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Philosophy of Feeding
I see bees treated like pets at least every
week. Questions about feeding are much too
often interlaced in a context that they must be
fed. They must be fed almost all the time
and they must be fed syrup and pollen
substitute. Go ahead and put some
Honey-B-Healthy in there too, it helps with
dysentery. Why? Why feed? Bees
are not pets. Bees are wild animals.
They come and go as they please. They have
plenty of opportunity to collect their own food
and barring theft, should be able to collect
enough to survive any normal winter after any
But not everyone acts rationally and leaves the
bees enough food for the winter.
Furthermore, there is the temptation to take all
the honey and feed sugar syrup back as sugar syrup
is cheaper than honey. Makes sense
economically right? Beekeeping is about
As youíve no doubt figured out by now, this
website is dedicated to treatment-free beekeeping,
and while feeding is not a treatment per se, it
can be a treatment and youíll see why later
on. For various reasons youíll also see
later on, Iím generally against it. I donít
want to feed, and I donít believe bees should need
to be fed in most circumstances. In short,
feeding should very rarely ever be necessary. And feeding syrup is the worst way to feed.
should you feed?
At the time of this writing, it is late winter,
2012. Summer of 2011 was pretty bad.
After an extended cool and very wet spring with
record rainfall and a flood, summer was
characterized by record heat and no rain.
Expecting a normal year, I had done as many splits
as I could to increase my numbers. With the
failure of the flow came the failure of any hive
to gather even a useful amount of honey.
Without feeding, most if not all my hives would
Thatís a good time to feed.
Another good time is when you are doing something
a little odd with hives as far as putting the
hives at a disadvantage. It is becoming more
common to overwinter nucs and it is very important
that the nuc is well stocked going into
winter. If the nuc is worth keeping, it will
probably already be pretty well stocked, but it
might need topping off.
Sometimes itís a good idea to feed new hives or
hives youíre trying to get to build up. Be
aware that this can cause problems the most common
of which is probably swarming. A problem I
noticed last year was that the honeycomb the bees
were building on which to store the feed was not
strong enough to hold all they were trying to put
in it because it was hot and the wax hadnít
hardened like wax does over time. Feed
sparingly in the case of building a hive.
The best stimulation comes from a real nectar
flow. Artificial methods lead to artificial
Arbitrarily is not a good time to feed.
Feeding should be totally unnecessary in the fall
when the hive already has stores. Donít feed
just because itís winter. Check your
hives. If they have the proper amount of
stores for your area, leave them alone.
Donít feed to try and get them to build up early
in the spring. Itís called stimulative
feeding and Iím not a fan of feeding to cause an
early buildup. Iím definitely not a fan of
using pollen substitute because itís just that, a
substitute. It doesnít provide the nutrition
of pollen and it produces poorer quality
bees. You should breed bees that store
enough pollen to provide all they need in the
spring or trap pollen and put it in the comb
yourself if you really need it.
The funny thing is, a number of our great
beekeeping forefathers werenít fans of stimulative
feeding either. They wrote in their books
that the best hive in the spring is the one who
was well stocked of stores in the fall. That
hive is likely to have a healthy sized cluster
with enough bees to keep the broodnest warm in
late winter so it can start brooding at the proper
Alright, so letís recap. Donít feed unless
itís absolutely necessary, donít overfeed, donít
use pollen substitute, and donít feed to try to
get bees to build up in the spring.
But say you have a legitimate reason to feed...
What to Feed
The most common feed used for bees is plain old
white sugar mixed with some water at varying
ratios. Common ratios are 1:1 and 2:1
sugar:water. Donít worry about doing it by
weight or by volume since granulated sugar has
just about the same density as water so it doesnít
matter. 1:1 is typically used to mimic
nectar, though 1:2 has been used also. For
topping up a hive in the fall, 2:1 is better, itís
right on the edge of solubility and in colder
weather, you may just get rock candy in your
feeder. Another good one is 3:2. Itís
easy to mix. You take a five gallon bucket,
pour two gallons of water in it, and add a 25 lb.
sack of sugar. Mix and let it sit for a
while to dissolve and youíre good to go.
However, if fed late, the bees may not be able to
fully cure and cap it, thus possibly causing a
Another option is high fructose corn syrup.
Itís likely your bees will pick up some here and
there from discarded soda cans and such, but in
general, I refuse to use the stuff. It is
cheap, but you must understand that it is a
chemical product. Itís not like you squeeze
corn and out comes syrup. It doesnít work
that way. Itís not good for you, donít feed
it to your bees.
The best possible feed is honey. It's what
the bees were meant to eat. More below. The second best is granulated sugar. I do not recommend syrup.
One good method for feeding in late fall and
winter after the bees quit taking syrup is feeding
granulated sugar. It is fairly easy and
works well. The bees wonít really take more
than they need, and thereís no chance of
spoilage. In fact, at the end of winter, you
can pull out the remaining chunks of sugar and
plop them in a bucket for use next year.
The primary method for feeding granulated sugar is
colloquially known as the ĎMountain Camp Methodí
named after a Beesource user named
Mountaincamp. He didnít invent it, but for
some reason it has his name. Open the top of
the hive and install a rim the shape of a box but
a few inches high. I use either my Parker
Shims or a section from the bottom of a deep super
cut down to a medium. Next, lay some paper
or paper towel down on the topbars, and then pour
some sugar on the paper towel. If the bees
have already clustered, thatís all you need to
do. If not, youíll want to wet the sugar a
little otherwise the bees will start carrying it
out as refuse. If they have clustered, the
sugar will absorb moisture from the cluster.
For the most part, thatís feeding. If you
have any questions, you can email me.
How to Feed
There are quite a number of methods for feeding
bees. Iíll go through the ones Iíve used and
some of the most common ones. If youíre
feeding liquid, youíll need some sort of
feeder. Letís look at some types.
The best possible feed is
honey. There are a number of
reasons. First, it's what bees are
meant to eat. That's why they store
it. You could check your hives in
the fall and rob the well stocked ones and
give frames of capped honey to the hives
that don't have enough. If it's a
chronic problem with some hives, they will
need to be requeened. In fact, if
it's a particularly poor hive, you might
as well merge it with a more successful
hive and forget about trying to
winter. But that's up to you.
A frame feeder is
a container sized to fit in the place of a
frame or two and holds up to two or more
gallons of syrup. They also hold
sugar. Traditionally, these feeders are
the source of major drownings. Bees can
build comb in them and so the queen may be
caught and drowned when it is filled as
well. However, they are an effective
feeder and can be used later into the fall
than some other methods. To help with
drowning, Mann Lake has come up with some that
have mesh tunnels going down into the syrup
from a wooden cap that covers the whole
feeder. I have a number of Mann Lakeís
non-special feeders and use them when
This type of feeder serves to divide the hive into
parts, often used for nucs. As you can see
in the picture below, the feeder is made of wood
and is the shape of the inside of the hive so no
bees can get around the ends or the top.
There is a hole drilled in the side toward the top
for bee access and there is a port in the top for
filling. These suffer from some of the same
problems as frame feeders however; they are
usually smaller and therefore present less of a
drowning problem. I have not yet used
these. Picture from Kirk
A Miller feeder is one of any number of
configurations of feeder that sits atop the
hive. They typically contain a quite large
reservoir of syrup and have a pass through by way
of a slot to the hive below. They are often
caged with wire so the bees cannot get out the top
or out into the syrup reservoir. If they
want to drown, they have to take turns until the
caged in area fills up. Generally, drowning
is limited with this type of feeder. The
slot may run along one side of the feeder next to
the outside wall, or may run down the middle
dividing the feeder into two reservoirs.
They can be made of wood, plastic, or dense
They can cause robbing issues if you use upper
entrances or you may not be able to use an upper
entrance at all depending on how you do it.
They are also abandoned quite soon in the fall as
temperatures begin to decline. Remember that
syrup is a good portion water and water has a high
specific heat. A big pool of water at the
top of the hive can cause the inside of the hive
to be cooler than other hives without a feeder on
top. Think of it like heating your pool
room. Water takes a lot of energy to heat.
Michael Bush uses a feeder
made from a bottom board. He builds a
dam across the front and screens over the upper
side so that he can dump syrup in. He also
includes a drain so he can drain it out. He
likes them because they are free (you already need
a bottom board) and convenient. The only
thing Iíd say about them is having a pool of
liquid at the bottom of the hive is problematic
due to the possibility of the queen
drowning. I read of a beekeeper who said he
had a significant problem with hives going
queenless when the hives were tilted backward and
had collected some water in the bottom
board. He figures the queen sometimes falls
as she travels down around the bottom of the frame
to get to the other side. Normally, this
wouldnít be a problem, but if thereís a pool of
liquid down there, she drowns. To be fair,
Mr. Bush does not use these all the time.
From what I've seen, he prefers granulated sugar.
Entrance feeders are often sold with beginners
kits and usually are made from a perforated quart
jar lid and a holder that fits into the
entrance. These are notorious for causing
robbing. I have used them in the past, and I
donít recommend them. If they leak, and they
often do, you now have and extra big robbing
problem as the neighborhood bees have a field day
collecting the syrup running down the front of the
Baggy feeders are simple in that they are made
simply of a plastic freezer bag. The bag is
filled and then laid on the top bars and a slit is
cut in the top. To use these, youíll need a
rim to hold the lid above or use an empty box
instead. I have not yet tried this type of
Open feeding can be accomplished with several of
the methods above. For the most part, I try
to avoid open feeding primarily because itís only
done for stimulation and itís not needed.
Secondly, unless you use a feeder that dispenses
syrup slowly, many bees will be drowned or covered
in sticky syrup and will be unable to fly
home. Thirdly, you have no guarantee that
the feed is going to the hive or hives that need
it the most.
The most successful open feeding I have tried was
with entrance feeders mentioned above. Just
place the jar with its lid in its holder and set
it out in the open somewhere. The syrup is
dispensed slowly and few bees are harmed. It
takes about a day and a half to empty a jar.
I have also tried using Miller Feeders by placing
them on a bottom board and putting a lid on
them. It doesnít seem to work, the bees
never seem to become interested. Thatís my
experience. Maybe they never find it.
I donítí know.
Some commercial beekeepers I have seen use a
barrel filled with syrup and with packing peanuts
or wood floats on the top. 5 gallon buckets
can also be used. I donít see any need to do
anything like this.
Some Precautionary Notes:
Donít feed to boost your honey production.
If you do, I will disavow you having any
connection with me. If you sell honey, make
sure itís honey. Be honest, do good work and
sell what you say youíre selling. No
adulterated honey. And Iíll repeat here what
Iíve said many other places. If youíre
reading this website, youíre not a commercial
beekeeper. Do not keep bees like a
commercial beekeeper. Do not feed bees like
a commercial beekeeper. Do not allow honey
to leave your possession that is not 100%
honey. No sugar syrup, and no corn
syrup. It is for that very reason that I dye
the syrup that I use so that I can be assured that
the honey I sell has no syrup in it.