How long should I feed a new package of bees?
The answer to this question depends on whether you are starting the colony on new equipment or previously drawn comb.
If you are starting a package on bare equipment with no comb, almost no amount of sugar syrup is too much the first year. The first thing the bees have to do is build comb. Comb provides a place to live, a place for food storage, a place for egg laying, and a place for brood rearing. Without comb the colony cannot survive, and without enough food energy to build comb, colony build-up will be slow. A steady supply of sugar syrup makes the whole process quicker and easier.
But due to financial and time constraints, most beekeepers draw the line at some point and stop feeding syrup. So when is that? Unfortunately, every beekeeper will give you a different answer.
- Some feed syrup until there are five or six fully-drawn frames and then let the bees take over.
- Some keep feeding until they have two brood boxes full of drawn comb.
- Some feed the entire first season.
- Some feed until they bees have used five gallons of syrup per package.
- Some feed syrup until the bees lose interest in it. This is variable because some bees will continue taking the syrup right through a nectar flow and some will not.
When to stop feeding is really a judgment call and, unfortunately, those starting a new package on new equipment are often new beekeepers who have little experience on which to base their decision. I suspect that most stop feeding too soon—new colonies need all the help they can get.
Packages started on pre-drawn comb have it a lot easier and can be weaned much sooner. Still, unless those frames have stored honey and pollen, the bees will need help in the beginning. Feeding a pollen substitute as well as sugar syrup is a good idea for new colonies.
Overwintered colonies do not need a lot of spring syrup, although many beekeepers feed 1:1 syrup in the spring as a “stimulant” to get the brood-rearing process started. If a colony is well-fed coming out of winter, they can do fine without the stimulant feeding.
The best advice I can give is this: buy sugar wherever and whenever it is on sale. Some places sell it in 50-pound bags which are often cheaper but harder to handle. Most stores have sales from time to time. If you stay in beekeeping you will never run out of a need for sugar.
The other advice is this: Never, never feed syrup with a honey super in place. The bees will store the syrup right in with the nectar and you will not get pure honey. Fortunately, a new package of bees will not produce enough honey to harvest the first year—so you can feed them as much as you like in year one.