feeding bees

Why feed sugar syrup at all?

The first thing I do in the morning is check my HBS e-mail for questions and comments. I love answering and often spend considerable time researching the details. But today my box was filled with “unanswerable” questions—questions (five of them!) where the answer depends on philosophy.

One of these read: “Why are we feeding bees at all? I have such a hard time hearing about this practice of interfering with the bees’ food source.”

I’m at a crossroads with this question. On one hand, I’m a proponent of organic agriculture and natural beekeeping. I have spent much of my academic life studying the adverse effects of pesticides, GMOs, and other “big ag” practices that are damaging life on earth. On the other hand, during my undergraduate study of agronomic crops, I developed a real empathy for those who must raise crops to feed the populous and make a living in the process. It’s tough stuff.

Honey bees are one of many species that have taken a hit because of modern agricultural practices. Anyone who forgets that bees are livestock—farm animals, if you will—is missing the big picture. Honey bees are needed for our system of industrial agriculture whether we like it or not. Personally, I don’t like the system, but my opinion has no bearing on its existence.

Of course, commercial beekeepers are not the only ones who feed syrup to bees. A beekeeper with one or a dozen hives may do it, and certainly those with thousands of hives do it. Let’s first look at the reasons without moral judgment:

  • A beekeeper may believe his hives are not well-stocked enough with honey to make it through the winter. This may be due to bad weather, robbing, predation, or over-harvesting. In any case, the beekeeper is trying to save his bees from starvation.
  • A beekeeper may have a pollination contract to fulfill and he needs a fast build up in the spring,. So he feeds syrup, perhaps laced with supplemental pollen or amino acids.
  • A beekeeper may have problems with a disease such as Nosema so he decides to treat his hives. Syrup is the only way to administer the medicine.
  • A beekeeper may be starting new colonies from splits or nucs. There is a good chance they won’t survive the first year unless they have a syrup supplement.

Now let’s look at the right-and-wrong of it. Many people think it is wrong to over-harvest the honey and feed the bees syrup instead. I agree with this, but I can understand the other side of the coin. If you are a commercial honey producer, which is “more” right: over-harvesting that valuable honey crop or making your kids go without medical care? Surely, that’s the extreme, the exception, but those situations can and do exist.

If you are an orchardist, are you going to run the risk of losing your crop because it’s wrong to feed syrup to the bees? If you are a commercial beekeeper are you going to default on a pollination contract because your bees didn’t build up fast enough? Growers and commercial beekeepers are business people, and they need to make competent business decisions.

As I stated in my earliest posts, I find the rift between commercial and hobby beekeepers disturbing. As hobbyists, we have lots of freedom. We can molly-coddle our bees, we can treat them like house pets and sing them to sleep–and it doesn’t cut into our bottom line, our personal finances, tomorrow’s meals. Meanwhile the commercial beekeeper is keeping a large segment of the agricultural industry rolling. He’s helping to put food on our tables, assuring us a steady supply of fresh produce and a healthful, varied diet. While we dine on this feast we criticize him for the sugar syrup thing. It hardly seems fair.

For me, the biggest question is one of moral responsibility. Do you find it more desirable to let your bees starve to death than feed them syrup? If you’ve had a hot, dry summer with little forage (as occurred in much of the U.S. this year) do you say, “Tough luck bees, you get to die a slow and painful death because it’s wrong for me to feed sugar syrup”? I find this philosophy repugnant. I believe that once you take an animal into your care you have a responsibility to give it the best life you can. Starving to death is not a good life.

One more point about the question: The writer referred to sugar syrup feeding as “interfering with the bees’ food source.” I disagree with that assessment completely. What interferes with the bees’ food source is not sugar syrup, but urbanization, industrialization, human population, agriculture, roads and freeways, pesticides, pollution, invasive species, global warming, deforestation, mountain top removal, and on and on. Without those things, there would be plenty of forage–and syrup would be a non-issue.

No doubt, honey is the single best food for honey bees and that is what they should be given whenever possible. But it’s not always possible in the environment we’ve created, and it’s not always the best answer given other circumstances. That old saying about walking a mile in another man’s moccasins before passing judgment applies. Nearly all beekeepers would love to avoid syrup, but sometimes they can’t. Who am I to judge?



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  • Thanks for this article Rusty, I agree with you completely. We have just been feeding our bees syrup to help get them ready for winter. I harvested only six frames in total from two hives this year, so it’s not as if I’ve been taking every last drop of honey from them. We could do with more flowers and less concrete round here.

  • Under perfect circumstances syrup wouldn’t be needed but, we don’t live in a perfect world, so . . .

    A case in point is that I remove bees as a service to people who find their life interrupted by them, i.e. in walls, floors, ceilings of homes, or storage buildings. I have performed several removals right before winter when the homeowners will not agree to wait until spring. If I don’t get them, the local pest control will be called to do their thing. So, I go ahead remove the bees to hives, losing some honey in the process, at a time when the bees do not have time to build their supply back up. Therefore, I will feed them artificially with sugar syrup.

    • Thanks, Stephen. That’s another good example of why someone might need to feed syrup. It is so much better to feed them than to let them die.

  • I read an article that suggested adding a small, tiny amount of organic apple cider vinegar to a fondant recipe to make the pH more similar to foraged stores. Hi, just ran into this site and like it so far. Top bar bee hive, first year, not very skilled.

    • Rachel,
      Yes, many folks like to add a little vinegar to fondant, hard candy, and sugar syrup. Honey is very acid and the addition of a little vinegar lowers the pH. The bees will be just fine with or without the vinegar, but the vinegar is very effective at reducing mold in liquid syrup.

  • Hello all, I have been with bees, on and off, most of my life. I have kept bees conventionally and now completely treatment-free. I do, however, feed when necessary. I find it ridiculous for people to claim that feeding sugar syrup to bees makes them weak . . . WHAT????

    Okay, let’s examine that rationale. Let’s say I have the most perfect strain of bee ever seen or worked. Hypothetically speaking now, the colony builds up great, produces a good brood nest, has little or no varroa because of a fantastic grooming ability, culls infested or damaged brood well, builds great comb, and is “gentle” or easy to work. Now, for the foraging . . . spring starts out lousy . . . cold and wet. The bees have trouble with early foraging for pollen and nectar. Weather loosens up and away things go after the colony battles with nosema. April and May come and go and the bees seem to be doing fairly good after a very slow start. Summer is here now . . . seems good during the first part of June. Now July and August, no rain in sight. The foraging is sparse at best. Bees have trouble finding abundant water. The colony is stressed due to lack of foraging, but still maintain a healthy hive. September comes and we pop in to take a look . . . VERY LITTLE STORES!!! Now we, as beekeepers, are at a very tough crossroads. Do we feed our “perfect” colony or not??? Will they make the long and cold winter on what they may or may not have stored???

    It is my opinion that bees that are forced into small white boxes and made to live to human standards are indeed domesticated animal livestock. They are no longer a wild colony of bees that can decide for themselves whether they should stay in that area or swarm up and away to better foraging. Since we have already intervened and made them our pets or livestock, it is our responsibility to take care of that colony of bees. Feeding them sugar syrup is like giving a baby formula instead of human breast milk, IMO!!! Sure, they can live on sugar syrup and it may not be ideal, but it will allow that colony of bees to survive to see another season and perhaps find better foraging or be moved to a new area.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Thanks for pointing out both sides of the argument on the feeding issue. I have to agree that it’s not a cut and dried matter. We didn’t feed our late swarms last year and they both didn’t make it over the winter. Sure, maybe “their genetics weren’t the strongest” and “they needed to be weeded out of the gene pool”, but considering that the hive losses from last winter were immense, what’s the harm is giving some help? We certainly help other species including our own.

    As for me, when I feed, I buy organic sugar and use spring water that I have gathered.

  • Terrific article! Why feed sugar syrup at all? « Honey Bee Suite really makes my life a bit nicer 😀 Keep on together with the fascinating articles! Best regards, really love

  • I am a new beekeeper this year and, unfortunately, didn’t put a honey super on early enough and my bees swarmed. My hive went very quite for a couple of weeks, but now has lots of activity. I have left the honey super on but there is no activity on that. I need to know what to do to keep it going. I have searched the net for advice, but most “swarming” information is about catching them. Should I feed the bees, take the honey super off (I thought is would help with cooling if I left it on), or just let nature takes its course? Any help would be very much appreciated. Thanks.

    • Ruth,

      Healthy colonies swarm in order to produce more colonies, and it may or may not have had anything to do with the lack of honey super. As you gain more experience you will learn to anticipate swarming based on colony behavior. The hive frequently “goes quiet” for a few weeks after a swarm because it has no mated queen to lay eggs. The fact that activity picked up probably means the queen was successfully mated and is now producing young.

      I say “probably” because a sudden apparent increase of activity this time of year can also be due to robbing. If you’ve looked inside and seen brood, that is good, but be aware for signs of robbing, especially if the colony is weak.

      I don’t know where you are writing from, but you are probably in a nectar dearth and your bees won’t be collecting much until fall. I recommend you remove the super, reduce your entrance, and feed your bees, especially if the colony seems small or vulnerable to attack by robbers or predators such as yellowjackets.

      That is just a suggestion; other beekeepers will have a different take on it.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Best website ever for beekeeping in my opinion and I thank you! I didn’t know where to put this question and apologize if it’s been answered already. Can I feed my bees their honey back to them outside of the hive this fall? The nectar flow has dropped and I noticed bees coming in to my hummingbird feeder and showing much interest in my morning coffee (laced with their honey). Also, I have left 2 honey supers on top of the hive thinking to harvest in the spring after flow begins. The hive is packed with honey and 2 weeks ago we found brood in the supers. We placed an excluder, went back in 2 weeks and removed it then put a 3rd brood box above the first two. My mentor says the bees won’t draw comb into the new box unless there is a nectar flow so I was thinking we could feed them but do not want to feed sugar. The colony has grown so much it was running out of room. We live very far out in the country and I’m not joking when I say there are NO other honey bees out here so I don’t worry about robbing bees, only wasps which we haven’t had a problem with (yet). Obviously i am very new and confused. I thought I should leave the honey supers on for winter, believing they will move up into it in their cluster when their brood stores run out.

    • Rosalie,

      It’s basically impossible to answer without knowing where you live. However, I’m curious how you know that no honey bees live in your area? Feral colonies are everywhere, so I don’t see how you can know for sure. In any case, feeding honey outside, even if there were no feral colonies, invites all kinds of predators, including other insects and mammals. I think it’s a bad idea. Why not feed the honey inside the hive in a regular feeder?

      The other question I have is did you check the lower box before you added the third brood box? Bees move up in the fall and winter, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you found few bees in the lowest box. My feeling is that the third brood box will cause trouble. Your mentor is correct, and even feeding them honey may not make them draw comb, considering it’s the wrong time of year. If your lower two brood boxes are filled with bees, then it’s fine to add another. As long as you checked. Remember too, that too much space in the hive is harder for the colony to police in winter, and can be an invitations to beetles, moths, mice, and others looking for a warm, cozy place to shack up.

  • I’m new to beekeeping. I have two separate colonies in the wall of the shed for the last 5 weeks in central Florida country. They returned despite three attempts to remove them into a wooden hives with honey by an expert bee guy but they abandoned the farm. I have been giving them sugar syrup and they seem to drink it despite early reluctance. I read through articles that nectar supply is needed for a strong hive infrastructure. I would like to keep them but wonder about the future of their living in the wall of the shed.

    • Matt,

      Not sure what your question is, but if the queen was removed to a new location, the bees in your shed will eventually dwindle. But if brood was left in there, it’s possible the returning bees could raise a new queen. If all goes well, they could live for years in a shed wall. They will find nectar on their own as soon as it becomes available.