Feeding bees sugar is one of those concepts in beekeeping that has a lot of controversy. It can cause as many problems as it solves so I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about the issues in sugar syrup for beekeeping so you can decide for yourself if it is needed.
Honey is bee food – they make it so that they can store nectar to eat during the winter when there are no flowers. If you take all the honey during the summer you will have to feed during the winter so the bees will not starve. Historically (I mean pre removable frames) beekeepers extracted honey in the spring-early summer and took honey from the year previous – ensuring that they only took the truly surplus. Modern beekeeping extracts in September and we estimate how much to leave the bees.
Last winter was very mild – and my queens started laying eggs early to build up numbers. All these new bees ate all the stores – when I went to check my colonies this spring I was shocked at how light they were with their stores. I had to feed to keep them from starving before flowers started blooming.
The easiest way I have found to feed my bees is to use sugar syrup – sugar water is mixed in differing ratios depending on how it is used. Typically I mix 1:1 but sometimes I use a 2:1 ratio to make a thicker syrup. The water has to be fanned out of the mixture for the bees to turn it to sugar – so a thinner mix is harder on the bees in humid weather.
Sugar water is sucrose, while nectar has fructose and glucose as well as minerals – so sugar water is not as healthy for the bees. It also can lead to problems if feed at the wrong times or in the wrong ways. You also want to stop feeding when you put on the supers you plan to extract honey from. I think it is dishonest to sell honey when it does not come from nectar – you may disagree, but I like honey not thick sugar water…
If you feed too much in the spring the bees can become “honey bound”, meaning that all the cells are full of food and the queen has no places to lay her eggs. This will cause swarming. Feeding too much in the spring can also cause the queen to lay too many eggs – that could cause a lot of death if a cold snap comes as the bees will try to keep the brood warm and may not move up into their supplies. It can also cause the colony to grow faster than their food supplies causing starvation.
Something that has happened to me is that the supplemental feeding has caused some robbing. I use Boardman feeders because it is easy – but all that sugar on the outside of the hive causes the other colonies to fight – not only for the sugar in their feeder – but the syrup in the feeders in the other colonies. This causes aggressive bees as they are very defensive of their hives.
Feeding is probably best done inside the hive – that way you get less robbing. A hive top feeder is probably the best way to feed, but they are also the most expensive. Also unless you get one specially designed to prevent drowning (like this one BA Springs) you may kill a lot of your bees.
Another option is to put your solution in a plastic ziplock bag and cut some slits on one side. Place the bag on top of the frames inside your hive and the bees can stand on the plastic and get to the sugar water through the slits. I think this is really ingenious, but if your clumsy it could result in a mess.
There are many many other ways of feeding your bees – and they all have some drawbacks – a simple internet search for feeding sugar to bees will give you a couple days of reading. I just wanted to tell you how and why I feed sugar to the bees so you can see one way of doing things. As always if you have a better way, please feel free to post a comment or email me. I would love to learn new options.
Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper