Can I start a new package on honey instead of syrup?

Sugar syrup is not the equivalent of infant formula. Sugar syrup is not something we feed to package bees because they are young, immature, or mere fledglings. In fact, bees are adults when they emerge from the brood comb. During their babyhood as larvae and pupae they ate royal jelly and bee bread, but an adult bee is fully formed and capable of eating real food. Real food for adult honey bees is honey.

I’ve been trying to understand why this question is so common, and I’ve concluded that we beekeepers give the impression that a new colony must have sugar syrup in order to survive, so new beekeepers become confused about its importance. Of course, this makes no sense: sugar syrup is a modern invention and honey bees are not.

As I’ve said before, we are lucky that bees can live on syrup because it’s so convenient when we don’t have honey on hand, or if the only honey we have is from an unknown source. But must bees have sugar syrup to start a new colony? Of course not.

Even though bees can survive on syrup, it is still a stop-gap measure suitable for short periods when better food is not available. Sugar is pure carbohydrate, pure energy for bees. It supplies no nutrients, no vitamins, no trace elements. So if you have honey from your own healthy hives, or the healthy hives of someone else, by all means feed them honey instead of sugar syrup. Your colonies will thrive because they have everything they need, not just the calories.

And, no, you don’t have to extract it and put it in a feeder. Good heavens, a feeder is also a modern invention. We put syrup in feeders not because the bees prefer it that way, but because we are not good at putting it in combs. The bees adapt to what we give them, but that doesn’t mean they prefer it.

You can put the frames of honey beside the new cluster or above it. If the honey is in their way, the bees will move it until they have their home arranged just the way the like. Trust them; they know what they are doing.


Are their ethics loose in the package too?

This e-mail came in today. I’m interested to see if you agree with my answer or have a better idea.
I just installed my first package a week ago into a top bar hive. The queen was dead in her cage and I was told this usually means there is a queen in the package loose, so give it 3-5 days and see what happens. The weather immediately took a turn for the worse, with days in the 50s and nights below freezing. At first we saw some bees making flights, but over the past few days, nothing.

Due to the cold weather, I haven’t had a chance to take a look until today, exactly a week from when I installed them. The bees are all clustered on the floor of the hive. The cluster is just about the size of a baseball. They hadn’t discovered the sugar I’d put behind the follower, no comb has been built, and there’s signs of defecation inside the hive (3 or 4 spots of bee poo on one wall).

I moved the sugar in next to them instead of leaving it behind the follower, and lightly dusted the cluster with it so they have at least a little something to eat that they can’t help but find.

My question is, what next? If I need to order another package, it needs to happen asap, likewise if I just need to order a queen. The next several days are supposed to be gloriously warm and sunny, with more moderate night time lows. Do I wait another few days and see what happens? Should I go ahead and order a whole new package? Order just a queen?

The place I got the bees from says they have no idea about bees in top bar hives, so they aren’t any help!



Whoever told you that a dead queen in her cage meant there is a queen loose in the package was either ignorant or lying. And anyway, even in the remote chance there was a loose queen in the package, you paid for the one in the queen cage and she should be alive and healthy.

With the queen dead, and no way of making a queen, the colony is just dying. It is hopeless. At this point, you need a whole new package including the queen. If the queen in the cage was dead and they sent you home without a replacement, they owe you a whole new package, including a live queen, at no extra charge.

In the meantime, put starter strips in your top-bar hive, if you haven’t already. Also, it’s not clear if you gave them solid sugar or syrup, but it should be syrup. Without lots of food they can’t build comb. So make syrup and add an attractant like lemongrass oil or anise oil so they can find it easier.

Next time, attach the queen cage to a middle bar and leave her in it a few day until comb building begins.

Andrea, I’m going to post this on the front page to see what other people think. I hope they agree.

Good luck, and next year get your bees from someone else.


The sugar syrup diaries

My next blog will be called The Sugar Syrup Diaries. It will cover 1:1, 2:1, 1:2, 1:4. How to cook. Beet or cane. Essential oils. Organic or conventional. pH. White or brown. Vinegar or lemon juice. Feeders. Timing. Spilling. Saving. Molding. Burning. In fact, I’ve already addressed each of these multiple times—ironic from a person who avoids the stuff whenever possible.

But alas, the discussion is not over. Syrup season is upon us, or maybe it never left. Today’s question is simple: Must you feed a new package of bees light syrup or can you feed them honey?

Sugar syrup has its uses, and a person with a new package of bees hardly ever has a super of honey laying around. But if you do, then you can certainly feed those bees honey instead of syrup. What is really amazing it that a lot of beekeepers will tell you otherwise.

I think these legends or wives’ tales (husbands’ tales would make more sense) result from doing the same thing year after year without analyzing the reason. When we think of packages we think of syrup partly because they come packed with it, and partly because we don’t have extra supers of honey. But is it best for the bees? Probably not.

We are lucky that sugar syrup is palatable to bees. It gets us through nectar dearths; it is readily available; it is adequate when you want your bees to start building comb. But, contrary to popular belief, your colony cannot start raising brood on sugar syrup alone. They also need pollen, or pollen substitute at the very least.

Unlike sugar, honey is laced with all kinds of things bees need for good health, including vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, antioxidants, and even small amounts of pollen. So if you want a package to get off to a roaring good start, there is nothing better than their natural food. The caveat, of course, is that honey can also carry disease organisms, which is why it is necessary to know the source of the honey you give to your colonies.
Many people give light syrup to overwintering colonies in the spring. This so-called “stimulative feeding” supposedly gets them raising brood sooner, resulting in bigger colonies earlier in the year. But many highly-regarded bee gurus dispute this. In any case, it may not be the best thing to do. Early brood rearing before pollen is readily available—or before a severe freeze—may do more harm than good.
Many commercial beekeepers do stimulative feeding in order to get their bees ready for pollination contracts. They need certain populations to fulfill their agreements, and we can’t fault these businessmen for doing what they need to do to pay their bills. But that doesn’t mean it is the best thing for the bees or that hobby beekeepers should employ the same technique. I’ve never heard that commercial bees are healthier than others.

The idea that a new colony must have sugar syrup is kind of amusing. It makes you wonder what they did for the 125-million-or-so years before C&H. Equally curious is the notion that bees won’t start raising brood without a dose of light syrup to remind them it’s spring. I’ve never heard of bees getting so high on honey they forget to raise kids. “Dammit honey! We forgot to raise a family!”

Obviously, if you run low on honey you have to feed. If you have no honey, you have to feed. But if you have plenty of perfectly good honey of a known source, don’t let anyone talk you out of it.


Update on ants

The post titled “Bad-ant ant advice and the ascension of bees” coaxed readers out of the woodwork. Some agreed with me that the ants were not the problem, some thought they were definitely the problem, and others thought there wasn’t enough information. I have to say that I learned a lot from the discussion. As with all beekeeping issues, the ant problem seems to hinge on the local environment: some places have troublesome ants and some don’t.

The reader who posed the original question has shared more information. It turns out I was right about new wood and no starters. He says, “I built a Warré hive . . . of new wood without foundation nor starter strips, just bare top bars.” He goes on to defend his decision to go with Warré, but I don’t consider that a problem. The shape and design of Warré hives is just fine and I have stolen a lot of good ideas from Warré beekeepers.

However, he goes on to describe the ants, “The ants are tiny and black, and I assume they are Argentine ants (I live in California).” Based on reader comments, it seems that California is one of the places where ants can definitely be a problem and Argentine ants can cause bees to flee.

The good news is we haven’t lost the beekeeper. He says, “I am okay with waiting until next year to try again.” He doesn’t want to buy a nuc because it won’t fit in his Warré, which is a good point. He adds, “After reading your posting (and reader comments) I accept that even without ants, my bees may still have left. But I will try and figure out a way of keeping ants out of my next hive.”

So for next year, I recommend the following:

  • Use starter strips or a bead of wax on the top bars (same as in a top-bar hive)
  • Keep the queen caged until the bees begin to build comb
  • In addition, you could place a pheromone lure inside the hive for a few days to give it a good homey smell before dumping the package
  • Use one or more of the reader-suggested ways to control Argentine ants

That’s where we stand at the moment. Besides being a bit wiser about ants, I’m ecstatic about having a new word in my bee vocabulary. But the thought of having to wait a whole year to hear how it all works out is nearly unbearable.


Managing packages and swarms

Sometimes little gems of wisdom get hidden within the comments section. In this tip, Jim of Withers Mountain Honey Farm in Flint, Michigan, describes how he bolsters new bee packages with brood from strong hives that might swarm. It is a way to equalize the strength of his hives while boosting packages and reducing swarming. It also increases his chances of getting a honey crop from first-year colonies.

Jim is a beekeeper I trust because his management ideas are always based on a solid knowledge of honey bee biology and colony life cycle, which he then combines with a good dose of economic sense. Although he has many hives, these steps would work for anyone who has both a strong overwintered colony and at least one new package. Below is the entire message:

I installed 20 packages this year and and bought 35 queens for splits bringing my hive count up to 150 . . . I know, crazy! One of the things I like to do to boost my packages and, at the same time, reduce swarming is to steal about 5 frames of bees and brood from my strong hives to combine with the package.

The procedure works like this:

    1. First, I give the package time to release the queen and for her to start laying. Indeed, I wait until there is capped brood a couple of days from emerging. By this time the bees that came with the package are only a couple of weeks from expiring at best. This typically occurs around the end of April. This is also when the bees around these parts begin having visions of swarming.
    2. I go through those strong hives and do a little thinning of their population by stealing about 4 frames with capped brood with the attendant bees and a nice frame of honey. Obviously, you must be certain not to take the queen when you do this. I checkerboard either empty drawn comb or new foundation in the place of those frames. In most cases, this slows the swarming instinct.
    3. The bees I took are combined with the package bees by placing a sheet of newspaper over the box with the package and placing the box with the stolen brood and bees over top of that. It takes the bees a day or two to chew their way through the newspaper and, in the process, become accustomed to their new queen’s pheromone. I would guess the success rate of the combined bees accepting this new queen to be in the high 90′s percentile. I have seen times when the new bees, apparently, killed the queen and made an emergency queen cell but this is rare, likely because I make a point of taking only capped brood and larvae too old for them to make a queen out of.

This procedure super charges the new hive so that I can expect a honey crop from it and, perhaps, prevent an overwintered hive from swarming. It has worked well for me the last couple of years.