Feeding Bees

Why do beekeepers feed bees?

In a good honey year, feeding the bees is often unnecessary. In a poor honey year, feeding is essential to ensure the bees survive. Feeding sugar syrup in September supplements the bees’ store of honey with enough liquid stores to last until the following April, when the first honey of the year can be expected from the dandelions. Some beekeepers also feed their bees with fondant or candy in the winter. I prefer to feed generously in early September, and not to feed in the winter.

Spring feeding with syrup in March or early April can stimulate the queen to lay faster, which may improve the bees’ performance on early flowers, eg. oil seed rape. Emergency feeding may be necessary at any time, if the hive feels light. Nucs and swarms will usually need feeding, to build them up into full size colonies.

Which sugar should I use?

Granulated white cane sugar or beet sugar. Do not use brown sugar, which may contain impurities. Try Booker wholesale for large quantities of sugar. Booker is trade-only. Show your BKA membership card or BDI certificate at the reception desk, and ask for a day pass. This arrangement applies at any Booker store in the UK (and it was negotiated by Conwy BKA).

How much sugar and water?

  • Autumn feeding: 3 x 1kg bags of sugar mixed with one 1.5 litre electric kettle full of hot water.
  • Spring feeding: 3 bags of sugar mixed with two kettles of hot water.

Mix sugar and hot water in a large bucket. Stir until all the sugar has dissolved and allow to cool before use.

How long will the mixture stay fresh in a bucket?

Three or four days maximum.

Can I feed bees if there is a super on the hive?

No. The bees may store the syrup in the super, spoiling any honey there.

What are the risks when feeding bees?

Drowning bees and robbing are the major risks.

Bees are great flyers but they are useless swimmers! They can drown if they have access to an open feeder full of syrup. Robbing is easy to start but very difficult to stop. Robber bees can soon wreck a small colony. Fit a reduced hive entrance block. Feed in the evening when the bees are not flying. Try not to spill any syrup.

What are the different types of feeder?

Frame feeder

frame feedersfeeding a nucHolds 2 to 2 ½ litres of syrup.
This is my favourite spring/summer feeder, very useful for building up nucs and swarms. They can double up as a dummy board. Nuc hives can be moved to another site with a frame feeder in place.
Shake the feeder before you fill it, to make sure the wooden float is not stuck down with propolis. Check that the float rises to the top of the syrup. Some plastic frame feeders have smooth inside surfaces, which the bees may not be able to climb, causing them to die inside the feeder. Roughen the surfaces with sandpaper before using. Fill with a jug to avoid spilling syrup.

Rapid feeder

rapid feederHolds about 2 litres. Place inside an empty super, above the feed hole in the crown board. Make sure the cup and lid are fitted correctly, or bees may climb in and drown. Difficult to clean by hand, best cleaned in a dishwasher.

Contact feeder

contact feeder

home made rapid feederVarious sizes from 1 litre to 5 litres. Useful for slow feeding in spring to stimulate the colony.
Turn the full feeder over the bucket of syrup and let syrup drip through the mesh in the lid into the bucket, until vacuum stops the syrup dripping. Place the inverted feeder over the feed hole in the crown board, inside an empty super or brood box. The bees collect the syrup through the mesh. Contact feeders can also be made from plastic ice cream containers, with small holes drilled in the lid. I used these for many years. Well recommended.

Miller tray feeder

miller feederHolds 10 to 12 litres. Ideal for September feeding. Expensive. Two feeders full should be enough for the winter. The hive must be on a level hive stand (Check with a spirit level when setting up the stands) or bees may drown in a pool of syrup. If in doubt, put some grass in the feeder, to act as a life raft. Make sure the feeder has no leaking joints, before using.

Remove crown board. Shake any bees into the hive. Place feeder on top of the brood box. Fill with syrup and fit crown board, with feed holes sealed, to prevent bees entering the feeder from under the roof. Remove feeder when feeding is completed. Clean thoroughly and check joints are OK before storing for winter.

Ashforth tray feeder

ashforth feederSimilar to Miller feeder, but easier to make. See picture. The mesh cover must not have any gaps, or bees may climb into the syrup and drown. A Miller or Ashforth feeder can also be used for cleaning out wet cappings after honey extracting.

When do I stop feeding nucs and swarms?

Continue feeding until the colony has built up, and the brood box is filled with bees and drawn comb.

When do I stop feeding colonies for winter?

See our notes on Preparing the bees for winter.

Best practice recommendations?

  • Feed in time.
  • Avoid drowning and robbing.
  • Store your feeders under cover, cleaned and ready for use.
  • Do not leave dirty feeders on the hives.

Has this information been useful? We’d welcome your comments and suggestions.
Peter McFadden, July 2013

3 Responses to Feeding Bees

  1. Frank Gardner says:

    Very useful indeed.

    • secretary says:

      Thanks Frank,
      I hope these notes stop some beekeepers from drowning their bees. It’s happened to me, and it’s pretty upsetting to see a feeder with a thick layer of drowned bees.
      Great weather for the bees!

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