feeding bees

Put the syrup close to the bees

After I wrote “When a colony refuses to drink,” I decided to do a small and informal experiment to learn more about the drinkers vs the non-drinkers. I filled baggies with 2:1 syrup, laced them with Honey-B-Healthy, and added these to the top of eight strong hives. I surrounded each baggie with a three-inch eke (or feeder rim) and topped it with an inner cover and a lid.

After three days, during which the nighttime temperatures dipped into the 40-50°F range, I went back to check the bags. Six were totally empty and two were untouched. So I went digging . . .

In the six hives with empty bags, the cluster was very close to the baggie—within just a few inches. In the two with untouched baggies, there was an entire medium box of honey between the bees and the syrup.

Other people have noticed this phenomenon too, and it has prompted them to suppose that these bees “knew” they had enough stores and didn’t need more. But “knowing they had enough” doesn’t sound very bee-like. After all, honey bees are known to be hoarders and will fill a dozen honey supers if they can.

I believed they didn’t eat the syrup because it was too cold, and it was too cold because it was too far from the bees. So, in those two hives, I just reversed the position of the feeder and the medium of honey. In other words, above the two brood boxes I put the eke with the baggie, and on top of that I put the medium of honey.

In three days I went back to check, and in both cases, the syrup was gone.

Now, I still believe the difference is the temperature of the syrup—after all, syrup close to the cluster will be warmer than syrup further away—but I realize my theory may be wrong. Nevertheless, from a management point of view, if you think it is important to feed your colonies, getting the syrup as close to the cluster as possible may increase your success.



  • I knew the syrup had to be the right temperature to be taken by my bees, so I came up with the following plan, which seems to work fine unless the temperature dips below 40 for more than a couple of days.

    I made a solid feeder board with 6 holes cut out for wide mouth canning jars. The unused holes are covered with black window screen pressed in with jar rings. If the day/night will be mild I leave the screened holes open for ventilation, but if nights are chilly I put two old bath towels over the screened holes to keep the heat in the hive.

    When using one or two feeders jars, I take out the screen ring and insert the warm syrup, also laced with Honey-Bee-Healthy, and put a jar “cozy” over the warm syrup feeder jar. I made my jar covers with two layers of quilt insulation sandwiched between two layers of heavy fleece. I think a couple layers of heavy socks would work, too. If the cozy is on, the bees take the syrup. If I leave the cozy off and the night is chilly they won’t touch it. I think the rising heat from the hive keeps the cozied jar at a drinkable temperature.

    • Carol,

      This is fascinating. I’d like to know how much you warm the syrup. Also is the board directly over a brood box or is it over a mostly honey-filled super? Also, do you have any photos? This certainly demonstrates that it is the temperature of the syrup, not the air, that dictates syrup drinking behavior. It is also very creative. I’m impressed.

  • An excellent and appropriate piece of information. I have just been away for a few days and I know both my colonies needed feeding. I left on each one of the huge feeders from Maisemore over here Item L on page 27 of the online catalogue or page 24 of the print one http://www.bees-online.co.uk/downloads/ma_catalogue_2012.pdf

    One hive had hardly taken a third of what I had left whilst the other had taken all and of course I cannot tell at what stage they finished their syrup. There are two feeding holes/domes so this could mean alternatives depending on where the cluster is.

    I am wondering whether there are other advantages to a larger feeder. For example, assuming the syrup is warmish when put on it will cool down more slowly? But if there is a really cold snap it will cool more slowly?

    This feed is post varroa treatment with apiguard and if all apiguard has not been taken, the normal practice is to leave the container even when the syrup has been put on. Could this deter some bees from feeding? The colony which took less syrup is of darker bees and they do seem to forage at slightly lower temperatures than my other hive. The hive that took more was in a more open position – they get sun directly on the hive for longer though both hives are in a south facing, sheltered part of the garden. I realise 2 hives is not much of a sample and there are so many variables. You’ve just been thought provoking in your usual way and these were the thoughts provoked in me. Keep up the good work.

    • Hi Tricia,

      I think the main advantage of a large feeder is that it doesn’t need to be filled as often. It is true that warm syrup in a large feeder will cool down more slowly, but conversely, cold syrup will take longer to warm up. So, for example, a few hours of sunshine may warm the syrup in a shallow feeder enough for the bees to take it. But a large volume of syrup may never get warm enough, once it has gotten cold.

      I don’t know how cold it gets at night where you are, but here in October it can easily go below 10 C at night, and the syrup may not get warm enough during the next day for it to go over 10. And, as you know, bees won’t drink stuff that is below 10. You say that the hive that took more syrup was exposed longer to the sun during the day. That makes sense because the syrup had a better chance of getting (or staying) warm than the syrup in the other hive. I would say that has a lot to do with it, although colony size makes a big difference as well.

      As far as Apiguard goes, I don’t know its effect on feeding. That’s a good question. Humans adjust to smells in a very short time, such that we hardly notice a pervasive odor after 15 or 20 minutes. But are bees the same way? I have no idea.

      • Rusty

        Thanks for the reply. An eye opening point. At the time, I don’t think the temperatures were below 10. In the hive that is slightly shadier are bees that seem hardier – they typically fly at lower temperatures than the hive in sunshine for longer. But I may try and resite the hive and try and use a max-min thermometer to take some readings out of interest.

        Bees are so interesting!


  • Hi Rusty,

    It’s not exactly on point, but we were discussing a. why bees can eat honey in cold weather, although it is somewhat liquid, and b. why they sometimes don’t, and starve even with adequate stores.

    (In answer to an earlier question, you said by all means move frames of honey closer in closer to, or above the cluster, if you can get in the hive on a mild day.)

    Is it that honey with an empty frame or two between it and the cluster just gets too cold for them to eat? That cluster is at 90 degrees, right? and it should radiate some heat to honey that is near enough, and especially above it.

    I hear experienced beekeepers talk about bees starving even with honey on board, as though it’s “one a them bee thangs” that you can’t do anything about. That doesn’t seem right.

    Have you done a post on this issue back before I subscribed in ’12? Thanks!

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

  • Would you at some point remove the eke and baggie during the winter or just know the bees would move up to the honey when necessary? Seems if you didn’t remove it at just the right time you might be forced to leave it due to temperatures. Once they cross it to move up, no harm, no foul?

    • SDB,

      I would remove it as soon as possible for the same reason I put it there in the first place: to keep the food close to the bees. You can whip it out in a matter of seconds; you don’t even have to remove the lid or inner cover.

  • A great reminder…THANKS RUSTY!!! I have observed the same thing. We feed during the day which seems to also be the best time since the bees are more active in daytime. Tucking them all in now in Baltimore and moving some to strategic locations…

  • Rusty,

    Here in western Oregon I have 8 frame/2 brood hives with vivaldi boards with swienty feeders covered with garden/gabled ventilated tops, seems to work great, heat raises up through to syrup. Bees are taking the 2:1 / with HBH like its going out of style. Question: how much syrup is enough through the fall, without opening the broods to check? (I’m treating 2 hives for varroa for 42 days). There has to be a syrup cut off at some point I would think.

  • Probably a real silly question from a guy with no bees YET. What would happen if I took my soon to be 2 hives that are close to my house and put something like a heating pad on like 65 degrees and put it under a top feeder. How bad would that mess things up? To add to the rookie silliness what would happen on nights when temps in Ohio drop well below zero for days at a time you put the same type of heating device under the hive?

    • Troy,

      Honey bees survive just fine in very cold temperatures as long as they are dry and remain in their cluster. When you add artificial heat, you run the risk of them thinking it is warmer than it is and flying out of the hive and freezing to death. Honey bees are better off knowing “the truth” about the weather.

  • We have been reading some information about surrounding the hives with insulation to keep the bees warmer in the winter. We live in eastern South Dakota where we get some long periods of bitter cold temps. Would that be a good idea?

  • Hi Rusty!

    I’m in the Catskills of NY. Close to the Hudson River. My hive over wintered well and there were many bees in the second deep eating stored honey and fondant. I removed the moisture board, wraps… A few weeks ago. This week I removed an almost full frame to put in a drone board. I also added an empty super and on top of that a hive top feeder above that with a super around it to secure. My question is, is it too cold for the bees to travel through the empty super to the food? It’s been rainy the last few days so I haven’t checked them and when I lift the cover I don’t see bees near the food. I always worry whenever I make changes to my hive!

    Thanks, Rachel

    • Rachel,

      In order for your honey bees to drink syrup, the syrup itself (not the surrounding air) must be greater than 50 degrees F. The best way to know, is to sick a thermometer in the syrup. If’s it’s colder than that, the bees will simply refuse to drink it because they get chilled.

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