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"The feeding of bees resembles the noxious influences under which the children of the rich are reared."--L.L. Langstroth

You would think something this simple would not be controversial, but it is. On several fronts.

First, WHEN do you feed?

"Q. When is the best time to feed the bees?
"A. The best thing is never to feed them, but let them gather their own stores. But if the season is a failure, as it is some years in most places, then you must feed. The best time for that is just as soon as you know they will need feeding for winter; say in August or September. October does very well, however, and even if you haven't fed until December, better feed then than to let the bees starve."
--C.C. Miller, A Thousand Answers to Beekeeping Questions, 1917

In my opinion there are many reasons to avoid feeding if you can. It sets off robbing. It attracts pests (ants, wasps, yellow jackets etc.) It clogs the brood nest and sets off swarming. It drowns a lot of bees.

Some people feed a package constantly for the first year. In my experience this usually results in them swarming when they are not strong enough and often failing. Some feed spring, fall and dearth regardless of stores. Some don't believe in feeding at all. Some steal all the honey in the fall and try to feed them back up enough to winter.

Personally I don't feed if there is a nectar flow. Gathering nectar is what bees do. They should be encouraged to do it. I will feed in the spring if they are light, as they will not rear brood without sufficient stores to do it with. I will feed in the fall if they are light, but I always try to make sure I don't take too much honey and leave them light. Some years, though, the fall flow fails and they are on the verge of starvation if I don't feed. When queen rearing, during a dearth, I sometimes have to feed to get them to make cells and to get the queens to fly out and mate. So while I do try to avoid feeding, I end up doing it very often. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with feeding if you have a good reason for doing it, but my plan is to try to avoid it and leave the bees enough to live on.

Pollen is usually fed before the first available pollen in the spring. Here (Nehawka, Nebraska) that would be about mid February. I have not had luck getting bees to take it when real pollen is available. It's usually of the most value to me in a fall where the fall flow has failed and I need a batch of young bees to get through the winter. In the spring by the time they should be rearing brood the maples are blooming.

Stimulative feeding.

Many of the greats of beekeeping have decided this is not productive:

"The reader will by now have drawn the conclusion that stimulative feeding, apart from getting the foundations drawn out in the brood chamber, plays no part in our scheme of bee-keeping. This is in fact so." --Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, Brother Adam

"Very many, at the present time, seem to think that brood rearing can be made to forge ahead much faster by feeding the bees a teacupful of thin sweet every day than by any other method; but from many experiments along this line during the past thirty years I can only think this a mistaken idea, based on theory rather than on a practical solution of the matter by taking a certain number of colonies in the same apiary, feeding half of them while the other half are left "rich" in stores, as above, but without feeding and then comparing "notes" regarding each half, thus determining which is the better to go into the honey harvest...results show that the "millions of honey at our house" plan followed by what is to come hereafter, will outstrip any of the heretofore known stimulating plans by far in the race for bees in time for the harvest." --A Year's work in an Out Apiary, G.M. Doolittle.

"Probably the single most important step in management for achieving colony strength, and one most neglected by beekeepers, is to make sure the hives are heavy with stores in the fall, so that they emerge from overwintering already strong early in the spring" --The How-To-Do-It book of Beekeeping, Richard Taylor

"The feeding of bees for stimulating brood-rearing in early spring is now looked upon by many as of doubtful value. Especially is this true in the Northern States, where weeks of warm weather are often followed by 'Freeze up.' The average beekeeper in the average locality will find it more satisfactory to feed liberally in the fall-- enough, at least so that there shall be sufficient stores until harvest. If the hives are well protected, and the bees well supplied with an abundance of sealed stores, natural brood rearing will proceed with sufficient rapidity, early in the spring without any artificial stimulus. The only time that spring feeding is advisable is where there is a dearth of nectar after the early spring flow and before the coming of the main harvest." --W.Z. Hutchinson, Advanced Bee Culture

"While it is often advocated that stimulative feeding be resorted to early, in order to build the colonies up to a sufficient strength, the author inclines to the belief that colonies in two stories will build up just as rapidly if there is an abundance of sealed honey in the hive, as is possible with stimulative feeding. Sometimes it seems that uncapping a portion of the honey has a stimulating effect, but feeding in small quantities, for the purpose of stimulating the bees to greater activity, rarely seems necessary..."--Frank Pellett, Practical Queen Rearing
My experiences with stimulative feeding.

I've tried about every combination over the years and my conclusion is that weather has everything to do with the success or failure of any stimulative feeding attempt. So some years it seems to help some, some years it misleads them into rearing too much brood too early when a hard freeze could be disastrous or having too much moisture in the hive in that precarious time of late winter when a hard freeze could still happen. Plus the really impressive results you get are usually from feeding a hive that is light in stores. Leaving more stores still seems to be a more reliable method of getting a lot of early brood in my climate.

Here in the North it not only makes it difficult to even do, but makes the results vary from disastrous to remarkable. The problem is that beekeeping has enough variables and I'm not interested in introducing more.

I will skip the what to feed issues and distill them down to my experience as relates to stimulating brood production and ignore the issues of honey vs sugar etc. which have already been talked to death.

I have fed really thin (1:2) thin (1:1) moderate (3:2 or 5:3) and thick (2:1) syrup at every time of the year except a honey flow, but again to simplify the issue to stimulating brood rearing, let's stick with the spring.

I see no difference in brood stimulation between any of the ratios. The bees will suck it down if it's warm enough (and here it seldom is) and it will induce them sometimes to start brood rearing when the bee's common sense is that it is too early. So for simplifying even further, let's just talk about feeding or not feeding syrup.

Difficulty getting bees to take syrup early (and late) in Northern climates:

If you try to feed any kind of syrup to bees in my climate in the late winter or early spring, the results usually are that they will not take it. The reason is that the syrup is hardly ever above 50o F (10o C). At night it is somewhere between freezing and sub zero (0o C and -18o C). In the daytimes it's usually not above freezing on those rare occasions when it's actually 50o F (10o C)in the daytime, the syrup is still below 32o F (0o C) from the night before. So first of all, trying to feed syrup in the late winter and Early spring usually doesn't work at all, meaning they won't even take it.

Down sides to success:

Then, if you get lucky and get some warm spell somewhere in there that stays warm enough long enough for the syrup to get warm enough that the bees will take it, you manage to get them rearing a huge amount of brood, lets' say near the end of February or early March, and then you get a sudden sub zero freeze that lasts for a week and all of the hives that were so induced to raise brood, die trying to maintain that brood. They die because they won't leave it and they die because they can't keep it warm, but they try anyway. We could get a hard freeze (10o or below F -12o or below C) anywhere up to the end of April, and last year we did get one in mid April as did most of the country.

Our record low, here in the warmest part of Nebraska in February is -25o F (-32o C). In March it's -19o F (-28o C). In April it's 3o F (-16o C). In May it's 25o F (-4o C). Having freezing weather in May is normal here. I've seen snow storms on May 1st. So I seriously doubt, not only the efficacy of feeding syrup, but if you can get it to work, the wisdom of stimulating brood rearing ahead of what is normal for the bees anyway.

Variable outcomes:

This might be an entirely different outcome in one year than another year. Certainly if your gamble pays off and you get the bees to brood up in March and you manage to keep them from swarming in April or May (doubtful), don't get any hard freezes that kill some of the hives off, or they are built up so far by the time those freezes hit that they can manage, and you manage to keep that max population for the flow in mid June, maybe you'll get a bumper crop. On the other hand, you get them to brood up heavy in March, get a subzero freeze that lasts a week and most of them die, it's a very different outcome.

In a different climate than mine, this might be an entirely different undertaking. If you live where subzero is unheard of, and clusters don't get stuck on brood from cold and can't get to stores, then the results of stimulative feeding may be much more predictable and much more positive.

Dry Sugar:

In my experience it made a lot of difference. Most of the hives ate the sugar. Some ate most of the sugar. They did brood up while eating sugar and they could eat it even when it was cold. They don't go as crazy over it nor as crazy on brood rearing, but I see that as a good thing. A moderate build up from stores they can get at even in the cold is a much better survival bet than a huge build up at a time they could get caught in long hard freeze on syrup that they won't be able to get to if it's cold.

Type of feeder:

I will admit, that the type of feeder also plays into all of this. A top feeder in the early spring here is worthless. The syrup is hardly ever warm enough for the bees to take it. Baggie feeders, on the other hand on top of the cluster, they seem to be able to get at, as well as dry sugar. A frame feeder (as much as I don't like them) against the cluster is taken much better than the top feeder. (but not as well as the Baggie feeders). In my climate any feeder that is very far from the cluster will not get used until the weather is consistently in the 50's and by then the fruit trees and dandelions will be blooming so it will be irrelevant.

You might get some syrup down them in late March or early April with a Baggie feeder or a jar or pail directly over the cluster when everything else fails.

Second, WHAT do you feed?

I prefer to leave them honey. Some think you should only feed honey. From a perfectionist view, I like the idea of that. From a practical view, it's difficult for me. First, honey sets off robbing a lot worse than syrup. Second, honey spoils a lot more easily if I water it down, and I hate to see honey go to waste. Third, honey is very expensive (if you buy it or just don't sell it) and labor intensive to extract it. It seems wrong to me to go to the trouble of extracting it, only to feed it back. I'd rather leave enough honey on the hives and, in a pinch, steal some from a stronger hive for the weaker hives, rather than feeding. But if it comes down to needing to feed, I feed off, old, or crystallized honey if I have it, otherwise I feed sugar syrup.


The other issue of what, of course, is pollen and substitute. The bees are healthier on real pollen, but substitute is cheap. I usually don't feed any pollen or substitute, but if I do, I try to feed all real pollen. Sometimes I can't afford that and I settle for 50:50 pollen:substitute. On just substitute you get very short-lived bees and I fail to see any advantage then.

Third, How much do you feed?

It's best to check with local beekeepers on how much stores it takes to get through your winters. Here, with Italians, I'd shoot for a hive weight of 100 to 150 pounds. With Carniolans, it's more like 75 to 100 pounds. With the more frugal feral survivors it might be more like 50 to 75 pounds. It's always better to have too much than too little but it's not a question of "more is better".

It seems to be a common misconception that feeding syrup can't hurt and people often feed just to be feeding or because it's fall and it's "what you do in the fall". But syrup DOES hurt in several ways. It may be better than starvation, but if they don't need it, then it is far better to not feed sugar syrup.

Another issue, while on the subject of feeding with no real purpose in mind, is that people will feed incessantly in the fall until there is no where left for the bees to cluster and the humidity in the hive is high from all that syrup that needs to be dried. Then they don't understand why they lose hives in winter.

Bees need to cluster in empty comb where the bees can climb in the cells to compact the cluster. The cluster is often compared to a "ball of bees" but people forget that there is comb between those bees and to be a dense cluster they climb into the cells, which they cannot do if they are filled with syrup.

So you should feed to a target weight, which should be determined by your experience and talking to local beekeepers about how much it takes to get a hive of the race of bees you raise through the winter. The amount varies much from Italians to Carniolans etc. So find out what is a generous, but not overly generous target. You want enough that they don't run out before the first nectar flow in the spring, and most of that gets burned up that last month before that happens.

Fourth, HOW do you feed?

There are more schemes to feed bees than there are options in any other aspect of beekeeping. I have a love/hate relationship with feeding to start with so it's not surprising I have a love/hate relationship with most methods.

Issues when considering the type of feeder:

How much labor is involved in feeding? For instance do I have to suit up? Open the hive? Remove lids? Boxes? How much syrup will it hold? How many trips will I have to make to an outyard to get them ready for winter? In other words, a feeder that holds five gallons of syrup, I'll only have to fill once. If it only holds a pint or a quart I'll have to fill it many times.

Will the bees take it if it's cold? If the weather is warm most any feeder works. Only a few will work when the weather is marginal. Meaning it's in the 40's F (4° C) or so at night and the 50's (10°) or so in the day and none work when it stays too cold all the time.

What does it cost? Some methods are quite expensive (a good hive top feeder could cost $20 per hive) and some are quite cheap (converting a solid bottom board to a feeder might cost $0.25 per hive).

Does it cause robbing? Boardman feeders, for example are notorious for this.

Does it cause drowning? Can this be mitigated? Frame feeders are notorious for this and most beekeepers have added a float or ladder or both to minimize it.

Is it hard to get into the hive with the feeder on or does it get in the way? For instance a top feeder has to be removed to get into the hive and it sloshes and spills a lot.

Is it hard to clean out the feeder? Feed will spoil. Feeders will get mold in them. If bees can drown in them, they will have to be cleaned out from time to time.

Basic types of feeders

Frame feeders

Frame feeder. These vary a lot. The really old ones were wood. The old ones were smooth plastic and drowned a lot of bees. The newer ones are mostly a black plastic trough with some roughness on the sides to act as a ladder. If you put a float in them they work much better with less drowning or a #8 hardware cloth ladder helps. They also take up more than one frame, more like a frame and a half so they don't fit well and they bulge in the middle. Brushy Mt. makes one out of Masonite with more limited access, a built in #8 hardware cloth ladder and it only takes up one space and it doesn't bulge. Betterbee has a plastic version with similar features. I haven't had one, but the complaints I've heard are that the ears are too short and it falls off the frame rest. If you make them correctly then they would live up to their other name "division board feeder". But to do that they have to divide the hive into two parts and should have separate access for each side of the hive. Some people make actual "division board feeders" themselves and use them to make a ten frame hive into two four frame nucs with a shared feeder.

Boardman feeder. These come in all the beginners' kits. They go in the entrance and hold an inverted quart mason jar. I'd keep the jar lid and throw away the feeder. They are notorious for causing robbing. They are easy to check but you have to shake off the bees and open the jar to refill them.

Jar feeder

Inverted container. These work on the same principle as a water cooler or other upside down containers where the liquid is held in by a vacuum (or for the technically minded among us, held in by the air pressure pushing on it). For feeding bees, this can be a quart jar (like the one from the Boardman feeder), a paint can with holes, a plastic pail with a lid, a one liter bottle etc. It just has to have some way to hold it over the bees and some small holes for the syrup to get out. Advantages vary by how you set it up and how big they are. If they hold a gallon or more you won't have to refill very often. If they are only a quart you will have to refill a lot. If they leak or the temperature changes a lot, they leak and drown or "freeze" the bees. They are usually cheap and usually drown less bees than the frame feeder, unless they leak. If the hole it goes over is covered in #8 hardware cloth you won't have any bees on the container when you need to refill.

Miller feeder Miller feeder Miller feeder

Miller feeder. Named after C.C. Miller. There are variations of this. All go on top of the hive and require tight closure so robbers don't get in the top and drown in the syrup. Some of them have open access by the bees to the entire feeder. Some have limited access that is screened in so the bees have just enough room to get to the syrup. They come with the access in various places. Sometimes one end, sometimes both, sometimes the center parallel to the frames and sometimes across the frames. The reasoning is either based on being easier to make and fill with only one compartment (ends) or better access for the bees (center) or even better access for the bees (across the frames) so the bees will find it. The taller they are the less they get used when it's cold but the more syrup they hold. Some hold as much as five gallons (great for an outyard during warm weather but not good when it's cold at night). Some hold as little as a couple of quarts. For cool weather the bees will work one that is shallow and has the entrance in the center better than one that is deep and has the entrance on the end. The Rapid feeder is a similar concept but is round and goes over the inner cover hole. The biggest disadvantage is probably having to remove it to get into the hive. Pretty awkward if it's full. The biggest advantages are the volume of syrup they hold and (if it's screened) filling without having to suit up or disrupt the bees.

Bucket Float

Bucket Feeder Float

For using 5 gallon (19 liter) buckets for open feeders. Made from 1/4" (6mm) exterior glue Luan Plywood. Bees still seem to drown in feeders no matter what I do. If you do this be sure to have enough buckets that they don't pile up in the bottom trying to feed. I lose a lot less bees with more buckets than with less buckets. If there are other apiaries nearby open feeding may not be practical.

Bottom board feeder.

Jay Smith Bottom Board Feeder

Jay Smith Bottom Board Feeder This is picture of the bottom board feeder that Jay Smith came up with. It's simply a dam made with a 3/4" by 3/4" (19mm) block of wood put an inch or so (25mm) back from the where the front of the hive would be (18" (46cm) or so forward of the very back). The box is slid forward enough to make a gap at the back. The syrup is poured in the back. A small board can be used to block the opening in the back. The bees can still get out the front by simply coming down forward of the dam. The picture is from the perspective of standing behind the hive looking toward the front. This is all empty so you can see where the dam is etc. The edges of the dam have been enhanced and labels put on to try to make more sense. This version doesn't work on a weak hive as the syrup is too close to the entrance. It drowns as many bees as the frame feeders.

Bottom Board Feeder Bottom Board Feeder Bottom Board Feeder Bottom Board Feeder Bottom Board Feeder

My version of the Jay Smith Bottom Board Feeder I just modified this to make a top entrance and a bottom feeder. These were made from a standard bottom board from Miller Bee Supply. The space on top is 3/4" (19mm) and the space on the bottom is 1/2" (13mm). This is a nice space for overwintering as I can put some newspaper on and cover with sugar, or I can fit a pollen patty in without squishing bees. I was concerned about water from condensation so I added a drain plug. This could also be used to drain bad syrup. Also this design allows stacking up nucs and feeding all of them without opening or rearranging. So far I have had about the same number of drownings as a standard frame feeder. You do have to pour the syrup in slowly and if the bees are obviously so thick that they are all over the bottom you might want to add a box and lessen the congestion. I am considering making a float out of 1/4" (6mm) luan.

From left to right:

Bottom of the feeder. The block part way across makes a reduced entrance for the hive below it.

Top of the feeder. The dam at the front stops the syrup from running out. The support block holds the #8 hardware cloth (wires on 6mm centers) up so it doesn't sag. The #8 lets me fill the feeder without bees flying out. The drain plug is so I can let condensation out in the winter or rain water if it gets in. It's been dipped in wax and the cracks filled with a wax tube fastener. You could just melt some beeswax and roll it around in the feeder to seal it.

With a box on it so you can see where you fill it. If you aren't stacking them the feeder portion could be on the front or back. When doing "apartment style" the filler is in the front.

Apartment style where you can see the entrance for the nuc below on the bottom.

Apartment style with covers over the filler to keep out most of the rain. These are scraps of 1/2" (13mm) plywood, but anything works fine. So far they haven't blown off.

Baggie Feeder. These are just gallon zip lock baggies that are filled with three quarts of syrup, laid on the top bars and slit on top with a razor blade with two or three small slits. The bees suck down the syrup until the bag is empty. A box of some kind is required to make room. An upside down miller feeder or a one by three shim or just any empty super will work. Advantages are the cost (just the cost of the bags) and the bees will work it in cooler weather as the cluster keeps it warm. Disadvantages are you have to disrupt the bees to put new bags on and the old bags are ruined.

Open feeder. These are just large containers with floats ("popcorn peanuts", straw etc.) full of syrup. They are usually kept away from the hives a ways (100 yards (91 meters) or more). Advantages are you can feed quickly as you don't have to go to every hive. Disadvantages are that you are feeding the neighbor's bees and they sometimes set off robbing and sometimes in a feeding frenzy a lot of bees drown.

Candy board. This is a one by three box with a lid that has candy poured into it. It goes on top in the winter and the bees will use it if they get to the top of the hive and need food. They are very popular around here and seem to work well.

Fondant. This can be put on the top bars. Again it seems to be more useful for emergency feed. The bees will eat it if there is nothing to eat. The end effect is similar to the candy board.

Feeding sugar to bees Feeding dry sugar to bees Feeding sugar to bees Feeding sugar to bees Feeding sugar to bees Feeding dry sugar to bees Feeding dry sugar to bees

Dry Sugar. This can be fed a number of ways. Some people just dump it down the back of the hive (definitely not recommended with Screened Bottom Boards as it will fall through to the ground). Some put it on top of the inner cover. Some put a sheet of newspaper on top of the top bars, add a box on top and put the sugar on the newspaper (as in the photos above). Others put it in a frame feeder (the black plastic trough kind). I've even pulled two frames out of an eight frame box that were empty and dumped the sugar in the gap (with a solid bottom board of course). With screened bottom boards or with a small hive that just needs a little help, I'll pull some empty frames out, put some newspaper in the gap and put a little sugar, spray a little water to clump it so it doesn't run out, a little more sugar until I get it full. Sometimes the house bees carry it out for trash if you don't clump it. If you drizzle some water on it you can get the bees interested in it. The finer the sugar the better they take it. If you can get "bakers" sugar or "drivert" sugar it will be better accepted that standard sugar but harder to find and more expensive.

What kind of sugar? I have always said that it matters not at all if it's beet sugar or cane sugar. But that was before they started using GMO beets and neonics on the beet seeds. Now I would probably go for cane sugar but keep an eye on current events as they are talking about using both of these on sugar cane in the near future.

It matters a lot if it's granulated white sugar or anything else. Powdered sugar, brown sugar, molasses and any other unrefined sugar is not good for bees. They can't handle the solids.

Pollen is fed either in open feeders for the bees to gather it (dry) or in patties (mixed with syrup or honey into a dough and pressed between sheets of waxed paper). The patties are put on the top bars. A shim is helpful to make room for the patty. I usually do open feeding dry.

Measuring ratios for syrup.

The standard mixtures are 1:1 in the spring and 2:1 in the fall (sugar:water). People often use something other than those for their own reasons. Some people use 2:1 in the spring because it's easier to haul around and keeps better. Some people use 1:1 in the fall because they believe it stimulates brood rearing and they want to be sure to have young bees going into winter. The bees will manage either way. I use more like 5:3 (sugar:water) all the time. It keeps better than 1:1 and is easier to dissolve than 2:1.

The next argument is over weight or volume. If you have a good scale you can find this out for yourself, but take a pint container, tare it (weigh it empty) and fill it with water. The water will weigh very close to a pound. Now take a dry pint container, tare it (weigh it empty) and fill it with white sugar and weight it. It will weigh very close to a pound. So I'll keep this very simple. For the sake of mixing syrup for feeding bees, it just doesn't matter. You can mix and match. "A pints a pound the world around" as far as dry white sugar and water are concerned. At least until you've mixed the syrup. So if you take 10 pints of water, boil it, and add 10 pounds of sugar you'll get the same thing as if you took 10 pounds of water, boil it, and add 10 pints of sugar. If you are working in metric a liter of sugar weighs about a kg so it works out the same way since a liter of water weighs a kg as well. This is, of course, merely a convenient coincidence...

The next confusion seems to be on how much it takes to make how much syrup. The volume of 10 pints of water and 10 pints of sugar will make about 15 pints of syrup, not 20. The sugar and the water fit together.

Don't confuse the issue of how you measure. Measure before you mix. In other words, you can't fill a container 1/3 of the way with water, and add sugar until it's 2/3 full and have 1:1 syrup. You'll get more like 2:1 syrup. Likewise, you can't fill it 1/3 of the way with sugar and then add water until it's 2/3 full and have 1:1 syrup. You'll get more like 1:2. You have to measure both separately and then put them together to get an accurate measurement. I find the easiest is to use pints for water and pounds for sugar since the sugar comes in packages marked in pounds and volume is easy to measure for water. So if you know you are going to add 10 pounds of sugar and you want 1:1 then start with 10 pints of boiling water and add the 10 pounds of sugar.

How to make syrup.

I boil the water and add the sugar and then when it's all dissolved turn off the heat. With 2:1 this can take some time. Either way, boiling the water makes the syrup keep longer by killing all the microorganisms that might be in the sugar or the water.

Moldy syrup

I don't let a little mold bother me, but if it smells too funny or it's too moldy I throw it out. If you use essential oils (and I don't) they tend to keep it from molding. Some people add various things to control this. Clorox, distilled vinegar, vitamin C, lemon juice and other things are used by various people to help it keep longer. All of these except the Clorox make the syrup more acidic and closer to the acidity of honey (lower the pH). I have concerns for anything that is targeting the microbes in the bees' guts.


Michael Bush

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