Every beekeeper will likely have to feed their bees sugar syrup at some point. Because there are so many options for what to feed, when to feed, how much to feed, and even which type of feeder to use, it’s hard to sort out how to get started. As a general rule, if feeding is necessary in the early fall we recommend feeding 2:1 sugar syrup (2 parts granulated white sugar dissolved in 1 part water). The purpose of feeding in the fall is to ensure that your bees have enough food stores to get them through the winter months. To determine whether you need to feed (and for how long), you can use the total hive weight to estimate how much honey the bees have stored. Read more on hive weight and fall feeding in this article. Spring is a different story, with a recommended feeding of thinner 1:1 sugar syrup. Spring feeding is generally recommended for new packages or nucs to help them draw comb, or in cases where a hive is feeling light before the spring nectar flow begins.
There are many different answers to this question, but it really boils down to temperature, time of year, and personal preference. For example, fall feeding using a Boardman or other entrance feeder is not recommended because it can attract robber bees. We recommend in-hive or hive top feeders during this time to keep your bees safe, and because in colder weather bees will not break cluster to go down to an entrance feeder. As for spring feeding, in the north, we use division board or frame feeders, hive top feeders, or any feeder that can sit over the hole in the inner cover (bucket feeders or Bee Smart in-hive feeders) so the syrup is easily accessible even on cool days and nights. In warmer climates, an entrance feeder is fine in spring.
Betterbee sells a variety of feeders. This article will dig into how to use each of them. Personal preferences for feeder designs vary widely, so experiment with your options and find the one that you (and your bees) prefer!
The BeeMax Hive Top Feeder is made of one seamless piece of polystyrene and comes in three different sizes: 10 frame, 8 frame, and BeeMax. It includes a Plexiglas panel and how-to-use instructions. Before using this feeder, we recommend painting the outside surface with a couple of coats of exterior latex paint to protect it from the elements and sun damage. You should also remove the plastic wrapping from the Plexiglas insert, then use a piece of low grit sandpaper to “roughen up” the inside of the panel. This helps the bees grip onto it as they make their way up from the brood chamber and down toward the syrup behind the Plexiglas safety panel. To use the feeder, remove your inner cover completely, and place the feeder on the hive. Cover tightly with only the outer cover. Do NOT use the inner cover at all. Check out this video of how to add sugar syrup to the feeder and to see how the bees enter the feeder. This feeder holds up to 3-4 gallons of syrup, depending on which style you choose, but we recommend only putting in a little at a time to get a sense of how much they drink, and how fast. You can put a couple of drops of apple cider vinegar in with your sugar syrup to stave off mold.
The Wood-Framed Hive Top Feeder is used much the same way as the BeeMax feeder, but this feeder is only available in one size that works with both 10 frame and BeeMax equipment. This feeder gives the bees access to the syrup from the brood chamber under each end. The plastic inserts form “ladders” (that the bees can cling to reach the surface of the syrup) behind the plastic insert wall. It can hold about 1.75 gallons of syrup. The plastic of this feeder is easy to clean. We recommend painting the wooden exterior to extend its life.
The Lyson Hive Top Feeder has the same basic design as the other two hive top feeders but is made exclusively to fit 10 frame Lyson polystyrene hives. It includes a pair of latches to tightly secure the feeder to the rest of your Lyson equipment. An additional feature of this feeder is that it has a sliding gate in its stainless ladder, so the reservoir can also be used to feed solid winter patties and Global pollen patties. Just open up the sliding gate to allow the bees entrance to the reservoir. Be sure this gate is closed when feeding sugar syrup, or many bees will drown. (And nobody wants that!)
Bee Smart's Ultimate 3-Season Universal Feeder can be used on 10 frame, 8 frame, wooden, Lyson, and BeeMax hives. To use, simply unscrew the blue ring, fill the tank all the way up with sugar syrup, replace the ring, and place the feeder with the feeder outlet in the inner cover hole. Then add a medium hive body to protect the feeder, and top off the hive with your outer cover. You have to get a vacuum seal on this feeder, so we recommend flipping the feeder over outside of the hive first to avoid dumping any sugar syrup right onto the bees. By filling the feeder all the way up, only a small amount of syrup will escape when it’s flipped. This feeder holds 1 gallon of syrup and can be used during spring, summer, and fall. Some customers in warmer parts of the country, where sugar syrup can be fed all year, say it’s also usable throughout their winter months. If you want to put 2 feeders in your 10 frame hive, you can add the little included feet to raise both feeders up, and then put each feeder on top of the inner cover so the bees can crawl up and access both. Just make sure to hide them with a box and the outer cover to keep robbers out.
Our 1 and 2 Gallon Feeder Pails use the same concept of creating a vacuum seal that the Bee Smart feeder uses, offering the bees sugar syrup on demand through the inner cover hole, but at a lower cost than the Bee Smart feeder. Two feeders can be used at one time on the same hive, eliminating the need to keep adding syrup. To use this technique, lay a few dowels or pencils on the inner cover to give space for bees under the feeder lids, then cover with a hive body and your outer cover.
Division board feeders or frame feeders are a type of in-hive feeder made of one-piece molded plastic and can be used year-round. The deep feeder takes up the space of 1 frame, but if your frames and boxes have a lot of propolis, you’ll have to remove 2 frames to make room for this feeder. Also available for medium brood boxes, the division board feeder has textured inner walls and an elaborate ladder system inside to protect bees from drowning. We often use this feeder at Betterbee after installing a package on foundation, since many bees can easily access the feeder at once, helping to quickly fuel comb production. We recommend filling the feeder after it is installed in the hive, to prevent spilling it (and causing a robbing frenzy!) during installation.
The Small Plastic Entrance Feeder, Large Plastic Entrance Feeder, and Boardman Feeder with Jug are all budget-friendly options for feeding your bees. They are specifically designed to work in the entrances of wooden hives and will not fit into BeeMax or Lyson hives. To use, fill the plastic tank right up and tightly attach the cap or base before flipping it over for use. These feeders should only be used during the warmer months and should be checked on often, as external feeders are more likely to draw in robbers than feeders used inside the hive. A short entrance reducer that puts the main entrance far from the feeder access also helps prevent robbers. Remember, as it gets colder and bees begin to cluster, they will not break cluster and travel to the entrance to access the feed, so entrance feeders should not be used at less than 50 degrees F.
With any syrup feeding in spring/summer, if the goal is to get comb built on foundation, you should keep feeding until the comb is drawn. But if you’re feeding just to get bees through a variable spring, and you’re ready to add supers full of drawn comb to store honey for human consumption, it’s important that you stop feeding sugar syrup. (We usually add supers around May 1 in Greenwich, NY.) It is not proper to have your bees store syrup in supers mixed with natural nectar, and then extract all of it together and call it "honey." Only bee-processed plant nectar (or honeydew) is HONEY.
Are you ready to give feeders a shot? Check out what we have to offer below.