feeding bees

When a colony refuses to drink

“Why are three of my colonies drinking their syrup, but not the fourth?”

Honey bees will not drink syrup that is too cold. Once the temperature of the syrup drops to a certain point—somewhere in the low 50s°F—the bees would become chilled if they were to drink it. Imagine how you would feel downing an icy beverage when you are nearly immobile with cold. Not a pleasant thought.

Assuming you are using an internal feeder, the temperature of the syrup is influenced by the outside air temperature and the size of the colony. A large colony will keep the syrup warmer—and therefore drink longer—than a small colony.

So in the autumn when I see a colony not taking syrup while the rest of them are, the first thing I suspect is a small colony. At that point, it is wise to inspect that colony and assess whether it is large enough for winter survival. If not, consider combining it with another.

Of course, it could be a false alarm. Perhaps the feed is too far from the cluster, poorly positioned, or just too voluminous for them to keep warm. You will have to make a decisions based on what you find.

But from a management point of view, if only one of a number of colonies refuses to take its syrup, it is a helpful signal that something may be amiss. That said, if none of the hives are drinking syrup, it is too cold for syrup feeding and you should move to solid sugar if feeding is still necessary.


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    • Andrew,

      You would combine hives if you fear one isn’t strong/large enough to make it through the winter. Instead of losing those bees, you can use them to fortify another hive. The method is the same as during the rest of the year. Remove one queen and stack the hives with a sheet of newspaper between them.

  • I am a new beekeeper in CT and started feeding my one hive in September to get ready for the fall into winter. They really didn’t drink much of the syrup but thought it was due to the weather. Do they always take the syrup when given or would they prefer to go out and forage? They are still coming in with pollen.

    • Trudy,

      Sure, they prefer to forage but nectar resources start to get scarce this time of year. Put something in the syrup so they can find it: Honey-B-Healthy, anise oil, peppermint oil, or tea tree work well.

  • I have also noted that syrup seems to be last choice for bees. They will take it readily when nothing else is available. When a major bloom starts, syrup consumption often stops. I think it is the bees’ cornbread where nectar is ice cream. If you’re hungry, and no ice cream available, what do you do?

    • Terry,

      That’s why I spike it with Honey-B-Healthy or anise oil; sugar syrup by itself doesn’t smell very good.

  • When I started feeding at the end of August, my strongest hive wouldn’t take syrup. They propolized the holes closed and went through a half gallon in about two weeks while the other hives were consuming the same amount in 1-2 days. Granted, this was also my heaviest hive, so maybe they just decided they didn’t need it. In any case, last week I punched the propolis out of the holes and put on a new jar and they are now taking syrup as fast as everybody else.

    • Mark,

      I’ve seen that as well. I really wish I understood how they make a group decision about whether to drink and when. Mysterious and intriguing.

    • Maybe. But it seems to me that the same colony would go out and rob, given half a chance. Still, I don’t really know. I’ve seen hives in the mid-west with twelve and thirteen supers filled to capacity and still working their butts off. Don’t they know they have enough?

  • Reminiscent of Storch and his listening at the hive entrance, but the hive that a) did give us honey and b) has been dutifully imbibing its feed in spite of my intrusive anti-varroa treatment, has been making a low moaning sound this week, especially noticeable on the warm nights even from a few yards away. What would be your initial thoughts? I was hoping they could be bedded down for winter soon.

    • Just to be on the safe side, I would make sure you are queenright. Sometimes a colony that has gone queenless makes a noticeable hum. If all is well with the queen, I would assume they are just drying down the feed you gave them.