What type of honey bee feeder is best?
Many types of honey bee feeders are available. None are perfect; each has its own drawbacks, and beekeepers are quite opinionated on the subject. It seems that every hobbyist I know uses a different kind, so I’ll go through them one by one. Personally, I’ve tried just about every style out there and ended up squarely in the “baggie feeder” camp, but more on that later.
- Open air feeders: Feeders constructed out in the open should never be used. They attract all types of wildlife besides bees—including wasps, birds, raccoons, skunks, possums, bears—whatever is around. Also, bees using an open feeder can easily share diseases and parasites with each other. In addition, bees at an open feeder tend to fight, leaving weak hives even weaker.
- Entrance feeders: Entrance feeders have two basic parts—a feeding tray that is inserted into the hive entrance and an inverted syrup container that fits into it, but remains on the outside of the hive. They make it easy to see how much feed is left and are easy to refill. On the other hand, they hold almost nothing and do not perform well in cold weather because the liquid may freeze or the bees may not be able to get to it. Many beekeepers feel that they induce robbing because the food is right at the entrance where it is hard to defend. I sometimes use one with a nuc, but only with a much-reduced entrance.
- Division board feeders: These feeders are roughly the size of a brood frame, are usually made of plastic, and are actually inserted into the hive in place of one of the frames. These are clever designs that don’t work very well. They are good because they are completely inside the hive where they are less likely to induce robbing, they are fairly easy to fill, and they hold a surprising amount. However, they can create significant problems. Most are designed so bees can crawl out easily and not drown, but bees drown anyway. Even the ones with rough sides, ladders, or floats drown lots of bees. Also, if you let the feeders go empty the bees will build comb inside, or they will propolize the floats to the bottom or sides of the container. The black plastic ones get wide when you fill them, making it difficult to move other frames, and the glued-together yellow ones invariably leak. I love the idea of division board feeders, and I want them to work. Still, I’ve given up on them.
- Internal hive-top feeders: These fit on top of the brood boxes but beneath the cover. They can hold a lot of syrup and are extremely easy to fill. Each model comes with clever ways to keep the bees from drowning, but mine were always filled with dead bees anyway. Also, if for any reason you have to move the feeder off the hive when it is still is full, it is heavy and the syrup will slosh everywhere, giving the word “sticky” a whole new meaning. Another downside is that if you don’t use some kind of mold inhibitor (such as essential oil), you can get a moldy-sticky-dead bee sort of paste that is difficult to describe.
- External hive-top feeders: These are containers that are inverted over an entrance hole in the inner cover. Sometimes they just sit on top of the hive, and sometimes that are enclosed in an empty super. Covering is recommended, especially if animals or high winds might dislodge the container. The containers are often quite large, so they hold a lot of syrup, and the syrup usually doesn’t mold because it’s not exposed to the air. The negatives are that the containers can be very heavy. A one-gallon glass jar of 2:1 syrup, for example, can be dangerously heavy, slippery, and awkward especially if you’re working on a rainy day. The plastic pails are much easier to use. However, I found that I never had enough empty supers lying around to use as covers, and I don’t have room to store them even if I did. Many of the commercial beekeepers use this method of feeding, however, and I think it is an excellent choice for them. It’s the method I would use if I had many hives.
- Baggie Feeders: A baggie feeder is nothing more than a spacer rim (think of a three-inch deep super) that gives you a place to lay a plastic zipper bag filled with syrup. Once the bag is in place, you slit it with a utility knife and the bees drink the liquid through the slit. Often these are completely sucked dry with no (I mean zero) dead bees. Sometimes 3 or 4 crawl in under the plastic and die but, overall, the bees do well with these. Heat from the cluster keeps the syrup from freezing, even in fairly cold weather. I like the size of the rims because they provide a place to put pollen patties, grease patties, or even mite treatments in addition to the syrup. I also use the space to add sugar cakes in the winter instead of making candy boards. The downsides? Once a syrup bag is slit open it is impossible to move, and the plastic bag is a one-use throwaway—which is expensive and environmentally unfriendly. [Update: See "How to tame a baggie feeder" for how to move a full baggie and other hints.]