Feeding honey bees sugar syrup seems like a strange idea, but it’s the most effective way to get them to draw out new combs on foundation. And that’s important for two reasons.

First, for a new colony to really take off, it needs to rapidly increase its population. It takes three weeks to raise a bee to working adulthood. But that process can’t begin until the queen lays eggs in the cells. And she can’t do her job until she has cells to lay the eggs in. But the workers bees won’t create a lot of comb until the young wax-making bees’ bodies are so richly supplied with calories that their wax glands are pushing out wax scales like crazy. When you drill down to the start of this chain of events, it mostly depends on having an abundance of available calories. If you provide sugar syrup, you jump-start the wax-making process by providing an early, constant source of calories. Feeding also evens out the sometimes on-again, off-again natural spring nectar flow which helps keep wax production continuing at full speed.

And that’s important for the second reason. A honey bee colony has one overriding goal in its first summer: create all the comb necessary to store the 70 to 80 pounds of honey it will need to have in the hive before the end of the season. Failure to do that successfully may doom the colony to winter starvation. By giving them a hive to live in, you have only provided your bees with a house. They still have to furnish it with drawn combs, and then fill the combs up with honey while the flowers are still in bloom. Making wax for the combs will “use up” a large portion of the calories the bees bring in as nectar. Feeding sugar syrup adds to the total available calorie supply, making it more likely that the bees will meet their need for comb and stored nectar before it is too late. Of course, you can help them out again at the end of season with more feeding to fill any empty cells. But bees are most eager to draw comb – adding storage capacity – in the spring and summer. Seize the opportunity at the start of the season when the bees are keen on making comb to get the job done.

Feeding sugar

The bees will need to draw out a minimum of all the frames in all the boxes that you intend them to winter on. Keep offering them syrup until this has been accomplished, even if that takes a couple of months.

This high need for calories only happens when you’re getting a hive established on bare foundation. If you’re installing bees on already-drawn comb (from a deadout hive, as an example) a brief period of feeding to get them off to a good start may be useful, but they don’t need syrup for the long term.

But, starting from scratch on bare foundation is a unique period in a new colony’s life. With good management, next year both you and your bees will reap the rewards of having already-drawn comb at the beginning of the season. All the incoming nectar next year can then be turned into more bees and more surplus honey, instead of being turned into calorie-demanding wax. That’s why clean drawn comb is often described as beekeepers’ gold.

Tips for feeding a new colony in the spring

  1. Don’t stop feeding until the bees have met the goal of having a fully drawn out set of frames in each brood box. From time to time, they may slow down in their uptake of syrup when there is a strong flow going on. It’s fine to pause for a week, or so, but try offering it again after that. If they go back to taking it again, continue to feed.
  2. Keep a close eye on the area surrounding any style of internal feeder where the bees have access to space within the empty box surrounding it. You don’t want them to start building comb inside the box around the feeder. Check at least once or twice a week and immediately interrupt this by adding another box with frames for them to draw out (if needed) or stopping feeding. You want them to build comb on the frames but not get creative inside the open space.
  3. Don’t feed bees sugar syrup if you also have added honey supers on the hive – it will get mixed in together, spoiling the purity of your honey crop. The goal for this sustained feeding is only to get them to draw out combs for the brood nest area (which are also the wintering boxes). Once they’ve got that done, only then should you add honey supers.

What do you feed honey bees in the spring?

You can use home-made sugar syrup or feed a commercial product such as Pro-Sweet.

Making home-made 1:1 syrup is easy, though it can be messy. You mix equal parts (by either volume or weight) of hot water and white granulated sugar, and stir well. If making a quantity of syrup in a large container such as a 5-gallon bucket, put the water in first, otherwise you’ll have a hard time stirring the heavy, damp sugar.

Don’t make more than you need at one time, unless you can refrigerate it, as syrup this thin may spoil (turn vinegary), in which case it must be discarded as it isn’t healthy for the bees to eat. You may also find that adding a few drops of chlorine bleach per gallon helps keep the syrup from getting moldy in warmer weather.

Don’t use anything other than plain white granulated sugar. Organic sugar, and other alternative sugars are not healthier for bees. And never feed your bees any honey other than in clean frames from your own hives. Honey from other sources carries the risk of introducing serious diseases.

If you use Pro-Sweet, you pour it straight from the jug. It provides a good source of calories and unopened jugs are shelf-stable, keeping without spoiling or crystallizing. It is also very convenient, without the work and mess of mixing sugar syrup. It avoids the need to carry heavy bags of sugar home from the store. Although it is thicker than the 1:1 syrup which is normally recommended for spring feeding, it’s fine to use in all seasons. (Calories are calories, as every dieter knows!)

Both home-made syrup and Pro-Sweet can be fed in any type of feeder.

What kind of feeder is best?

The ideal feeder offers direct, in-hive access for the bees, while protecting them from drowning and deterring robbing. If it’s also easy to check and refill, it will save you a lot of time and effort.

We offer many models; the ones below are the most popular.

Type of feeder

Pros

Cons

Division board or frame feeder

Inexpensive; syrup close to the cluster

Need to open the hive to check on or refill feeder. Some bees may drown, even with the climbing ladder in place.

Pail feeder

Inexpensive; syrup right over the cluster for easy access in all weather

Pail must be very tightly sealed to create a vacuum or there is a risk of leaking. Need to open hive to refill feeder. Need additional box to surround the feeder.

Ultimate In-Hive feeder

Easier to open and refill than a pail-type feeder

More expensive than a pail feeder; need to open hive to refill feeder. Needs a box to surround the feeder. May result in wild comb in the surrounding box.

Hive top feeder

Can be checked and refilled without opening the hive, even at night.

More expensive than other feeders.

Other kinds of feeders:

Entrance feeders (aka Boardman-style feeders) present some problems in the spring. Because the syrup is outside the hive, it may cool off and be less attractive to the bees. These feeders are smaller, so you’ll need to refill them more frequently. And they are often associated with robbing. If you already have one of these feeders, you can consider setting it up inside the hive on the inner cover and surround it with an empty box. Be sure to tape over the notch in the inner cover’s rim with duct tape if feeding this way, in order to prevent robbing.

Home-made feeders are another option, too. A short-term possibility is using a plastic baggie feeder. These will work well in a pinch, but are not ideal for the sustained, high volume feeding you’ll need to do when establishing a colony.

You can also use large canning jars with a few tiny holes punched into their lids, set directly on the frames. Surround the jars with an empty box. Instructions for making the home-made feeders are here

Should you feed pollen patty in the spring?

Pollen provides the essential nutrition for raising baby bees. It contains the fats and protein needed for a bee to grow from a larva to a pupa, and finally, to metamorphose into a fully-formed adult bee. This amount of cell change and differentiation, in such a short period, requires more than just the carbohydrates in honey or syrup.

In the spring and summer, many flowers provide pollen to bees. But sometimes, early in the season, the pollen production comes in stops and starts. And as any parent knows, you have to feed the kids every day, no matter what. Bees will adjust (downward) the amount of brood they are raising to match the current availability of pollen. You want them to raise as much brood as possible, because more bees means more workers to help get the hive fully established and squared away before winter. To even out, and even slightly boost, the amount of pollen available for the brood, some beekeepers add a small amount of pollen patty to a new colony.

This comes with a little risk, however. More brood raised today means more bees in just a few weeks. And too many bees inside a hive, without enough comb already drawn, can equal an overcrowded hive. This is particularly true if you are starting with a nuc which is arriving with five to eight thousand baby bees already “in process.” Overcrowding can lead to swarming. If you are confident you would recognize the early signs of an overcrowded hive in time to take action, then it may be worth the risk. But if you are just starting out, it may be better to just “go with the flow” of natural pollen, literally. While you might still have such a natural excess of pollen that the hive becomes overcrowded, at least you won’t be the cause of the problem. You will have other opportunities in future years to experiment with super-charging a hive.

If you have pollen patty that you decide not to use, or a surplus, it can be carefully overwrapped and stored in the freezer until next spring. Your bees will be eager to feast on it then.

Related Links

» Read more about installing a nuc

» Read more about installing a package