mid 70s at any given time from November to March.  Honeybees respond to temperature rather than calendars so the warm winters trigger queens to start laying eggs and foragers to start foraging.  Brood rearing and foraging flights expend a tremendous amount of energy and will cause the colony to devour even more stores in the winter.  Paradoxical as it seems, bees would fair far better if it stayed cold all winter rather than the roller coaster winters around here.

Building Up Stores for Winter

If anyone has every listened to one of my classes on beekeeping, you have heard me say, “All beekeeping is local.”  Simply put, beekeepers in Southern California, New York, North Dakota, Texas, Florida, and Virginia will all have different methods to manage honeybee colonies.  Two key factors influence management techniques – climate and vegetation.  Climate, or long trends of weather behavior over time, should not be confused with weather, or the day-to-day changes in temperature and atmospheric conditions.  Honeybees need plenty of reserved stores (in the form of honey) to successfully survive the winter.  The amount of honey needed depends on your location.

Here in Northern Virginia, our “honey flow” lasts generally from April to July, give or take a couple of weeks on each end.   That means we only have about 4-5 months to build colonies up and store enough honey to overwinter.  Should the beekeeper pull honey after the spring flow, the colony may need to be fed heavily to restock the honey stores.  Typically, prepping winter stores consists of feeding 2:1 starting in the fall.

What is a Honey Flow or Dearth?

Beekeepers often speak of two seasons, the honey flow or “flow” and the dearth.  These will absolutely depend on your location and can be extremely localized.   The flow is the period of time when trees and flowers are actively producing nectar and the weather is suitable for the bees to forage.  The “dearth” the period when the flowers and trees are no longer producing nectar.

Keep in mind, that honeybees get all of their carbohydrates from nectar.   When the nectar is not flowing, beekeepers must feed them.  It’s absolutely fine to simply leave all the honey on the beehive and let the bees eat it.  After all, that is why they made it.  However, that liquid gold is a pretty sweet payment for all the work you put into keeping those girls happy!  I digress.  Anytime nectar is not available in nature (dearth) and the colony is low on stored honey, you must feed them.  Feeding is usually 1:1 syrup in the early spring and summer dearth, then switch to 2:1 syrup in the fall.

Feeding Bees in Winter

Colonies that lack sufficient stores of capped honey may need supplemental feed to survive the winter.   Like everything else, winter feeding will vary based on location.  In the mid-Atlantic region, where temperatures swing significantly, honeybee colonies need around 70 lbs of capped honey to be successful.  Even if you have that much honey, bees can still starve if the honey is not readily accessible above the cluster.  Bees tend to ascend straight up over winter, following the food.  Often, bees will starve with honey just a single frame away, because they did not move laterally.  To prevent starvation, beekeepers will often place supplemental food directly over the winter cluster.

Winter feed is often high carbohydrate fondant, also called a “candy board.”  Beekeepers can make this at home and place it directly onto the frames.  A feeding shim or spacer will be required to ensure the outer cover fits properly.  Beekeepers can also add dry sugar to a bit of newspaper on top of the frames.  Adding regular sugar is called the “mountain camp method.”  Beekeepers can also purchase ready-made winter feed and patties from beekeeping supply companies such as Mann Lake and Dadant.  These ready-made options are very handy and provide a convenient option for those not handy in the kitchen.

Things Not to Do

Feeding bees is important and, in this beekeeper’s opinion, necessary.  However there are a few things about feeding that beekeepers should never do:

  • Never feed bees with honey supers on. You simply do not want sugar syrup in your honey supers, and the bees will certainly put your syrup there.
  • Never feed raw sugar, brown sugar, or molasses. These products can cause dysentery in honeybees.
  • Never feed bees commercial or store bought honey. Honey from unknown sources can carry diseases and American Foul Brood spores.

Feeding Supplements for Bees

Feeding bees sugar syrup is certainly a personal choice and depends on your location and management style.  If you do feed your bees, there are a variety of supplements that you can add to your syrup.  These range from commercial products such as Honey-B-Healthy to essential oils such as spearmint or lemongrass oils.  Some beekeepers will add Apple Cider vinegar and even bleach to the syrup, which in small doses, prevents the syrup from crystalizing or spoiling.

This beekeeper likes using additives that contain Thymol, which is good for bee gut health, and additional amino acids.  A great all-in-one product for those not interested in buying lots of sugar and mixing syrup is available at The Bee Store.  Our proprietary blend of both 1:1 and 2:1 contain feeding supplements, additional amino acids, and a stabilizer.  It also smells awesome!

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