What to Feed Your Bees

Many new backyard beekeepers start their hives with the intention of never feeding them any extra sugar, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or pollen substitute, instead planning on the all natural route of leaving them to forage for their own nutritional needs. This is a popular philosophy in hobby beekeeping, but there are drawbacks to taking a hardline position on feeding. Sometimes a hive faces starvation due to factors other than the beekeeper harvesting too much honey. Maybe the weather has been bad and they can’t fly to forage. Perhaps they started raising spring bees just a little too soon and now they are facing an empty pantry in spring. Package bees have no stores to rely on and a few rainy, cool days without food can flush your investment down the drain. If you find yourself facing a situation like this without any prior knowledge of how to feed bees you may end up feeding incorrectly and doing more harm than good. So no matter your beekeeping philosophy, being at least somewhat familiar with common feeding methods will help make you a better beekeeper.

Why Feed?

As an owner of livestock, it is your responsibility to provide them with adequate shelter, food, and water. Just as it would be cruel to allow cattle to starve in a blizzard rather than providing them with hay, it is cruel to no provide minimum sustenance to your bees during times they have no stores and cannot forage for themselves. Early spring is a prime time for colonies to starve. They are increasing their consumption of carbohydrates and protein due to raising new brood, and weather that is too cold or too wet may prevent them from gathering more. The time to prevent spring starvation is in the fall, by leaving adequate honey stores on the hives at the time of harvest. Any hives that were unable to make winter weight (the exact amount your hives will need depends on your local climate) should be given supplemental sugar syrup in September or October and/or dry sugar after winter has set in.

Feeding Sugar Syrup

Bees feed on three types of sugar: glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Glucose is the main energy for living cells, and is a simple (monosaccharide) sugar. Fructose is another simple sugar, often found in fruit. It is the sweetest simple sugar. Sucrose, or white table sugar, is a disaccharide sugar made of glucose and fructose linked together.

Sucrose is the most readily available form of sugar and what most beekeepers feed their bees. Use only white granulated sugar, because brown sugar, organic raw sugar, powdered sugar, molasses, maple syrup, sorghum, etc. all contain solids that the bees cannot digest. Feeding alternative sugars may lead to dysentery, or diarrhea, over winter. Some beekeepers choose to use cane sugar only, as beet sugar is often obtained from GMO beets. That choice is up to you. I am unaware of any research showing a difference in the bees’ responses to cane vs. beet sugar.  Making sugar syrup yourself is a simple matter of determining what concentration of syrup you need, then following the basic recipe. A pint is a pound the world around is a saying to help you remember that a pint of sugar weighs the same as a pint of water. Remembering this will keep you from getting hung up on weight vs volume. 4 pounds of sugar weighs the same as 4 pints of water.

Sugar Syrup Recipes

1:1 is one part sugar dissolved into one part water. Used for spring feeding and can be sprayed on packages and swarms to keep them from taking to the air. At this concentration the temperature of the water shouldn’t matter. Just mix and stir. Example: Two 4lb bags of sugar dissolved into one gallon of water.

2:1 is two parts sugar dissolved into one part water. Used for adding weight to hives in the fall and for mixing with certain hive medications. Each gallon of 2:1 fed should increase the hive weight by about 7 pounds. To get this ratio to dissolve you may need to either heat your water or increase the stirring time. Example: Four 4lb bags of sugar dissolved into one gallon of water.

5:3 is five parts sugar dissolved into 3 parts water. This ratio dissolves more readily than 2:1 and some beekeepers use this in place of the heavier syrup. Example: 10lbs of sugar dissolved into 3 quarts of water

1:2 is one part sugar to two parts water. If this concentration is fed slowly in the spring it mimics a nectar flow and can encourage the bees to begin brooding earlier than normal. Example: One 4lb bag of sugar to one gallon of water

Beekeepers add all types of additives to their syrup feed, such as apple cider vinegar, bleach, cream of tartar, essential oils, and so on. Be careful with additives, and only use those that have been tried by successful beekeepers. My personal choice is to not use any additives to regular feedings, since I have not seen any research showing that the routine use of additives is both safe and useful.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

In the 1970’s a process was developed to use bacterial enzymes to break down cornstarch into its smaller components of glucose and fructose. HFCS comes in 42% and 55% concentrations, with the majority of beekeepers using the 55%. The advantages of  HFCS are that it requires no mixing before feeding and is cheaper per pound than white sugar. Disadvantages include being mostly sold in bulk drums and tanks, does not stimulate the bees to expand their population, is derived from GMO corn, and the possible development of hydroxymethylfurfural. This chemical, abbreviated HMF, is a substance known to be toxic to honeybees that develops in HFCS that has been exposed to elevated temperatures. If you purchase HFCS for feeding, be sure to store it in a cool area or use it as you purchase it. Never feed discolored HFCS to your bees.

Dry Feed

In areas with prolonged, harsh winters, beekeepers may decide to add some extra insurance against starvation to their hives. If you are concerned that a hive is too light, but the weather is already below 50 degrees, this is the only way to feed the bees. It is too cold for them to gather, store, and dry the sugar syrup. Dry feeding sugar directly on the top of the frames gives the bees access to the feed. They use the normal moisture from hive respiration to melt and use the sugar as needed. Dry sugar can be added to the hive as candy, a brick, or loose sugar.

Bee candy is made with sugar and water. This is Dick Bonney’s recipe from Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees. Bring 2qts of water to boil, turn off heat, and pour in 5lbs of sugar. Stir until dissolved. Turn on the heat and boil until the mixture reaches the hard candy state at 260-270 degrees F. This takes 30-40 minutes and you will need a candy thermometer. After it has reached the hard ball stage, pour the mixture onto waxed paper on a flat hard surface. Raise the edges of the wax paper slightly to prevent it from running off. When the candy is set, it will be hard and brittle. Feed by laying pieces on top of the hive frames.

Sugar bricks are easier to make than candy and serve the same purpose. In a large container, mix sugar with small amounts of water until it has the consistency of wet sand. I use a small Rubbermaid container, 10lbs of sugar, and add water 1/4 cup at a time. You never want it to become syrup. When all the sugar is damp, pack it into a container and leave it to dry. Your container should make a brick of a size that will fit in your hive. I use an empty hive body instead of a small shim or inner cover, so I have plenty of room. My favorite containers so far have been empty 1 gallon ice cream buckets, although I ran across the idea to use brown paper lunch bags also. That will be my next experiment 😉 Be sure to pack it in tight, and once it is dry it should stay together as a hard brick. Any brick pieces leftover in the spring can be removed and saved until the next season.

The Mountain Camp method is the easiest of all. Place a damp paper towel on the tops of the frames, dump in four pounds of dry sugar, and dampen the edges with a spray bottle of water. This used to be my go to winter feeding method, but this year I got caught by a warm spell after adding the sugar. The bees view the MC sugar as trash and haul it out and dump it if they can fly.

Honey

Frames of your own honey can be rearranged between the hives in your apiary to help the weaker hives get through the winter. Never feed honey from the store or other unknown source because it can be a source of pathogens. Do not open feed honey or you’ll run the risk of setting off robbing in your yard. A honey candy can be made by mixing honey with Bakers’ sugar and kneading it into a paste. Either add to the hive right away or freeze until needed.

Protein

In addition to the carbohydrates bees get from nectar, honey, and sugar, they also need protein. A hive with brood to feed needs a steady supply of pollen, either from natural sources or added to the hive by the beekeeper. Adding a protein source to the hive prior to natural pollen becoming available can encourage the bees to brood up early in the spring. Generally this is for either getting the hive ready for pollination jobs or to have the largest hives possible for spring splits.

A pollen supplement is a feed that contains actual pollen. You can purchase pollen, or place pollen traps on your own hives to collect your own. If you collect pollen it will need to be stored properly or it will spoil. Pollen can be dehydrated, frozen, or layered with dry sugar and stored in a cool place. To feed pollen you can either sprinkle it directly on the top frames or open feed in a container protected from rain.

A pollen substitute is a feed that contains no pollen, but has protein sources to help support brood rearing. There are multiple pollen substitute patty recipes on the internet, as well as commercially prepared formulations. Randy Oliver at Scientificbeekeeping.com has done extensive work with protein feeding and you can read about his experiments here. In 2015 I used Kelley’s Bee Pro Patties, and had mixed results. Some hives ate them right up and other hives ignored them. For 2016 I will be trying Mann Lake’s Ultra Bee, which I will buy dry and mix with 2:1 syrup to reach patty consistency. Once you begin to feed protein, you must keep feeding at a minimum of 10 day intervals until sufficient natural pollen is coming in or you run the risk of brood starvation. Also, unused patties in hives can become infested with the small hive beetle larvae. Any infested patties should be removed immediately.

This lesson covered the what, when, and why of feeding bees. Check out the next lesson for the advantages and disadvantages of different feeding methods.