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.]

This post was written with spring feeding in mind. Click the links for information on autumn or winter feeding.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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Comments

Dan Jepson
Reply

I disagree. The internal pail feeder is the best. No robbing, no dead bees, no mess to refill, dishwasher safe for cleaning. Tried all the rest the pail feeder is the best!!!!!

Phillip
Reply

I just tried to use a pail feeder for the first time. I was testing it. I filled the giant pail about 1/4 capacity, sealed the lid and tipped the pail upside-down.

And all the syrup simply poured through the mesh, and all over my leg.

I must be doing something wrong. Is there a trick to using the pail feeders properly?

Rusty
Reply

No, you’re good so far. Now go stand next to your hive for four days or until your pants are no longer sticky, whichever comes first. Nothing to it.

I’ve never used a pail feeder, but I have used the cans of syrup with the mesh over the bottom hole. Did you test it with water or syrup? Syrup is more viscous and might resist the mesh better.

Make sure there are no breaches along the seal, no grit or whatever where air could get in. Some syrup usually drips out when you first turn them over, but it shouldn’t all come out. Did you turn it over quickly?

If that doesn’t work, see paragraph one. In the meantime, I will go experiment.

Rusty
Reply

Now that I think about it, a vacuum has to be created above the syrup before it will stop pouring out. I think you will have the best results from filling it almost full. I also think 2:1 syrup will leak less than 1:1 syrup because of the surface tension between the molecules. This is my guess from pouring some water and then some syrup from containers similar to pail feeders. The thick syrup leaked the least, but they all leaked until the vacuum was created.

Phillip
Reply

I tested it with thick syrup. But I won’t be testing it again soon if I have to nearly fill it. The bucket is huge. I’ll wait until the fall for the next test when I have to make a larger batch of syrup anyway. I’m done feeding even my nucs for the time being. They’re packed with honey.

rraymond
Reply

Last year, we started our first hive with an external entrance feeder. A number of negatives to that as reported. Tried the internal hive frame feeder soon after. Replaces two frames inside the top super. The number of dead bees made me sick but the hive did well.

This year with our second hive, started in April, we started with a top tray feeder. Still too many dead bees. Finally set a flat plastic tray on top of the frames, put a entrance feeder on top of that and placed an empty super box around that, topped by a standard hive cover.

No drowned bees. They had plenty of room to wander about on top of the hive frames and lots of air around the feeder. The feeder was inside and on top where it was away from robbers and inside the hive where it was protected and warm. Took a gallon and a half of honey off this hive early August and it is thriving.

Bonus was that every two days, I got to pop the top, look at the bees, check the food consumption, and top up the jar with 50/50 sugar syrup.

Love the smell of a productive, healthy bee hive. Hope it stays that way.

Rusty
Reply

That’s an interesting way to change an entrance feeder into an internal feeder . . . and a great way to prevent drowning bees. Thanks for the idea!

craigster
Reply

We have used the plastic pails with a rubber seal around the inside of the lid with great success. We drill 10-12 small holes in the lid and fill the bucket with at most 1/2 full of sugar water. A small amount does leak out when we put it over an inner cover with the center hole cut out somewhat but then the vacuum takes over.

allen baggs
Reply

I have some buckets, and I want to try making a pail feeder.
What kind of mesh is used to cover the hole in the pail cover?
Does cheese cloth work?

Rusty
Reply

Allen,

The pail feeders I’ve used had a very fine mesh, more like regular cotton fabric than like cheesecloth. And it was held very tight with a plastic ring that fit snugly in the hole. Cheesecloth might work if it was very tightly woven. Cheesecloth varies a lot and some is very loosely woven.

craigste
Reply

We have never used mesh over the pail. We always get the lids that come with the buckets (from our local grocery store bakery department) and drill small holes in the lid. With the rubber seals and the vacuum that gets created these buckets last 1-2 weeks.

Rusty
Reply

What size drill bit do you use?

Marvin
Reply

We bottled about 30 gallon of honey last fall and stored it in the garage. Summer heat has caused some of it to ferment. We have moved it to a cooler place but hate to toss the fermented stuff. Would it be ok to feed it to the bees?

Rusty
Reply

Marvin,

Fermented honey is not good for bees. You should read “One for the road: bees with a buzz“—it’s one of my favorite posts. To sum it up, bees on alcohol are not much different than humans on alcohol.

By the way, your honey didn’t ferment from getting too warm. It fermented because the water content was too high. The moisture content of honey has to be so low (17-18%) that naturally occurring yeast cells cannot survive in it. Optimum temperatures for fermentation hover around room temperature, say 60-70 degrees F.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Greg, I’ll check it out.

Andre B.
Reply

This website is probably one of the best so far to understand the bee industry. Kudos!

Jules
Reply

This is my experiment. I tried this last year and it seemed to work. I am trying it this year again. I like the frame feeders and the location inside the hive. The downfall is the drowned bees. Even with rough sides and floats it is pretty upsetting to clean the bees out. I put 3 baggies with syrup in the frame feeder and cut small slits on the top on both sides of the closure. My syrup is contained, easy to clean out the feeder, close to the bees. Any syrup slopping out can still be accessed by the bees. I had a few dead bees inside on bag but they may have crawled in toward the end and couldn’t get out.

Bonnie
Reply

Well this evening I got my very first hive set up with a swarm given to me by a friend. Never having done this before I have the 9 frame brood box on the bottom, duh. Then 9 frame super. I then put the inner cover on and then an empty super on top of that into which I hung a lone division board feeder. Topped it all off with the hive cover. I was feeling real good about this but after reading here I feel I must now go and put floaters into the feeder to cut down on drowning. Do any of yall have comments pro or con about this configuration of hive?

George
Reply

Hi Bonnie,

I’m new to beekeeping but I have been using water coolers for years. The slightest air leak in the jug will allow all 4 gallons of water to leak int0 the innards of the cooler, to the detriment of the electric thingys inside.
Your feeder has to be totally airtight or air will get in and allow the water to seep out. I would test it outside of the hive before I installed it again.

Ly Faber
Reply

Hi all, I’m a new beekeeper as of yesterday. I have 3 hives, 2 with hive top feeders and the third with a pail feeder. At first the pail top feeder leaked quite a lot (I noticed it drip out the entrance), but it seemed to stop so I left it on. This morning I checked again and the whole pail had leaked over night :(

Any idea what is going wrong with it?

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Ly,

Was the pail really full when you turned it over? A vacuum needs to form inside the pail above the liquid. If you don’t start with a full pail, or if air can get above the liquid through a hole or from the pail being tipped, then the liquid will drain out.

Anyone else have a theory?

Ly Faber
Reply

Hi Rusty, yeah maybe that’s it. I only had it about 2/3 full. I’ll try it again completely full.

Robert
Reply

Ly, I would say somehow a vacuum was not created. Like Rusty explained either not enough liquid in pail to start, crack or hole in the pail, lid not sealed on correctly or holes/covering for hole allowed too much liquid out. I have been using a 1 gallon glass jar with with 10-15 holes punched in without leaking, that is after the initial flip upside down. Next time you try to use it flip it over outside the hive to make sure the dripping stops. May also want to look inside the hive to make sure the queen is ok and she didn’t drown in all that syrup leaking out.

Karen
Reply

I am also relatively new to beekeeping. I have tried both the frame and entrance feeders and liked neither. As mentioned the frame feeder results in a high death rate and the entrance feeder I used was one were a 2L bottle screwed into the feeder itself, which if wasn’t in the entrance at the right angle, kept running syrup out of the feeder. I am now trying a bird feeder. This sits on top of the frames inside an empty super. At this stage it appears to be working really well. I am keen to try the baggie feeder in another hive, so I’m pleased to hear that you find this method successful.

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

The longer I keep bees the less I like any of the feeders. They each have positive and negative attributes, so I think it comes down to a personal decision. The one you will like the best is the one you are most willing to put up with.

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