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.

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