Why feed sugar syrup to honey bees?

Spring is one of the times when you may have to feed your bees sugar syrup. If you are new to beekeeping it helps to understand why, when, what, and how to feed. I will try to cover the main points.

If your bees have used up their winter stores of honey, they may need syrup for a few weeks until the nectar starts to flow. This can happen even if you didn’t harvest any honey in the previous season. Sometimes a dry summer prevents the bees from making enough honey, sometimes a winter cluster is a bit too large and eats through the supplies early, and sometimes the nectar flows are late. And, yes, sometimes the beekeeper harvested too much the year before. In any case, a few weeks of sugar syrup can often save the colony.

Another springtime need for syrup occurs when you set up a new hive with a package of bees. They don’t have anything to start with unless you give them frames of honey or sugar syrup. If you’re just starting out, and you don’t have frames of honey laying around, sugar syrup will do the trick. Never give your bees honey that didn’t come from your own apiary. Honey can harbor disease organisms that can infect your new bees. Stick with sugar syrup.

Check your existing hives in the very early spring to see if they have enough honey. If they don’t, you can start them on syrup if it’s warm enough for them to break cluster and feed on it. Otherwise, you might want to use a candy board until the weather gets warmer.

A spring syrup is usually mixed in a 1:1 ratio, either by weight or volume—they are close enough that it doesn’t much matter. Every type of nectar has a different ratio of sugar to water, so the bees can handle a little variation. Don’t obsess over it. Just heat the water to about a simmer, remove it from the stove and dump in the sugar, then stir until all the crystals are dissolved. You can also dissolve the sugar in cold water, it just takes more stirring.

At this point you can add some Honey-B-Healthy if you like, or a couple of drops of an essential oil, such as spearmint or lemongrass. These oils are supposed to be good for the bees and, in any case, the bees love them and will finish the syrup in no time. Honey-B-Healthy is a commercial product that contains these essential oils along with an emulsifier to keep them in solution. It’s an excellent product, but expensive, so some beekeepers like to make a substitute. Either is fine, but the Honey-B-Healthy is easier to handle.

I will write about the different kinds of feeders in a separate post. In the meantime, you can stock up on sugar. You will be pleased to know that the price of sugar reached all-time highs this past year thanks to the sugar tariffs imposed by our government.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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Comments

Kathleen Williamson
Reply

Thanks for the info…I have been going through 5 cups sugar syrup a day for about a month now……late spring has limited our flowers blooming…..this is a brand new hive and I was worried that they were getting spoiled by all that sugar syrup just outside their door…so to speak. They seem happy and are flying around the syrup, but I don’t see a lot of visits to the few flowers we do have blooming. Hoping that as my raspberries come into bloom, they will choose them over the sugar.

Jeff
Reply

Don’t feel bad about feeding, Kathleen. I have been feeding last year’s nuc to encourage comb production for this year’s nucs. As of right now, I have the third brood box filled with comb and have removed a couple of frames besides. But to achieve all this, I have been feeding about 4 liters twice a week (8 liters of syrup). Funny thing, most has gone into brood rearing and comb production. We took 7 frames of brood out last week to make splits with queen cups we put in. That was from the third brood box and still two boxes are filled with brood/eggs.

On a side note concerning the health of the hive: We put 12 cups in and after 9 days we had 11 closed cells. Using the 7 frames of brood plus a couple frames from another beekeeper we are trying to make 7 splits. While my original starter colony took a hit, it is still two standard brood boxes with eggs and brood.

Feed Feed Feed.

Kathleen Williamson
Reply

Just checked the hive….two brood boxes and they look great and healthy….the top box is full of capped “honey”…which I suspect is my sugar syrup converted. They are now up to 10 cups a day in sugar syrup, but they seem happy and lively, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I will be adding a third shallow super on top of the two brood boxes because I think they are running out of room….or am I being novice in my thinking. Should I put on a third brood box instead?

Rusty
Reply

Kathleen,

If they’ve filled two brood boxes with brood and syrup, why not give them a honey super, stop the syrup, and let them store some honey? That’s what I would do. Even if the brood boxes are not quite full, they can top them off with real honey which it better for their health during the winter.

The purpose of feeding syrup to a new colony is to get them to build comb quickly. But it they’ve already done that, they should be storing honey. I don’t know where you are writing from but two deep brood boxes (or three mediums) is usually good for overwintering. You may want three if you are in the far north.

Vickie
Reply

I learn something new every time I read a blog.

So, with a new colony I should be feeding them sugar syrup even tho there is plenty of things in bloom in SoCal? They have a frame of brood, pollen and nectar that was borrowed from one of my existing hives – but this isn’t enough? This hive has a new queen too.

What about red ants? We have ants everywhere.

Rusty
Reply

Vicki,

It depends. Feeding syrup helps them to build comb quickly. You need comb both for brood rearing and for food storage. If you think your new colony has time before winter to build out the combs and fill them up, then you don’t need syrup. Your growing season is a lot longer than most in the country, so there is probably time for them to do it all by themselves. Personally, I don’t feed a new colony syrup more than a few weeks, but that has gotten me in trouble a couple times. By trouble I mean I ended feeding them all winter long because they weren’t able to store enough for themselves. Like most things in beekeeping, it’s a judgement call.

Are the ants invading the colony or living under the lid? We don’t have red ants here but we have other ants that live under the lid but don’t do any harm. Your bees should be able to handle the ants unless the colony is very weak. If you are having real problems, I know where to get a more detailed answer.

Vickie
Reply

I see the ants at the entrance, on the sides of the hives, crawling on the top – basically everywhere. However, the ant colony is not as strong as the bee colony. When I plant my garden it’s one for the gophers and one for the rabbits – is this the same for ants?

mattie sermons
Reply

Can you feed too much? Bees are coming into my backyard hummingbird feeders. So I put sugar water out for them. Then a very large five hundred or so but two days later fifty or so is dead. I am worried I’m doing something wrong. Help.

Rusty
Reply

Mattie,

If I understand, you saw a very large number of bees at the sugar water feeder and then, the next day, you saw many dead ones. Is that right?

The problem is that you should not feed the bees outside of their hive. If you want to feed them syrup, you need some kind of feeder (there are many kinds) that fit inside the hive with the bees. Two things could be killing your bees. The first one is fighting. They may be fighting with other honey bees or with wasps and hornets. They are fighting over the food. In either case, many bees will die.

The second thing that happens is bees can drown in syrup. Honey bee feeders are specially designed to reduce the number of drowning bees by giving them ways to crawl out of it or preventing them from getting in it in the first place.

Either of these things (or both together) probably caused the 50 dead bees. So don’t feed them in any open containers. Just wait and get the right kind of feeder. Sorry about the hummingbirds; I really don’t know how to keep the bees away from their feeder.

mattie sermons
Reply

Thank you so much. I put lots of rocks and small limbs they can stand on, but I won’t feed them anymore. I was trying to help. It’s so hot and dry here and the beekeeper I think they belong to is sick. Thanks for the info. Maybe I will get a hive. If so I will be back.

Mattie

Rusty
Reply

Mattie,

Thanks for trying to help the bees; it was a kind thing to do.

mike ashlock
Reply

Just starting out here. Definitely a newbee but wanting to be here now without the experience required to do the bees right. Last week while firewood cutting (end of November in the Sierra foothills) we cut down a dead oak that turned out to have a hive in it. We transferred some of the comb, queen and bees to a hive box with foundation on frame which the bees are starting to drawn comb out on.

Today I just got a syrup feeder jar that gets shoved into the entrance of the hive and some of Dadant’s “Brood Builder Patties with Honey B Healthy” as a pollen substitute since this colony is getting a late start transfer to a hive and their winter stores were mostly trashed in the tree fall. Sooo—any suggestions on how to feed….such as sugar/water ratio for starting them out this winter would be appreciated. And does anyone have experience with the Dadant product above or have suggestions for other pollen type substitutes? Thanks.

Tricia
Reply

I have two strong hives but before I go too far into the spring and the honey flow (in FL) I want to feed some Honey-B-Healthy. Shouldn’t I remove the honey supers before I do it? Should I do anything else besides remove the honey supers? I’ve been feeding sugar water since last Sept. in 5 gallon buckets a ways from the hives and of course feeding wild bees too. Lack of rain, nectar, pollen caused me to have to feed. They have all been happy though. Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Tricia,

Honey supers should not be in place for feeding Honey-B-Healthy or even plain sugar syrup. The bees will store the syrup in the honey super as if it were honey. Then, if you were to harvest that super later, it would be contaminated with sugar syrup. If the bees were fed Honey-B-Healthy, that would be in there as well and perhaps make your honey smell of spearmint or lemongrass. So the rule of thumb is, never feed anything to bees when a honey super in place. For more on this, see http://www.honeybeesuite.com/never-feed-syrup-during-a-honey-flow/.

In general, honey supers are put on in the spring when the nectar flows begin and taken off in the fall after the last bloom.

Tricia
Reply

Thank you. I just went to that site and read it and and asked more questions! I’m full of them. I don’t know where you are but here in FL I’m still not sure about when the honeyflow starts. Here things are blooming now-the wild plums, the willow, redbuds; so I guess you can say it’s started?

Rusty
Reply

Tricia,

I’m all the way up in Washington State so our honey flow hasn’t started yet. One way you can tell is that you will see your bees building brand new snow-white comb. With things in bloom, you are well on your way to nectar flow if it hasn’t started already–but it sounds like it has. Going back to your very first question, you really don’t need to feed Honey-B-Healthy if your bees are bringing in nectar and pollen. They will be getting all the nutrition they need from that.

Tricia
Reply

You are probably right because they seem to not want it. Yes, there has been white capping. One of these years I’ll get the hang of this. I have a mentor; he gave me my 1st hive about 3 1/2 years ago. The years that he worked with bees he never saw a SHB. So you know how long ago it was. I really am about a month behind I think. Thank you again.

Fowler Bush
Reply

Got my first hive this spring. My question is when should I stop feeding syrup to my nuc hive? Since installing them 2 1/2 weeks ago, they have consumed over 30 pounds of sugar – about 70 quarts. After two weeks I added the second deep because they had filled 90-95% of the first deep. They seem happy and are adding comb, brood and honey like crazy.

It is late spring here in the mountains of North Carolina; we have some flowers but trees are not quite in full leaf yet. My guess is that I should/could stop feeding now but at least two books I consulted say feed them until they will not take any more. But they are talking about package hives and mine is a nuclear hive. What to do?

Rusty
Reply

Jenny,

Read this post on feeding a new package: http://www.honeybeesuite.com/how-long-should-i-feed-a-new-package-of-bees/. Most of it will apply to a nuc as well, except that with a nuc you have a headstart because you’ve already got some frames of drawn comb. Based on your description, I’d say you can stop at any time.

However, when you say your bees are “adding comb, brood and honey like crazy” remember that a lot of what looks like honey is that 70 quarts of sugar you gave them. The “honey” you see is probably a mixture of nectar and sugar syrup. The bees can’t distinguish one from the other other and will mix them up and store them together. If you want your bees to start storing pure honey, then it is time to stop the syrup.

Jennie
Reply

Thanks Rusty. That is precisely the information I needed.

Laurie
Reply

Now I’m confused. I have new hives and my bees have made comb on both brood chambers. I have added a honey super all the while feeding the bees with sugar syrup. What should I do with the honey that is most likely sugar and nectar? I thought I was to suppose to feed the bees while they were drawing comb on all the foundations.

Rusty
Reply

Laurie,

You can save it for feeding bees later. You can extract it and save it, or you can save the entire frame for feeding later, or you can cut out the comb and tie it into a brood frame. The bees will connect it to the new frame in a few days.

Laurie
Reply

Thank you. When should I feed the bees with my sugar honey frames? Will they eat that first before eating what is stored in the lower boxes?

Rusty
Reply

Laurie,

During the winter, the colony will eat the lower supplies first and then move up. They often become critically short in the late winter/early spring—a good time to give it to them.

marwan
Reply

I wonder if sugar syrup spoiled honey. Help me.

Rusty
Reply

Marwan,

I would love to help but you need to be more specific.

Robbie
Reply

We are getting our first nuc of bees this spring. We have lots of honey; would it be better for the new colony to use honey in bag feeders instead of sugar syrup?

Rusty
Reply

Robbie,

That depends on how well you know the producer of the honey you have. No doubt, honey is the very best bee food, but honey can carry the spores of American foulbrood. Even if the producer has no signs of foulbrood in his hives, if he is suppressing it with antibiotics, the spores could still show up in his honey. Some articles I’ve read estimate that about 80% of commercially produced honey contains foulbrood spores. The number is large because honey from various sources is often mixed together. Once you get AFB in your apiary, you will spend the rest of your beekeeping years trying to control it. On the other hand, sugar is completely free of honey bee disease pathogens. Once you are producing your own AFB-free honey, you can feed it to your bees in subsequent years.

Jennifer
Reply

I think I’ve made a newbie mistake. I have 2 new nucs this year all doing quite well in 10 frame medium boxes. I’ve been feeding them since I got them in mid-April. I now have 2 boxes full of brood, honey, pollen. But in the third box the bees have stored all honey/sugar syrup. I had been told to expect 3 medium boxes of brood before a honey super. I have just added a 4th box for a super before I realized they filled box 3 with syrup. :). Now I have 2 questions:

- Should I remove or drain some of the sugar frames? Or leave them in for winter feed? And if I leave them in the hive, should I add some undrawn frames to the middle of box 3 for brood space?

- I was planning to move my hives to the NC mountains in hope of catching another flow. Will this impact decisions for question above?

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Jennifer,

Save the stored sugar syrup for winter feed. It may crystallize in the comb, but that is not a problem for the bees; they will eat it anyway. There is no harm in replacing some of the frames with empties, and just storing the full frames where they will not be attacked by other insects such as ants.

No, just go ahead and move your hives with or without the stored sugar. If it were me, I would take it out and save it for winter; but I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. You can do it either way.

bee crazy
Reply

I’m new to hives. I have two ten-frame hives; one is almost full of brood and comb. Do I add the second one now? Also, do I add a frame of bees to it or will they move up on their own?

Rusty
Reply

Bee Crazy,

Yes, if the first box is nearly full of brood and comb, go ahead and add the next. You can put a frame or two of brood in the second box, if you want. Pull out two frames and put them in the middle of the second box. In the first box, push the frames together and add the empties at the sides. This will keep the brood nest altogether and compact.

If you would rather not move the frames, the bees will eventually move up on their own.

bee crazy
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for the info. My bees are doing well. The second box is already 80% full. Added super June 20th.

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