Feeding Bees Basics: Ratios and Seasonal Tips

Feeding adjustments to make from spring to winter

beekeeper feeds bees with white sugar water at an apiary
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Properly feeding bees is an essential skill for any beekeeper. You need to know when to feed your bees throughout the year, as well as what food and how much of it to give. This will help to ensure a healthy colony and prevent your bees from starving over the winter.

Here are some basic tips to know about feeding bees.

Know the Best Times to Feed

When bees have natural food sources—nectar and pollen—available, it’s best not to feed your colony. However, new colonies with no resources stored will benefit from feeding for a few weeks.

Likewise, feeding your colony in the early spring before the flora is in bloom is ideal to give the bees a boost. Plus, if extreme weather causes flowering plants to go dormant when they should be in bloom, feeding your colony will help to prevent its honey supply from being depleted. And consequently, this will help to ensure that there’s enough honey to sustain the colony over the winter.

Pick the Right Bee Feeder

There are a variety of bee feeders available; just make sure the type you choose is appropriate for the climate and the needs of your bees. Some feeders work better than others. For example, a hive-top feeder made of an inverted pail with some small holes punched in the center of the lid works well. Mason jars can also be inverted this way.

Tip

If checking on or feeding bees in the winter, do not open the hive unless it is at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside with little to no wind. Never remove frames to inspect them unless it is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

Determine What to Feed

If you have honey stored, you can feed this back to your bees. Honey is one of the best sources of bee food. However, never use purchased honey because it can introduce diseases and contamination to your hive. Beekeepers sometimes set aside dark, strong-colored, or other "off" honey to feed to bees in an emergency. Otherwise, make sugar syrup or feed dry sugar.

Bees also need protein, so feed pollen patties as necessary. You can purchase patties or make them from a dry powder. Protein is essential for early spring brood rearing, so it's ideal to offer patties at this time. It's also necessary for the bees to put on bulk for winter, so offer patties again in the early fall.

Sugar candy or fondant can be fed in the winter if it is too cold for sugar syrup and the hive has an immediate need for food. Here's how to make each:

  • Sugar candy: Add 12 pounds of sugar to 1 quart of boiling water, stirring well. Simmer for 15 minutes, and then add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Let the mixture cool somewhat, and then stir vigorously before pouring into dishes. Once fully cooled, it can be fed to the bees.
  • Fondant: Bring 1 quart of water to a boil in a large pot. Turn off the heat, add 5 pounds of granulated sugar, and stir constantly. Once the sugar is dissolved, bring the water to a boil again and keep stirring. Bring the mixture to hard ball candy stage, 250–265 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer. Pour it into molds or onto cookie sheets lined with wax paper. Once cooled, break it into smaller pieces, and store it in wax paper in the freezer.

Know the Bee Feeding Pitfalls

If bees have natural nectar available from flowers, don’t keep providing them with supplemental food. They might eat it because it’s there. But this can hurt the quality of their honey stores.

Moreover, avoid open feeding—don't put food out in an open container by your apiary. This can cause a feeding frenzy that attracts bees from other colonies, which can result in robbing of the hive’s food. Plus, it can spread diseases to your colony and even result in the death of bees.

Finally, be sure to withhold pollen in the late fall. You don’t want to spur any brood rearing at this time because it will just put a strain on the colony over the winter.

FAQ
  • Should you feed bees?

    Bees generally don’t need feeding year-round. But you can give hives a boost when their natural food sources aren’t available, especially in the early spring.

  • How do you mix sugar water for bees?

    To make a sugar syrup for bees, many beekeepers opt for a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water. However, some use 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, especially if the hive is low on food such as during winter. Simply heat the water, and stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Wait until it's at room temperature to feed to the bees.

  • Can you overfeed honey bees?

    Giving bees sugar syrup when natural food is available can be problematic because it lacks the nutrients bees need to stay healthy and produce honey. Moreover, overfeeding protein in the late fall can impact the hive’s ability to sustain over winter.

Article Sources
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  3. Beginning Beekeeping For Kentuckians. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.