feeding bees

When the feed is too close

A beekeeper near San Francisco complained that her bees wouldn’t leave her hummingbird feeder alone. To cure the problem, she set up an open feeder containing sugar syrup directly in front of her hives, hoping to divert the bees from the hummingbirds. Much to her dismay, the bees continued to dine at the bird feeder and ignore the syrup she provided in her apiary.

She decided that her bees must prefer hummingbird nectar over plain sugar syrup, so she replaced the syrup in the bee feeder with hummingbird food mixed with water. Still the bees ignored their feeder and returned to join the hummingbirds. What is going on?

Honey bees easily find distant food sources

As we know, honey bees are brilliant at pointing their sisters to distant food sources. They use the waggle dance to describe food sources that are far from the hive, and they use the round dance—which contains less information—to describe sources that are less than about 50-70 meters from the hive.

But according to some observers, honey bees have a problem when the source is very close. Why is this?

Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz about Bees says this about the round dance:

A round dance contains only some information about the quality feeding site. An indication is merely given about what to look for, and that this source can be found close to the nest. A bee that returns from visiting a cherry flower will smell like cherries, and a cherry tree can be found easily enough after a few flight around the hive.

Close sources are harder to describe

But a bee coming home with a sample of sugar syrup isn’t going to smell like a flower. So even though the sugar tastes sweet, it will be difficult for a bee to explain the location to her nest mates if the syrup is less than 50-70 meters away. If it doesn’t look like a flower, and it doesn’t smell like a flower, the bees really have no reason to check it out. Some will probably find it—more or less by accident—but when they return home to report their finding, they have the same problem. How can they explain its location?

In this case, it was probably much easier for the bees to locate the hummingbird feeder (which was much further away and brightly colored) than the open bee feeder that was within tripping distance of the hives. It seems that the bees will eventually find these sources, but the process is more random and takes longer than you might expect.

I have found that a drop of flavoring oil—something like tea tree, spearmint, lemon grass, anise, or peppermint—solves the problem in no time. When the bee returns to the hive smelling delicious, and she explains that the source is nearby by using the round dance, her nest mates will search in the vicinity of the hive for the scent she has delivered and immediately find the source, even if it doesn’t look like a flower.


Your honey bees may prefer the hummingbird feeder if their feed is too close to the hive.

Your honey bees may prefer the hummingbird feeder if their feed is too close to the hive. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • I have an observation that has a side jar feeder. We are in a dearth and the food stores in the hive were visibly low. I decided to feed sugar syrup with Honey Bee Healthy which has a lemongrass scent to it. I added the jar in the evening about an hour before sunset. A couple bees found it right away and went back to their sisters to share. The hive went into a frenzy with circle dances on just about every frame. Oddly, the bees seeing the dance, immediately left the hive and hovered outside rather than go to to the source.

    It then struck me that the circle dance apparently has no way to direct bees to locations ‘inside’ the hive. As night came they settled down and came back inside, confused.

    • Michael,

      That is fascinating. I’ve heard other people say that in-hive feed is the hardest to find. With the scent being so close, it is probably impossible to pinpoint the source. It’s cool that you got to see the dance and the bees’ reaction to it.

  • I wish my bees had half the scent abilities of the wasps. It seems the moment I open the milk jug with syrup I get 7 wasps jumping into it.

  • A beekeeper in Ireland taught me the way to remember the queen marking color sequence. Start with 1 Say: Will You Raise Good Bees? WYRGB then go to 6-0 In other words 1=W for white, 2= Y for yellow and so on.

  • I’ve heard (been told) that bees won’t forage near their hives, since that is their poop zone. Does this play into the idea of where one might place a diversionary tactic such as a food source near a hive? I’ve heard (been told) it’s about 10-20 feet, but my car gets bombed as many as 70-80′ away under the fly-in, fly-out zone.

    • Aaron,

      I’ve heard the no-forage zone theory for years and I don’t believe it: “Monday morning myth: no forage zones“. As you point out, honey bees poop at great distances from the hive. In addition, you can get them to forage close by if you plant the right things. And as you also suggest, part of the apparent problem may be the difficulty of communicating about close-in food sources. Eventually they will find them, but it takes longer.

  • Rusty

    Last summer in late August my neighbor had problems with honey bees taking over his two hummingbird feeders, so he put out a bowl of sugar water to alleviate the problem. Much to his dismay, all it did was attract more bees. Hundreds of them. And the bees were aggressive stinging my neighbor just for standing nearby.

    Now, I had several feeders out and they didn’t look twice at mine. I have lots of native pollinator plants in my gardens and I was able to stand in the center of them surrounded by all kinds of bees, collecting seeds with absolutely no signs of aggression. But when I walked through the neighbor’s yard (in an attempt to get him to put away the pesticide) I was also stung on the temple even though I was 20+ feet away. I believe I was walking too swiftly.

    My theory about the feeders is that my neighbor uses the store-bought nectar for his feeders but I mix my own. And the style of feeders I use keep the short tongue bees from being able to reach the sugar water.

    I know that foraging bees are less aggressive but the open sugar feeder seemed to have the opposite effect.
    I was successful in stopping the pesticide use by pointing out the danger to the hummingbirds but I managed to cause some hard feelings between us. He wants to know where the hive is located so it can be eradicated and I will not tell him. I believe it is a feral hive but it is possible that a neighbor down the street, where the bees are coming from, keep a hive in their yard. These people are VERY unfriendly so it isn’t possible to investigate any further than I have. And that should keep them safe.

    I should also add that it is legal to keep bees in my town.

    Even though I am not a beekeeper, I am an advocate of native bees. I find your website a wealth of information and I just love the pictures you post.


    • Thanks for the compliment, Karen. I find bees that are open-feeding to be gentle, but maybe it has something to do with being confident around hoards of bees. I’ve read that the more relaxed your movements, the safer from stings you are, although I honestly don’t know how true that is. I spilled some honey outside several days ago, and I had a dark cloud of bees in my backyard. It was like night in the middle of the day. I kept working among them without any protective clothing with no problem, even though some banged into me during the feeding frenzy. Mysterious creatures.

  • I too have found bees feeding on a pan of cappings were quite focused and peaceful, in spite of making a huge cloud. FWIW I think bees pick up on people’s emotional states, perhaps via pheromones etc. My dad kept bees for a few years, with the hives in his small orchard. They were no problem to anyone…except my mother. If she went anywhere near the orchard, they would find her, chase her and sting her. My mom tends to be quite anxious and O/C, and is often “keyed up”, and repeated issues with the bees going for her only made things worse. Bees do not like disquiet, and I find on the days I am not relaxed and calm, they notice and are less patient with me. The one sting we had in the community garden this year was when a very tense visitor launched into an extreme diatribe about Monsanto. This person was practically yelling, and making extravagant hand gestures. Although she was 25′ from the nearest hive, and I was getting her to move away, she was stung with no warning. Bees do seem to pick up on negative emotional states.

  • Rusty,

    I have been feeding 1:1 syrup to a nuc (full hive now) and a swarm since late May. Both are just now starting to draw out foundation for honey. We have had a lot of bad weather for bees; they are storing some pollen, but no honey. It’s late August, I am afraid I will lose them over the winter. Both hives are very strong. Your thoughts. Thank you. Becky

    • Becky,

      Depending on where you live, they may be able to store something from the fall nectar flow. In any case, my guess it that you will need to feed them all winter. Start giving them 2:1 syrup and when the weather gets cold, go to hard candy or granulated sugar.

  • Hi Rusty, I have been a beekeeper for 2 years now and just stumbled onto your website while looking for some bee info. It’s a great site with lots of information and experience. I lost one of my 2 year old hives over the winter. Upon hive inspection 2 weeks ago I found a cluster of about 200 dead bees on the center frame in the lower box. Every cell in the hive, ( 3 medium boxes), was completely empty except one outer frame on the top box which was full of capped honey, untouched. I removed the super in Sept which was full of honey, assuming the bees had their winter store in the brood boxes. I never checked. They were a strong, active colony. I wonder if they starved to death, by my removing the super without checking the lower boxes for honey. Live and learn. Also I think bees fly with their eyes closed. I often stand in their flight path while observing the hives and often get hit in the back of the head by a bee returning to the hive.

    • Joe,

      From your description, it does sound like your bees starved. If there is too much space between the bees and the honey, they are often unable to go and retrieve it due to the cold. Even two frames over from the brood nest may be too far, which is why some beekeepers like to open their hives on a warmish day and move the frames around. Also, I always tell beekeepers to “look before you take” because sometimes honey bees put all their honey in the supers and none in the brood boxes. Unless we check, we don’t know.

      Honey bees use their eyes to navigate. We know this because researchers can get bees to behave differently by painting different designs on the ground or on the sides of flight tubes. But honey bees are accustomed to the layout of the land as they approach their own hives, and if something unexpected is placed there, they may fly into it. If it stays put for a while, they will learn. But a person walking in front of the hive is unexpected and not entirely clear to them.

  • Rusty I have two hives of bees and I’m feeding them syrup it close to there hives about 3 feet inside electric to keep bears out off it. The problem I have is one hive is aggressive and getting all the syrup the other hive is defending itself but not going to the syrup. Any ideas on how to correct this. I was thinking of putting it farther away. Any help is appreciated. I’m a first time beekeeper.