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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 normal summer.

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 money right?

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.

When 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 have died. 

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 results.

When Not to Feed
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 time.

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 moisture problem.

                            of Sugar

Buckets of Syrup

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.

Granulated Sugar
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.

                            Eating Sugar

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.

Feeding Honey
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.

Frame Feeder

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 needed. 


Division Board Feeder
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 Webster.

Division Board Feeder

Miller Feeder
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 Styrofoam. 

Miller Feeder

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.

Bush Bottom Feeder
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.

Bush Feeder

Entrance Feeder
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 hive.
[Entrance Feeder]

Baggy Feeder
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 feeder.
[Baggy Feeder]

Open Feeding
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.