feeding bees

The syrup solution

Granulated sugar can be fed to bees as crystals, syrup, or fondant.

I remember the first time I made sugar syrup. It was just after I purchased a new hive and was told to feed them 1:1 syrup. This seemed horribly confusing at the time. Books and beekeepers were brimming with sage advice such as “use weight, not volume” or “use volume, not weight.” Then there was “use only cold water” and of course “only use hot water.” Some said, “add vinegar” and some said, “add nothing.” Some said, “always boil” and some said “never.” If you did anything contrary to these mystifying instructions, you would kill every bee within a five-mile radius. Of course.

In truth, all these rules are made by beekeepers—not by bees, not by nature, not by divine instruction. Once again, let’s try applying logic to the situation.

The purpose of syrup it to supplement the bee diet with a high-energy food source when they have little nectar or honey available to them. It is far better for bees to eat honey, but there are times when there isn’t enough honey for the number of hungry mouths. One-to-one syrup is meant to simulate nectar, so it is watery like nectar.

But nectar doesn’t contain a fixed amount of sugar; every species of plant has nectar with a different sugar-to-water ratio. Even the very same flower may have a different sugar-to-water ratio in the morning than in the afternoon, or on a rainy day versus a dry day, or on a hot day versus a cold day. The ratio of sugar to water is infinitely variable and I suspect not a single, solitary plant has an exact ratio of 1:1.

The nectar collected at any one time may be 1.36 to 1 . . . 1 to 1.27 . . . or anything else. The bees don’t care. They collect it. They know what to do with it. So why are we in the kitchen fiddling with scales or leveling off our measuring cups with decimal point precision?

The point is that the 1-to-1 measurement is an approximation. It is a convenient way for us to come close to what we want, but it is not magic. So you put in a little too much sugar? No problem. Not quite enough? Don’t worry. Honestly, it makes no difference. Your bees will not stick little instruments in the feeder to test the specific gravity, trust me. They will simply be overjoyed to have something to eat.


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  • GREAT POINT!!!!! I’ve never worried with it much. Always used my 1 Cup dry to 1 cup liquid, and sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. Also slush. Also no water. You are right – they don’t care.

  • Great to hear as we have not had to provide this supplement yet and I agree that any articles on the subject are confusing so I appreciate your advice. Oh, I assume you would boil it, to ensure the sugar dissolves properly.

    • Merryn,

      One-to-one syrup doesn’t require boiling. I just use hot tap water. Two-to-one is harder to dissolve, so I usually boil the water, turn it off, and then stir in the sugar.

  • Does anyone know how much is the most sugar you can dissolve in water without having it granulate when it cools? Would that be too much sugar for bees?

    • Suz, I don’t know an exact number. But hard candy (like a lollipop) has virtually no water in it and it is not granulated. To get a lot of sugar to dissolve in a little water you need to add lots of heat and you have to keep from seeding the mixture if you don’t want crystals.

      But as far as the bees are concerned, they don’t need any water in their sugar. This is why you can feed them hard candy or granulated sugar with no problem. They will add water to it to get it to dissolve, or they will wait for moisture to condense on the sugar and then eat it.

  • Rusty, thanks again for commonsensical info. People whose advice is cut and dried, are usually trying to inflate their own importance, instead of helping us, the listeners. The test of which it is should be: Is this intimidating or empowering? Nan

  • Thanks, I want to be able to make the most sugary syrup to put in an entrance feeder that won’t granulate so that it still goes through the holes. Is this idea faulty?

    • Suz,

      It won’t hurt anything, but generally thin syrup is recommended for spring feeding because it more closely resembles nectar and therefore stimulates spring brood development. I’m not sure why you want the syrup to be so thick.

        • Suz,

          Yes, which is why you give 2:1 syrup in the fall, instead of 1:1. As you get closer to winter and temperatures drop even lower, you switch to hard candy or fondant.

  • Rusty – Just got done inspecting my two hives (SW Virginia – August 29). Each one is an open hive (no screen). Each one has three brood boxes. One hive has filled the upper brood box with six or seven full frames of honey, along with several partials in the upper box and the middle box. Several good frames filled with capped brood. The other hive has twice as many bees, lots of frames filled with capped brood, and very little honey. This latter hive is a repeat of last year – and if I repeat my behavior, I will start feeding it from now until next year February. Q. Got any clue as to why my second hive has very little honey, but lots and lots of bees and capped brood? I did have to replace the queen in mid-May. Could that mean it is just a few months off-schedule, so to speak? This is the big build up it should have had back a couple months, when there were still blooming trees and bushes? Q. Am I correct to start feeding it 1:1 sugar syrup? Or should it be 2:1? Q. Should I also feed it pollen substitute?

    As always, thanks!
    Bristol, Virginia

    • Michael,

      One is Democrat and one is Republican. The Republicans saved for the future while the Democrats spent everything and hope they can get some public assistance. (Whoops, sorry if I touched a nerve.)

      Seriously, I don’t know why that happens, but it does and it is irritating. No beekeeper wants to spend the winter making sugar syrup, but I’ve had the same thing happen.

      The May queen shouldn’t be the problem. Brood rearing usually begins to slow down when the days become shorter starting in June. Why some ignore this is anybody’s guess. One-to-one syrup is used to stimulate brood production, so I would use 2:1. Also, I would hold off on the pollen substitute until about December. I think too much pollen will also encourage brood production. They should be able to collect pollen for a while yet, so I wouldn’t make it too easy for them.

      If you get a good fall nectar flow in Virginia, all those bees may be able to make up some of the missing honey. Then again, if it is dry, maybe they can’t. I would wait a bit on the syrup and see what they do.

      In my opinion, some of our queens, which by now are all highly inbred, are developing weird characteristics. And I think this odd brood-rearing schedule is one of them.

      Later in the fall, if you want to make it easier on yourself, you may be able to equalized the honey stores between the two hives. But if you do that, you will have to watch both for shortages. Sorry I don’t have any better answers for you.

  • Thanks for the response. Not sure what might be offering nectar, other than all the crepe mytles blooming around my neighborhood. I am a long way from fields of joe pye weed and goldenrod and maybe clover. I will keep an eye on them.

    You take care. Thanks for the chuckle. Though I remember my grandfather telling me about the cricket and the ant, not the donkey and the elephant!