How To Feed Honey Bees

Excerpted from:  Honey Bee Suite

Graphic of honey bee holding a sign saying I'm Hungry.

You may be wondering if your honey bees are going to starve or whether they have enough stores to make it through the winter.

  When Do You Feed Honey Bees?

In an ideal world, you'd leave the bees plenty of honey and you would not need to feed your honey bees. However, sometimes there is a poor nectar flow and the bees might not have enough honey stored, especially if you have a new colony that was just started in the spring.

  What To Feed Honey Bees?

Most late fall feeding is done with a thick syrup made with a 1:2 ratio of water to white sugar, which the bees tend to store. In spring and early fall, a 1:1 mixture stimulates brood production. Some beekeeping-supply companies sell high fructose corn syrup formulated for bees, but don’t use the corn syrup sold by grocers or, for that matter, syrup made with brown sugar, molasses or other sweeteners; they can be harmful to bees. Honey, dark from long storage or otherwise deemed unacceptable for human consumption, is always welcomed by bee colonies.

If checking on or feeding bees in winter, do not open the hive unless it is at least 40° F outside with little to no wind.

But honeybees don’t live by nectar and honey alone. A number of protein supplements can augment natural pollen sources. You can buy these as patties—placed on the top of the hive—or in a powder, which can be made into patties or sprinkled dry on top of the frames.

Pollen is essential to the development of larvae, and its presence stimulates the bees to produce brood, so pollen substitutes are best in the early spring and early fall. That’s when colonies need to build up their populations to take full advantage of the nectar flow in the one case, and to create a critical mass of long-lived winter bees in the other.

Fondant, or bee candy—easily made at home from recipes available online—is a solid form of sugar designed for emergency winter-feeding. Use it only as a last resort when a colony is at risk of starvation. In that circumstance, it can be a lifesaver.

  When To Feed Honey Bees?

More is not always better !
Open bee hive with pollen patty.
Open Langstroth hive
with pollen patty.

Nectar and pollen provide not only the calories but also the proteins and minerals a colony needs to thrive. With natural sources available, we should avoid artificial substitutes when feeding honey bees.

In general, honeybees benefit from feeding in three circumstances. Newly installed packages benefit from feeding until they can draw out comb and begin filling it with nectar and pollen. This takes a few days to a few weeks. We also should feed when there are no stored resources in the hive, or when there nectar is not available for the bees to bring into the hive.

Early spring feeding—before plentiful floral sources are available—stimulates brood production and helps a colony start building up its population in preparation for the spring nectar flow. Because bees continue to make honey as long as the flow lasts and storage space exists, that means more honey for the beekeeper.

In the Midwest, dry summers often create a dearth, which usually yields to an autumn bloom. This is natural, and feeding honeybees should be done only if no honey is stored in the hive. Goldenrod, asters and other late-year flowers provide the honey that must maintain the colony through the cold months. Some parts of the country escape the summer dearth but might also suffer longer, more severe winters.

Even mild climates experience rainy seasons or periods of low bloom. The quantity of food stores that a hive requires for overwintering depends on region, climate and number of bees. As a general rule, a two-deep hive in a moderate zone should have at least 55 pounds of honey; in northern states, as much as 125. A full deep frame holds about 6 pounds and a full shallow about 2 1/2, or you can get an idea of the weight by hefting one side of the brood box. The important thing is to gauge winter stores and feed if necessary in the fall—if there are insufficient food stores in the hive, and well before cold weather begins.

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