SHOULD I FEED MY BEES?

Posted November 8, 2015
by Hilary

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To feed or not to feed? That is the question I often hear from my beekeeping students, especially as we move into winter each year. Read on to find out what you need to know about feeding your bees and whether or not it’s safe to do so.

It’s common practice for beekeepers to feed their bees dry sugar, sugar water, pollen patties and or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Why do they do this? There could be several reasons: 1) Their bees are starving due to lack of forage or workforce 2) They want to give their bees an artificial boost prior to spring 3) They took all the bees’ honey and intend to replace it by feeding. I will start off by saying that I believe the only reason a beekeeper should ever feed is reason 1). So you understand why, let me go into some more detail about how a colony’s natural foods compare to these substitutes and why they may cause problems in your hive.

Bees feed on nectar (when ripened it becomes honey) and pollen. Nectar/honey is their carbohydrate source. It gives them energy to fly to and from, build and warm their hives. Pollen is a protein source and is tied to brood production. So, you can think of it this way: honey=energy and pollen=babies. Nectar and pollen are collected from a variety of flowers and each source may vary in quality and quantity which is why you see bees tend to have a preference for certain flowers over others. If you are beekeeper, you may notice that even among bee-friendly flowers that contain a superior quality and quantity of nectar or pollen, individual colonies will have preferences. That’s because aside from sugar and water, nectar also contains a small percentage of other ingredients such as amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, organic acids, alkaloids, phenolics, glycosides, terpenoids, metal ions, and other volatile oils. These other components can vary greatly based on the type of floral source and scientists have found that certain nectar ingredients can help ward off parasites and boost the bees’ immune system. In fact, bees may seek out certain nectar sources that contain anti-parasitic properties only when they are infected with parasites and not at other times when they are healthy. Pollen also has a wide variety of chemicals that seem to have similar links to bee health. One study found that p-courmaric acid (which is found in pollen) helped bees to regulate their immune and detoxification systems. We still don’t understand all of the components of nectar or pollen and how bees might use it, but I think it’s safe to say that the bees do.

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Natural Nutrition & Bee Lifespan

With all the above information, it’s obvious that replacing a colony’s buffet of natural food sources with a homogenous man-made one is not as simple as we once thought and may even do more harm than good. Reinforcing that notion is a study that concluded, “bees receive nutritional components from honey that are not provided by alternative food sources widely used in apiculture.” Some of those components are linked to immunity and detoxification so, my opinion is that denying bees these natural elements could put them at higher risk from both pesticides and pathogens thereby shortening their lifespans and ultimately weakening the colony. A series of studies have found that bees on a polyfloral pollen diet lived longer than those on a single species pollen diet. Another study found that caged bees lived nearly twice as long when fed honey vs. acid-inverted sugar water. Some natural beekeepers try to make up for the lack of these natural components in their feed by adding more ingredients to their recipes, such as chamomile, your own honey, sea salt, essential oils and other herbs.

Pesticide Contamination

Aside from the lack of these crucial ingredients feeding may harm bees in other ways. Consider the possibility that your sugar (or water source for that matter) may be contaminated with pesticides or other harmful chemicals. Sugarcane and sugarbeet are routinely treated with pesticides and the potential for refined sugars to have residue is certainly there. As beekeepers we can’t control where bees go to forage and I assume all my hives are exposed to pesticides one way or another, but I’d rather not add to that probability. Some believe they can avoid this problem by feeding organic, just make sure you select an organic sugar that has been refined. Bees cannot digest raw sugar well and it should not be fed to them.

pH Balance

Another concern is pH levels. A beehive is not just a sterile box with only bees in it. There’s a whole community of microorganisms (yeast, bacteria, fungi) living together in balance with the bees. Some of these microbes are harmful, some beneficial and some are benign. This is true of both the colony as a superorganism and the body of individual bees (think microbial gut diversity). Now, what microorganisms can thrive and survive depends largely on the pH levels. For reference the pH of honey is 3.2 – 4.5, while the pH of sugar water is 6.0. Michael Bush (the patron saint of natural beekeeping) has stated that many honey bee maladies such as Nosema, Chalkbrood, EFB, and Varroa all thrive and reproduce better at pH levels closer to that of sugar water and this study cited that, “bees are thought to protect food stores and inhibit pathogenic microbes by lowering pH levels”. So, there seems to be some connection between colony health and a low pH and there is a discrepancy between the pH level of the bees’ natural food and the man-made version. In response to this, some beekeepers will lower the pH of their sugar water mixture. You can so do by adding either vitamin C (powdered), lemon juice or cream of tartar. PH test strips or a meter are helpful here to get the PH correct, you want it to be around 4.5. **I will point out here that the study I mentioned previously found that bees have the shortest lifespan when fed this type of acid-inverted sugar water.

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Secondary Complications

Feeding can cause more than just health problems within the hive. It can also draw pests, such as ants and wasps. Honey bees are tidy creatures. They keep their honey neatly stored and protected from predators. When beekeepers begin feeding, they expose tempting amounts of sweet syrup to not just their bees, but any other creatures in the area. Another consequence of feeding is an increased chance of robbing for the same reasons above. ‘Robbing’ is when one bee colony attacks another in order to steal their honey or in this case sugar syrup. Yet another problem associated with feeding is an increase in swarming behavior. Beekeepers who feed their bees too much or too quickly may give the bees an artificially inflated sense of how much nectar is available and this could provoke the bees to swarm. (Swarming is when a colony divides in two, half breaking off with the queen to start a new home somewhere else taking honey with them, the rest staying behind and making a new queen to continue their work). Using an entrance reducer during feeding will help protect your bees from pests and robbing, you should also take care to not overfeed. Bees should only be fed enough to keep them from starving. If you start seeing large amount of capped sugar water (you’ll know because it’s nearly clear in color), continue the frequency of feeding but reduce the volume.

The Exception

In contrast to the status quo, I’ve stated my case for why feeding should be done only in emergency circumstances where you might otherwise lose your colony. These scenarios may include a weakened colony, a colony with low food stores or a new colony that needs help getting established. With new colonies, I often let them sit for two weeks, checking weekly to see if they can survive without supplemental feeding. They way I determine whether bees need to be fed is based on whether I see them festooning (building new comb) and whether or not I see any honey/pollen stores. If the bees are actively building new comb, then they are bringing in enough food to fuel this activity and probably do not need to be fed. However, you should continue to monitor them to make sure they are continuing to grow and/or have honey/pollen in their combs. If at any point they stop building new comb and you don’t see honey/pollen stores, then you may need to feed until the colony is stronger. Some beekeepers evaluate the level of honey in a hive by tipping their hives to feel the weight. A colony that is healthy and rich in honey will be heavy.

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More Resources

For those who wish to know more about how and when and what to feed despite what you have read above, here’s an article that goes in more basics about feeding, although it does not mention many of the concerns discussed in this blog. Here, too, is a link to an Herbal Sugar Syrup Recipe that takes into account some of the issues discussed above. Check out these gardening books if you are interested in increasing forage opportunities for your hives: Bee Friendly Garden and Planting for Bees.

36 Comments

  1. Christoffer Johansson Segerhjelm

    Well compiled and beautifully composed! You’re spot on.
    Also, when feeding refined sugar you risk watering down the lactic acid bacteria present in the bee stomach and honey*. Swedish scientists Vásquez and Olofsson conduct fascinating research on lactic acid bacteria and honeybees.
    Keep ut the good work!

    * Vásquez, A. et al. (2012) Symbionts as Major Modulators of Insect Health: Lactic Acid Bacteria and Honeybees. PLoS ONE, vol 7, nr 3, e33188.
    ( http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0033188 )

    Reply
  2. Sasha | Do You Even Tourist?

    Why wouldn’t you feed the bees honey rather than sugar water? Or is this also dangerous because of cross contamination? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      You don’t want to feed honey from an unknown source because it can carry diseases and viruses. You need to be sure it came from a healthy colony.

      Reply
      • Michael Bush

        …and who knows what antibiotics and chemicals ended up in any honey you bought put there by some beekeeper…

        Reply
  3. Michelle Short

    Thanks for sharing this! I rarely feed my bees but the mantra at my local bee meetings is “feed your bees!” I often feel negligent because of it. If I do feel that feeding is needed I either use the sugar as described here or feed their own honey back to them if I have some leftover for some reason.

    Reply
  4. Ian Corey

    You have not mentioned fondant feeding. Where is fondant on the supplemental option viability scale? I have recently begun an experiment with feeding fondant rather than sugar water (because ants). Thanks for the article, very well-written, concise and informative.

    Reply
    • Hilary

      There isn’t any scientific literature that I could find that specifically discusses fondant or candy board feeding. It has pretty much the same ingredient range as what I did talk about so, it’s reasonable to think that a lot of the things I brought up would also apply to fondant. The only thing I found of note was a survey that someone had done about winter feeding. They found that people who fed candy boards lost the least amount of colonies when compared to sugar water feeding and honey feeding. Surveys are really faulty data though and I think this particular survey was pretty problematic so, I decided not to write about that data.

      Reply
      • Li

        Thank you for saying that about survey “data”. More and more it seems such info is being used to prove certain theories and rarely does anyone point out how flawed this can be. Everyone knows “if you ask 10 beekeepers, you get (fill in # > 10) answers.” So how does a survey, filled out by several hundred beekeepers (all with varying experience, opinions, climates, etc.) prove anything?

        Reply
  5. suzana huck

    We got our Bee box in April 2015 so far they have filled about 6-7 slats about 1 a month approx.
    We are in a neighborhood-urban setting. I wilsh we were on a natural hillside property.
    neighbors on each side and back. Back neighbors whole garden is neglected-they don’t do anything so there are weeds and native plants.Side neighbor has a desert drought resistant garden w 2 lemon trees and lavender-although not much lavender blooming right now. my garden is same-lemon, 2 orange, apple, fig trees and desert bushes. other neighbor
    has organic veggie garden and assorted fruit & citrus trees, flowers etc and we share along the fence line a hugh vine like plant-I don’t know the name but they look like inverted huge yellow tulip-the bees go inside them and come out all loaded covered all over with fuzzy yellow pollen. They are going towards the Desert neighbor side at the moment and seem very busy. about 15-20 bees are flying out and landing to go in at any given time. We do not take honey from them – so my question is if the foraging is not too good this winter-can they/do they eat from their own honey stores? I want to keep it as natural as possible & want to do whats best.
    We want to do what’s best from them and it seems to be to leave them alone with nature.
    I check on them and say good morning to the bees everyday. I sometimes lift /tilt the lid-they
    don’t get angry when I look at them and I don’t wear my suit or smoke them. In the summer there were some ants going in but I just observed the activity and I dont see any ants going in
    anywhere anymore. Since there wasn’t a lot of ants going in- “I figured everyone was doing as nature intended and I didn’t interfere. We got our Bees just to help the Bee population in San Diego and we sure have a lot of enjoyment having them. So do they eat their own honey when hungry instead of starving because the forage is scarce?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Yes, they will eat their honey stores, that’s what they are for! 🙂 Be careful with ants. Ant invasions can cause you bees to abscond (abandon the hive) if the bees are not strong enough to keep them out, you should interfere.

      Reply
      • lori

        How do you treat your hive for ants? I have struggled with carpenter ants, and do you believe in the soak the ground with soap water wash to keep mites at bay. I heard if you get a five gallon bucket with one cap full of cheap laundry detergent no scent and soak the ground all around under the hive it will limit the mite population.

        loriconway.llc@gmail.com

        Reply
  6. Margaret

    Hi,
    I am from Québec (canada) and the information I got on why we need to feed with sugar and water in here is because fall honey is too high in minerals to leave it to the bees during hibernation. Too much minerals would urge them to let go of their waste faster and they can’t wait until april. It can cause them to reject their waste in the hive because it is too cold outside.

    I am actually a student in a 1 1/2 year programme on beekeping and my teachers are mostly searchers on beekeeping so I believe they have actuals facts to encourage feeding with water and sugar but I was wondering what are the motivations in California to feed them water + sugar (except they want the honey) ?

    thanks for the article !

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi Margaret,

      I think the biggest motivation is security. Beekeepers do not want to risk losing their bees to starvation so they feed to be sure. Currently, we are experiencing our third year of extreme drought and the natural forage is very low because of this. Many beekeepers are feeding year round right now. I hope that answers your question. The reason for feeding in your area is pretty interesting. I have not heard that before. It seems strange to me that artificial nectar would be preferential to the real thing.

      Reply
      • Margaret

        Thanks for your answer !
        It is interesting to see the differences base on the location in the world. In here, honey bees that are not taken care of by beekeeper are not naturally able to survive (most of them) because the winter is too long and cold. I guess the natural order needs to be adjust a little…

        To complete the fact I gave you, the people feeding with with real honey store the comb with the honey from the spring season and give it back in fall so it is use by the bees because it is less mineral for hibernation.

        Reply
        • Susan T Rudnicki

          I would be careful to assert there are no feral bees living without human support in ANY climate where there are managed hives. Don Schram in Michigan has very severe winters, and he only uses feral bees taken from cutouts and swarms and is treatment free. As well, Kirk Webster in Vermont—same situation of long, hard winters.

          Reply
  7. Ronni

    I am in Virginia and entering my third year beekeeping. I have had success and when taking honey try to error on the side of the bees. We’ve had an extremely temperate autumn with temperatures in 60s and 70s as predicted. I have left extra super of honey on hives since there is nothing to forage, Would you suggest adding candy board or dry sugar as insurance? Humidity here is generally an ongoing concern.There are ponds within 1.8th mile from hives.
    Have you heard of honey bound? It’s supposed to be damaging to leave too much honey for hives.

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi Ronni,

      Your climate is very different from mine so I feel hesitant to advise you on this question. It might be better to ask a local. I don’t think it could hurt much to leave a candy board in. If they don’t need it, I don’t think they will use it. It sounds like you’ve probably left enough honey. Colonies usually become honey bound when there is a nectar flow happening and they do not have enough room to grow. They start prioritizing the collection of nectar over rearing brood and then queen ends up with no space to lay. I would worry more about that in the spring.

      Reply
  8. Clair

    I just adore your photos – fabulous!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Thank you!

      Reply
  9. Lauren

    I’m brand new to beekeeping–I’ll be starting this spring–and this post as well as your “10 Mistakes” post have been SO helpful. You’ve answered all of my questions. Thank you!

    Reply
  10. Sherrie

    I’m going to be a first year beekeeper (2017). I read both articles you have linked but curious to your opinion of feeding pollen patties, specifically to a nuc colony I will be putting into a hive. I’m now leaning toward minimal feeding (the recipe from the article) and no pollen at all. I live in Ohio and my two nucs are coming from treatment free Amish beekeepers here in my state. I’m hoping that will help with the strength of my bees and their ability to survive the winter. (If you are not totally against pollen patties, do you know of a good source to buy some?)

    Reply
  11. Rebecca

    Hello,

    I’m a first year beek. I my second swarm in my yard about a month ago. Since it is so late in the season, my mentor advised me to feed them 1:1 sugar water. I used the Kirkland Organic Cane sugar. Do you know if it’s considered raw sugar and should not be used for the bees? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      I believe this is raw sugar, the kind you should not use. I am not 100% sure though. You should look for plain white table sugar.

      Reply
  12. Elizabeth Holohan

    Just found this information and I am going to be new to beekeeping this spring 2019. I live in Southern Ontario Canada and will not get my Buckfast Nucs and queen until the end of May. I am starting with one hive and in late July will get a starter hive of Italian/Buckfast that I hope will be stronger. In May I have been advised to feed the bees for two weeks as they will need this, wondering if you agree?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      In my experience only packages (not nucs) really need to be fed, but if you want to play it safe, follow the breeder’s advice.

      Reply
  13. David Henderson

    Just a heads up- the Herbal Sugar Syrup Recipe link goes to a weird page 🙂

    Reply
  14. Dr. Abby Campbell

    Thank you so much for sharing! I’m a 1-year old beekeeper that doesn’t have a mentor and rely on honey bee information via books, magazines, the internet, and YouTube. It’s been my goal to go to my county’s beekeeping meetings, but I sometimes can’t due to my schedule. Being a naturopathic doctor and nutritionist, I’ve always struggled with the topic of feeding our honey girls. I figure if sugar water isn’t good for us, why in the world would it be okay for our bees? Plus, I also wondered if beekeepers were contributing to the colony collapse disorder because they are making our bees sick with this type of feed. I’m so glad that I have found your blog, and I look forward to reading and learning more from you.

    Reply
  15. Monique J.

    I am a new beekeeper. I have two hives. The second hive was started about a month or two after the first from a 3 frame nuc. (Long story). I discovered that nuc had mites and I have since reluctantly started treatment on both hives.

    Currently both hives look healthy and I have no signs of mites, however the second is understandably struggling, starting from a much smaller populatuion and being hampered with mites/disease. The good news is both queens are laying exceptionally well. Wall to wall eggs.

    Here is my problem: the second hive cannot keep up building cells to the pace she is laying. She has started to lay in partially built cells.

    Meanwhile, the first hive has a full bottom box of brood AND 75% of frames with capped honey on a second box). I can’t put honey supers on top because we aren’t done with mite treatement.

    Normally people would “feed” the second hive in this situation to help stimulate wax production. But I was wondering if I could take a capped frame or two from my thriving hive and give it to the struggling one. If I do this, should I take one of the center frames and slide them over and place an empty one on the end? And where should I place the donation in the second hive? Should I scrape it to encourage feeding? And while I’m asking a ton of questions anyway, should I split my first hive or add a box?

    Thanks in advance. And thank you for such a wonderfully thorough blog!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Good questions, Monique. I have found that the stimulation for building seems greater when you feed sugar water vs. when you give them stored honey from another hive. So if that is the goal, I would feed them. I would add another box to your booming hive, yep! I would not split a first year colony.

      Reply
  16. Lindsea

    Our hive split a month ago and I am concerned that they will not have food for winter (located in Nor Cal) both hives are doing well, making comb, brood but they have no stores. Do you suggest feeding? And if so, what and how? Love your blog by the way!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Why are you concerned. Do you see them not building up well? If you feel you need to feed them, I recommend using a frame feeder so you won’t attract robber bees.

      Reply
  17. Thecead.Com

    The other side of helping bees with treatments of pesticides and antibiotics is that you keep propagating the bees that can’t survive. This is the opposite of what we need. We beekeepers need to be propagating the ones that

    Reply
  18. Alison

    May 5th 2022
    South Florida Zone 10b hot and humid
    My bees aren’t building comb. They are bringing in lots of nectar and some honey (the dark stuff…their honey) I have 2 deeps and a honey super. There are empty frames with no comb on some of the deeps. With the rest of the deeps they are filling all of the cells with nectar. The problem here is the queen has no room to lay eggs, my colony is shrinking and the bees aren’t pulling comb I fear soon they will have no room for eggs or food Any suggestions??
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Hilary

      It’s hard to answer your question here without all the info. Are you sure you have a laying queen?

      Reply

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My name is Hilary Kearney. I’m the author of the book, “Queenspotting” and founder of the urban beekeeping business Girl Next Door Honey in San Diego, California. I’m an artist turned beekeeper on a mission to help new beekeepers succeed and educate the public about the magic of bees!

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