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.

Rusty

Comments

Lisa
Reply

Huh. The sorts of things you do when you don’t know better, I guess. :)

I have four hives that were stocked with wild-caught swarms. I’ve never fed any of them beyond a little dish of honey water with lemon balm, just to encourage them to stick around. And not only do I not start them with honey/pollen/brood combs, they start completely foundationless, in empty boxes, and have to build their own. With one exception, a hive which has struggled for a variety of reasons from the time they were caught and installed, I have never fed any of them to date, and two of the hives had four boxes full of built comb, honey, and brood from the time I installed in April or May until nectar stopped in September or early October. I harvested one mostly-full box last fall, and should have taken the top box off the other tall hive at the same time. I will be doing that as soon as the weather is stable enough to decapitate the hive briefly. (It’s a Warre, and there are no bees in the top box right now, they’re all down lower, so I literally just have to slice off the top box and take it away and replace the quilt and roof.)

I wonder if it’s partly because swarms aren’t starved in transit, storage, and shipping like packages? They’re only a day or two out of a hive, and probably still have mostly full tummies. Or that I live in an area that has tons of food for bees during the growing season. I mean TONS of forage, and a wide variety. Or partly because I literally don’t care how long it takes them to start up. I don’t *need* them to be productive in the first year, or the second year, or at all, really. I steal their leftovers as rent, but they’re not going to get evicted if they don’t pay up. 😉

I probably still won’t feed any new swarms I get this year. The one hive I have that’s faltering, I think would have benefited from a feeding. I didn’t realize how traumatic their capture and installation was to them at the time, though it was a classic case of “everything that can go wrong will go wrong”. They’re still hanging in, though!

Rusty
Reply

Lisa, lots of interesting issues here. Bees that escape into the wild are perfectly capable of starting up a hive from scratch, so it is definitely possible. But I think survival through the first winter is compromised if they don’t have enough stored food–and they can’t store it until they have a place to put it. The old adage “A swarm in July is not worth a fly” is based on the low probability of a late swarm getting everything done on time.

I have hived both packages and swarms without feeding them. But I don’t recommend it because of the high possibility of losing them the first winter. The amount of available forage would make a difference. Around here there is nothing in the latter part of July and all of August. Robbing gets really bad and weak colonies can end up with no stores at all.

I, too, am in no hurry for them to build up. I have more honey than I could use in several lifetimes, so that’s not the issue. I just feel better knowing they can comfortably make it through the winter.

Bees do fill up on honey before they swarm, so they have some reserves to get started. Packaged bees are fed continually, although they are not engorged the way swarming bees are. Maybe that makes a difference. Now that I think about it, the swarm that moved into my top-bar hive last year was a July swarm that I didn’t feed, but they did have fully drawn comb that they moved into–no honey or pollen, though. I didn’t feed them in the fall either and they are still going strong.

Another issue might be the money you put into the bees. Depending on where and how you purchase a package, they may be somewhere between $50 to $100 per package plus tax, plus shipping (maybe) and plus a cage deposit (maybe.) Anyway, it ends up being so much money that you would hate to lose them out of neglect! I certainly wouldn’t want someone to spend that much and then not feed them.

But, hey, if catching swarms and not feeding works for you, you probably shouldn’t mess with a good thing. I never see swarms around here (except my own) even though I always have swarm traps in place, etc. Even the one I caught last year is probably my own–I really don’t know one way or the other.

If I were in a swarmy area I would probably try to do it your way too.

John Eaves
Reply

I too used to catch swarms, and did not feed them. I haven’t seen a wild swarm in years. I feed my packages, to help them with a good start.

J.W. DeMarce
Reply

Must we feed white sugar or will other types suffice?

Rusty
Reply

White refined sugar only. Other types of sweeteners (including brown sugar, maple syrup, and even evaporated cane juice) have too many solid particles in them that can easily cause honey bee dysentery.

Conrad
Reply

Thanks for the advice, Rusty. I notice that my post is at least 2 years younger than these others, but bees don’t seem to care. I bought a nuc last week and just checked in on it today. They haven’t drawn out any new comb and there is not a lot of capped brood. Aside from that, the hive looked fine. It’s July here in Missouri and the nectar flow is starting to stall, so I’m going to feed them a 1/1 mix until they fill out two brood boxes. They’re Carniolans, so should take to the syrup pretty good. If this is not a good idea, I could use any advice you have to offer.

Thanks,
Conrad

Rusty
Reply

Conrad,

Generally, bees stop drawing new comb when the nectar dries up. So if your objective to to get them to build more comb, go ahead and feed. Most places in temperature North American have a fall nectar flow, so if you can get your bees to prepare some comb in advance, they can take full advantage of the fall flow, which will help them through their first winter. Carniolans overwinter with smaller colonies than Italians, so that will help as well.

Karen Pope
Reply

I feed many bees in the fall after sourwood harvest to build up their stores for winter (although I notice a big crop of goldenrod now). Last spring I had some of the sugar/syrup stores still in a good bit of comb when the spring nectar started to flow. I am wondering what to do with this capped sugar syrup winter food supply to empty the supers for capped nectar/honey. Is is something I could bottle for just my family and use as a syrup, not as good as honey? I want the supers empty of this to make room for honey. Have you ever had this thought/dilemma?

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

I would just save those frames for next year’s feeding and put new frames in the super.

Lindsey
Reply

I received my nuc package today and some of my beekeeping supplies have not arrived, such as my feeder. Is there any way to make a feeder at home with which to feed them the sugar water? Could I leave the sugar water out in a shallow bowl near the hive or on top of the hive? Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Lindsey,

Punch some tiny hole in a jar lid, fill the jar with syrup, and invert it over the top bars. Place an empty super around it. Just make sure some of the holes are over the space between the frames so the bees can get to it.

Debbie
Reply

Thanks for all your information, Rusty. I’m new to beekeeping and have enjoyed reading everyone’s comments.

simoneti
Reply

Thank you for so good information. I just got a package of bees and my question is : how many times a day should I feed them? I’m making a syrup with lemon, chamomile , water and sugar. I live in Oregon.
Thanks again

Rusty
Reply

Simoneti,

How many times a day? Sounds like you need a bigger feeder. I would draw the line at once per day (about a gallon at a time) until they’ve got some comb drawn out. That’s just an estimate. It will depend on how many bees you’ve got and what’s in bloom.

simoneti
Reply

Thank you so much Rusty. I’m enjoying this page. Happy week to all.

Dave
Reply

How about feeding splits? I just split a hive and the parent hive is very strong so I will probably stop feeding it, however the new hive is raising a queen so would that be fed like a package? They do have a med super on with honey and pollen that they are raising the queen in.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

You can feed it if you want, but with a supply of honey and pollen they shouldn’t need it.

John
Reply

I’ve been feeding my new brood from 8 oz Ball jars in my feeder. They rip through that in about 4-5 hours. I then put another 8 oz jar an its’ gone by early evening. There’s honey dripping already from the bottom of the hive so I have stopped feeding them more then 1 8 oz bottle per day. I’ve only had them about two weeks. You say a ‘Gallon’ of syrup. I see they are only capable of consuming 16 ozs’ or so. Where do you come up with a ‘Gallon”?

OREGON

Rusty
Reply

John,

You say, “I’ve been feeding my new brood from 8 oz Ball jars in my feeder.”

Remember that the brood doesn’t eat syrup, only the adults.

You say, “There’s honey dripping already from the bottom of the hive”

Nothing should be dripping from the bottom of your hive. It may be syrup. You should go in there are figure out what is amiss.

You say, “You say a ‘gallon’ of syrup. I see they are only capable of consuming 16 ozs or so. Where do you come up with a ‘gallon”?

I come up with a gallon because that is what my feeder holds. But it’s pointless to compare the amount one colony eats with what another colony eats. A colony may have 8 to 10 thousand bees, or 15 thousand, or 30 thousand. Not only that, the outside temperatures are different, requiring different amounts of food. Since each colony is different, you can’t easily compare rates of consumption.

Karen Surber
Reply

Hello Rusty!

I ran into this site while trying to find an answer. I have read that a person has to wait five or six weeks after feeding syrup with anything in it before adding the honey super, to avoid contaminating the honey. Is that true? This is my first year. I am almost at seven weeks. I have been feeding syrup with Honey-B-Healthy. They have been working on their second deep brood box for about a week. I also have two closed small hive beetle traps, one in each brood box. Do I add that to my honey medium super as well? Thanks so much for this site!!!

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

If you wait five or six weeks, you will probably miss the honey flow altogether. Furthermore, “anything” is a vague instruction. I would just stop feeding the HBH and add the honey supers when you are ready.

I wouldn’t add beetle traps to the honey supers unless you have a beetle problem.

Patricia Ratliff
Reply

New beekeeper. Set up two hives from packages May 12 in southeast Oklahoma (temps are now in the 90s with abundant rain). Feeding 1:1 syrup ever since we set them up and I just keep adding 1 gallon to each above-frame feeder every 4-5 days. Comb drawn out on 4-5 frames each, and they seem to be filling and capping the comb with the colorless sugar water. I’d say that < 10% has a brownish syrup, which I assume is nectar/honey. (There's pollen and brood in the midst of all that as well.) Is that okay that they're storing the sugar syrup? I thought they were going to EAT the syrup but STORE nectar, and all the books, web sites, etc., say they'll quit feeding on the syrup. Uh, not happening yet, but again, they're storing it! We're heading into the hottest part of the year, so I guess I need reassurance that the girls and I are doing the right things and I should continue to feed them. Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Patricia,

Your bees do not distinguish between sugar syrup and nectar. They treat them the same way, storing, drying, capping, etc. This is why you cannot put syrup on a hive once you put honey supers in place. If you do, you will end up extracting sugar syrup at the end of the year.

You ask if it is “okay that they are storing the sugar syrup.” Well, it’s okay if it is meant for them to overwinter on. It’s not ideal, however, because the best bee diet is honey with all its micronutrients and vitamins.

Most bees will choose nectar over syrup, but some will continue to store the syrup all summer long. It’s like kids: they’re all different. I would just stop the syrup feeding. If later in the fall you think they need more for overwintering, you can start it up again.

John
Reply

Thanks rusty for the advise! Now, I’m at two 8 frame boxes with an Engilsh cap:)

The colony is healthy and seemingly thriving. When I take a look, both under and over looks
Show them thickening up in population and health. They are now sucking down a quart of 50/50 in 8 hours:)

Taking em off.

What do they do in the late heat when they are almost swarming at the front of the hive when the temp spikes around 6pm here?

PORTLAND OREGON

Big Rob
Reply

OK, here’s a question I can’t seem to find a clear answer for. Is it possible to feed bees through the summer to increase honey production? Here in central California, all the flowers have been dead since June and will be until late next February. The people advising me on getting my package going have recommended feeding. So, I’ve got my girls drinking 3 quarts a day of 1:1 syrup. There’s a lot of them hanging around outside the hive, so I added a separator and medium super to the two deeps I’m using for a brood chamber. Seems to me that a person could just keep offering more sugar water until the bees start filling up the honey super. Some people say that I’ll get sugar water in my honey, but do they actually store the unprocessed syrup?

Rusty
Reply

Rob,

You cannot increase honey production by feeding syrup. The honey bees do not distinguish nectar from syrup, so they store the syrup just as if it were nectar. What you end up with is a honey super filled with syrup.

Beekeepers often stimulate honey production by feeding syrup until the bees draw out some comb, but once comb is drawn the bees will continue to collect the syrup and store it there.

By definition honey is made from flower nectar, so syrup cannot be changed into honey, even by bees. However, if you leave the stored syrup on the hive for winter, the bees can use it for winter feed.

Big Rob
Reply

As an addendum to my first post: My bees have consumed almost a hundred pounds of sugar since I installed the package in May. That’s about 25 gallons of syrup! Does anyone think that’s a lot?

Rusty
Reply

Rob,

In my opinion, that’s about normal especially in dry conditions without a lot of flowers.

Big Rob
Reply

Thanks for responding, Rusty. I’m trying to get clear on the chemistry of all this. So you’re saying that although the bees convert nectar, which is sucrose, into honey, which is glucose and fructose, they won’t do the same for plain-old syrup? They’ll just suck down the three quarts I’ve been giving them every day, and seal it into the combs as-is?

Rusty
Reply

Big Rob,

First off, nectar is not simply sucrose but a combination of sucrose, fructose, and glucose, along with many minor components. Honey bees invert the sucrose into fructose and glucose with enzymes while the nectar is in the mouth and honey stomach. You can do this too: just go to your local baker’s supply store, buy a bottle of invertase, a bag of table sugar, and knock yourself out. But what you end up with is not honey, just glucose and fructose in a messy bowl.

This is exactly what happens when you feed your bees sugar syrup: they hydrolyze the disaccharide (sucrose) into two monosaccharides (glucose and fructose). But it is not honey. Even honey bees, marvelous creatures that they are, cannot turn table sugar into honey.

By definition, honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Honey is a complex substance that contains mostly fructose and glucose but also trace amounts of a large number of compounds including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, amino acids, phenolic acids, flavonols, antioxidants, pollen, as well as flavor, odor, and color-producing compounds.

As food for bees, sugar syrup can provide them the calories they need to keep going for a short time, but it is not the health food that honey is. In modern beekeeping, sugar has its uses, but it should not be the primary diet of a honey bee colony.

I like to think of sugar as emergency feed, something to tide them over in times of a honey shortage, but it cannot replace the balanced diet found in honey.

In the U.S. it illegal to sell sugar syrup in a bottle and call it honey. Even if only part of the bottle is syrup, it is considered adulterated and cannot be called honey.

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