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 beesincluding wasps, birds, raccoons, skunks, possums, bearswhatever 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 partsa 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 throwawaywhich 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.
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!!!!!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I really like your idea on the flat plastic tray and then the entrance feeder. Would you send me a picture and the type of feeder and tray?
Does the weight of the feeder squish the bees?
Thank you so much!
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.
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?
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.
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.
What size drill bit do you use?
I want to know the size of the drill too!
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?
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.
Hi Rusty, Just came across an interesting article about colored honey in France. Thought you might like it, Greg
Thanks, Greg, I’ll check it out.
This website is probably one of the best so far to understand the bee industry. Kudos!
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
Hi Rusty, yeah maybe that’s it. I only had it about 2/3 full. I’ll try it again completely full.
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.
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.
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.
Remember, sugar syrup will kill brood, so leaky feeders are not good when set over brood. If you only have one or three hives, try making plywood lids with holes right size for jar feeders cut out off-center to set jars not over brood.
Just found this site and it’s a bit disconcerting to me. I thought that bees went to visit all kinds of flowering plants in the vicinity and that was all what was needed for them produce honey.
If you have all these kind of feeders, aren’t you just using bees as a method to make a different kind sugary treat, as opposed to something natural?
How do I as a honey buyer know if feeders have been used to produce honey? As I sure won’t be buying any of it without know that!
First, most beekeepers feed their honey bees at certain times during the year. Honey bees make honey from the nectar of flowers, but if people (like you) want to go to the store and buy honey, that means it has to be taken from the bees. Beekeepers try not to take more than the bee colony can afford to lose, but things don’t always work out perfectly. We live in a world were many resources for bees are gone in favor of housing developments, shopping centers, airports, roads, schools, and so on. Just think, when you went to buy your honey you probably left your home, drove on roads, and went into a store: all those things have removed floral resources from the bees. We still want honey but the bees have less and less to work with.
To keep the bees alive if we take away too much honey (either accidentally or on purpose) we need to feed them. Sugar syrup is usually used because bees do well on it and it doesn’t harm them. Of course, bees cannot make honey from sugar syrup because, by definition, honey is made from the nectar of flowers.
Once flowers are in bloom, all sugar products are removed from the bee hives. This is nothing new; beekeepers have been supplementing the honey bee diet for decades. Basically then, the bees use the sugar to live on in times of shortage. They eat it. If the beekeeper is knowledgeable, none of that syrup will get into the honey.
As a buyer of honey, the best assurance of a pure product is to buy it off a beekeeper who can tell you his practice. Some keepers may use syrup often, some never, but beekeepers are proud of their honey and usually produce a pure product. Imports are sometimes found to be tainted with syrup, so buy local. Also, taste the product. Honey has unique flavors, sugar syrup takes like sugar syrup.
I can assure you that most beekeepers, including me, are extremely proud of their product and would never allow a drop of syrup into their honey. Still, if we want to keep our bees alive, we can’t take their honey without supplementing their diet if conditions require it.
I tried outside feeders. At night when it got cold the syrup created a vacuum. The next day the syrup warmed and caused pressure at that time out runs the syrup. My guess would be to not use cold water. Even then it still gets cold at night. I then started using brood building patties. They work great and no mess.
After reading all these ideas written about in this feed I am wondering if anyone has tried using a humming bird feeder placed inside of an empty super above the brood box? My feeders sure attract bees when I place them out to feed the hummers in my yard.
It may work but it’s probably more trouble than using some other method that holds more syrup.
First year Beek here. I tried using Mason jars with holes punched in the lids but I don’t have an extra super and so the jars are usually too big for the roof to sit snugly on top of the super (even the wider, shorter jars). Recently I tried tin foil pot-pie dishes with plastic lids; I poke holes in the tin part and then invert it and set it over the hole on the top cover. It seems to work really well for keeping the syrup for the bees under the cover and not allowing the big black ants to feed – they are often on top of the cover and under the roof. The disadvantage is that the bees go through that quantity of syrup in about 3-4 days. I think I’ll look for a larger sized tin pan with a plastic lid next.
Types of feeders, size of colony, outside temperature, number of nearby colonies/their size/strength and season of the year all affect feeding technique.
Insects-ants, yellow jackets, wasps, hive beetles, moths-wax: worms can be be devastating.
Lime around base of hive and possibly cinammon in hive passage area (around rim etc., top cover can control ants).
The others are more challenging and may actually require hiding/placing in limited access setting or controlled access to even have a chance at being successful in feeding. Feeding a hive can be terminal for a small hive with all the other insects/robbing that can take place. Feeding protein patties probably should be reserved for time when frost-cooler temperature prevail.
The frame feeder can be improved by placing a piece of cotton cloth that wicks the sugar syrup and allows bees to climb out in the event the can’t swim and they definitely can’t. I have even wadded up paper towels and placed in the syrup.
Top accessing super feeders must have a secure tight fitting llid/top or you will kill more bees than you save. These feeders should only be used in temperature above freezing.
Winter time and moisture in hive does not go well together and proximity to feed source (in freezing temperature). Small nuc may even need weather protection inside building with light bulb.
I have made sugar patty or slab by placing in plastic container and adding small amount of apple cider vinegar/water and vitamins. Can find recipes on internet. I also like using HSC Plastic Drawn Frames
(as few as one or two frames to pack with small amount of protein patty, more so with honey or dampened sugar mix above and pack in drawn cells (especially good for starting packaged bees).
I prefer the dryer feed over the liquid. Again, beware of too much protein-hive beetle-wax moth/worms concerns. Lime ground surrounding hive until white to prevent ants. Don”t forget one good rain will necessitste reliming to control ants while feeding.
Feeding protien patties in winter also draws small animals like deer mice, oppossums, skunks, etc. so you may need mouse guards/robbing guards.
May God Bless!
The type of feeders to use will depend on the season and the strength of the colonies within an apiary. In my experiment, I tested the division board feeder, and it seemed to work. I like this type because of its location inside the hive and any syrup linking out can be accessed by the bees. So there is no wastage.
6 days ago I put 2- 5 frame nucs into 2- 10 frame brood boxes. I decided to try external hive top feeding, a paint can with some holes in the cover raised slightly above the top bars with some shims and then with a medium and cover over it. I have seen and read about this particular setup several times. As I was setting this up I wondered what is to prevent the bees building comb in this empty space and sure enough when I checked today there was a lot of comb being built on top of the frames. In hind sight, I should have checked sooner but is this method really only appropriate in the fall when comp building will have been curtailed?
There are pros and cons with every system. If you give them syrup to build comb, they will build it wherever they find room. That’s why hive tools were invented.
I may need a jackhammer.
I have been trying to get my bees to try the top hive feeder with no luck. I always get one or two bees wondering around but they never go and use it. I started using the entrance hive feeder and it works well for me. I put 3 in each hive which reduces the entrance to a small space. Haven’t had any issues!
You can’t force honey bees to do anything they don’t want to do, you can only offer suggestions.
Eastern TN. Still on my first year, bought a fully operational hive last spring. I bought an internal hive top feeder – 2 sections with a float in each side, bee access thru the center. Some in my bee club say this type is terrible because the bees drown. I suppose if you put a couple gallons in it the floats might not be stable. After I harvested a medium super in July, I put it back on – they refilled it, and I left it on all winter. So I figured I was only supplementing just-in-case, and I put about a quart at a time into the feeder, which isn’t very deep and the floats seemed to work fine. Had no bee deaths in the feeder.
Now, in mid-winter when we finally had a week of nights in the teens, the feeder turned into a miniature ice rink. That’s when I switched to thickened honey or thick syrup, on newspaper on top of frames, or in paper muffin cups on the feeder floats, and eventually to dry sugar on the newspaper. And I’m collecting shallow aluminum pans for future experiments.
Why did I try so many different things? Did I mention I’m still new to this? But I really liked the internal feeder for the most part.
I just wrote a long message to you about the baggie feeders. I forgot to put in my info before I hit send. I got a message to go back and fill in the info but when I did all my message was gone. Did you by any chance get the info?? Bottom line is I have used other feeders but not the baggie feeder. By your post it appears this is your feeder of choice. Do you use this feeder during all seasons, summer dearth, autumn, winter, spring? If you feed during a dearth how much do you normally fed? Right now I am using frame feeders and they are a pain. Dead bees. Always full of bees when the feeder is empty so hard to fill. I worry the queen may be in with the bees in the feeder ladder. I have used the internal hive top feeder. That’s a no go. Too heavy dead bees etc. Anyway those are my questions. During my 3 1/2 years of beekeeping I have read much info all over the internet and have experienced a lot. Some very good and a lot not so much. I always come back to your website because you give good sold easy to understand info. Thank you for that. As we all know no matter how many years one has been beekeeping there is always more to learn.
I don’t do much feeding anymore. I try to avoid it. But basically, when I do fall feeding, I use baggy feeders exclusively. But I never use them in cold weather because liquid feed will chill the bees if it (the syrup) drops to around 50 degrees. A really big colony will keep the feed warm with body heat, but a small colony won’t be able to.
In the late fall, winter, and early spring I use candy boards. If they run out, I supplement with candy cakes. I really prefer solid feed because it is much easier to handle. I think feeding in a dearth is dangerous business because of the possibility of robbing, so I let them eat their honey supply instead. Later, if they don’t have enough honey, I use the candy boards.
I just got my package of bees this morning. Two questions have come to mind as I get ready to put them in my hive. First, when I put the boardman feeder (external type) it is inserted in the larger entrance opening. In this position, there is no opening for bees to exit. Should I cut another small opening? Second, when I “bump” the bees out of the mailer package all the dead bees will be dumped into the hive. Will the bees take care of removing them?
Don’t use an entrance reducer with the boardman feeder because, as you mentioned, there is no room for the bees.
Yes, all the dead bees will fall into the hive, and yes, the workers will eventually remove them. Alternatively, just put the package in the hive upright and let the live bees walk out. That way, the dead stay in the package. See photos here: https://www.honeybeesuite.com/installing-a-new-package-of-bees/