Site Loader
close up photo of bumblebee on flower

For the most part, bees can feed themselves, but there are times when a beekeeper may want to step in and offer some assistance.  Feeding bees sugar water can be very helpful to new colonies or during a nectar dearth.  

While feeding bees sugar water can save a starving colony, it is also important to know when to stop feeding bees in spring. Giving bees too much sugar water when they don’t need it isn’t good for them too. 

What do Bees Eat?

There are three things bees eat – pollen, nectar, and honey.  Worker bees spend much of their time foraging pollen and nectar to bring back to the hive.  

Pollen

Pollen is a protein source for bees and it is tied to brood production.  Pollen consists of protein, sugars, minerals, fatty acids, and vitamins. The bees mix pollen with their saliva, nectar, and honey to create bee bread.  The protein rich bee bread is stored in cells to be eaten later.  

Nectar

Nectar is the bee’s carbohydrate. It gives them energy to fly and build their hives.  Nectar is foraged from flowers and brought back to the hive to make honey.  It is important for bees to make and store a good amount of honey so they have something to eat during the winter months.  

To do so, they suck up nectar and store it in their honey stomach.  There, the nectar mixes with special enzymes that break it down.  Back at the hive, the nectar gets transferred to a house bee. She adds more enzymes to the nectar before placing it into the honeycomb.  From that point on, water will evaporate out of the nectar.  Once the moisture content is below 18%, you have honey.  The bees will cap it with wax to be stored for later. 

Honey

That brings us to the last thing bees eat – honey. Bees love honey so much that they’ll even steal it from other hives. One honeybee colony needs to make 60 – 80 pounds of honey to survive the winter. Luckily for us, a strong colony will make much more. Beekeepers collect the excess honey to be sold and eaten. 

Sugar Water For Bees

There are times when a beekeeper may step in to help feed their bees.  In that case, they will make sugar water, or sugar syrup for the bees to eat. The sugar water is poured into a bee feeder and depending on the type, placed at the entrance or inside the hive.  

Beekeepers who are feeding their bees in the late winter or early spring, use a 1:1 sugar water mixture.  In the fall, a 2:1 sugar water mixture is used.  

See bee feeders here.

Why Feed Bees?

Healthy, strong colonies can usually forage enough resources on their own and do not need to be fed.  However, there are instances where a beekeeper will step in to feed their bees.

A New Colony

It is common to feed a new colony of bees, especially if they arrive in a package, as opposed to a nuc.  Packaged bees have no resources and may have difficulty foraging enough food in time for winter.  Feeding them some sugar syrup can help them until they are able to forage for their own food.  

Nectar Dearth

Nectar dearth occurs when nectar is scarce.  It can happen at different times of the year in different areas, but high temperatures and dry plants and flowers usually signal nectar dearth.  

During this time, it is very difficult for bees to forage enough food for the colony.  Feeding bees is a good way to help them survive a nectar dearth.  

A Weakened Colony

A weakened colony, such as bees recovering from pest infestation or disease may need some assistance with resources.  Some beekeepers choose to feed recovering colonies until they are able to regain health.

Reasons to Stop Feeding Bees

While feeding bees can sometimes be a necessity, it’s important to not do it too much.

Nutrients

Nectar contains many nutrients that sugar water does not have.  Amino acids, vitamins, and enzymes are ingredients present in nectar that are beneficial to the bees health. In fact, these natural ingredients in nectar aid in boosting the bees immune system and ward off parasites.  

So it’s safe to say that it is better for the bee’s health to have a diet of nectar, and not primarily sugar water. While you may have to feed bees sugar water for a short time, it is best not to give it to them long term.  

pH Balance

The pH levels of honey and sugar water is vastly different.  Honey’s pH ranges from 3.2 to 4.5.  While the pH level of sugar water is 6.0.  That may not sound like a big deal, but some beekeepers believe that pests and disease such as varroa mites and chalkbrood reproduce and thrive at higher pH levels. Therefore, too much sugar water can throw off the pH balance of the hive, which in turn can be detrimental to the colony’s health.  

Honey

Bees will attempt to make honey from sugar water.  Of course, you do not want them to do this because it isn’t real honey.  

When to Stop Feeding Bees in Spring

As you can see, bees should only be fed sugar water when it is absolutely necessary.  Feeding them too much isn’t healthy for them too. But how do you know when to stop feeding bees in spring? You should stop feeding bees in the following situations:

When Honey Supers are on 

You should not feed bees sugar water when there are honey supers, that you plan to harvest from, on the hive. That would encourage them to try to make honey using sugar water instead of nectar. 

When There is Enough Honey Stored for Winter

During hive inspections, you should be looking for 2 things – how much comb is built and how much honey is stored.  When you notice that there is a good amount of comb on the frames and enough honey stored for winter, you should stop feeding your bees.

Summary

While it is common to feed sugar water to new bee colonies, it is also important to know when to stop feeding bees in spring.  Sugar water lacks the nutrients that bees need to strengthen their immune system.  You should stop feeding bees when there are honey supers on and when there is enough honey stored for winter. 

Holly