Is it Feeding Time in Your Apiary?

by Ross Conrad

There are various ways to feed and each option has benefits and drawbacks for you and your bees.
The month of March can be a difficult month for many in the Northeast, especially those of us in the northern-most areas. We can sense that Spring is just around the corner, and yet Winter still has a strong icy grip on most of the states in this corner of the country. Trees remain bare of leaves, the world around us is mostly brown and grey unless it snows, and at this point most of us have had our fill of snow for the season. The temperatures through much of the region are still too low to enable the bees to get out and fly with any regularity. March is the month that cabin fever can really take hold and cause even the hardiest among us to leave on a trip to warmer climes, where a beach and the sun feel so good, and we can luxuriate in the feeling of being able to go outside without being bundled up from head to toe.  

March is also one of the most critical times of the year for visiting beeyards in the northeast to be sure colonies have enough honey. The honey in the hives must last them until the earliest of the blooming plants begin to offer the first nectar and pollen sources of the year in the hopes that the weather will be favorable enough for pollinators to visit and pollinate their flowers. Experienced beekeepers will have undoubtedly learned this lesson the hard way, and beekeeping classes will always cover the need to check food levels in late Winter/early Spring, but there seems to be no end to the new beekeepers who “thought there would be enough honey since nothing was removed last year” and experience hive losses due to starvation at this time of year.

One of the big problems at this time of year is that we humans get just as excited over a warm sunny day as the bees do. Those February or March thaws allow us to get outside, clean up the yard from the fallen branches that have collected during the Winter, perhaps start poking around in the garden, or simply go for a walk and enjoy the balmy weather. If we were on the ball and did everything we were supposed to in Autumn, we have been able to ignore the bees for the last several months and it is easy to continue to forget them now, just when they may be needing us the most.

Depending on your geographical location, all hives should probably have at least two full frames of capped honey located adjacent to the cluster during these late Winter/early Spring days, and the more the better. This is why it is so much better to feed colonies liberally in Autumn making sure that all supers are full and there are no partially filled frames or undrawn foundation at the start of Winter, so that hives don’t need feeding before the spring flowers bloom. Hives that are treated this way tend to be much stronger in Spring than hives that need to be fed during the Winter or early Spring. If the capped frames of honey left in the hive are located on the side of the hive opposite the clustering bees, then the frames of honey should be moved so that they are adjacent to the bees, sandwiching the cluster. If there is little, or no capped honey left in the hive, then the beekeeper misjudged feeding requirements in the Fall and the colony now requires feeding as soon as possible.

From my perspective, the best way to feed a colony in need is to slap a full shallow or medium super of capped honey on top of the hive. Unfortunately, full supers are likely to be in short supply at this time of year, unless you have colonies that died over the Winter and have not had their honey robbed out yet. Sometimes, full frames of capped honey can be taken from several dead colonies in order to fill a super that can be used for feeding a colony in need. The biggest danger in this approach however is that diseases can be spread between colonies this way, so it is extremely important that the dead colonies that are providing the frames of honey for feeding are thoroughly inspected to be sure they did not die from something that may be contagious, such as American foulbrood or nosema. If there is any question as to the reason the hives died, then feeding syrup instead of honey is a safer approach.
The challenge with late Winter/early Spring feeding is that the cold temperatures tend to make it difficult for colonies to access the feed. Research has established that colonies will begin to form a cluster when ambient temperatures drop down to around 57°F. As outside temperatures drop, the cluster contracts and once temperatures reach around 55°F, the cluster will have formed an outer shell of relatively quiet bees, and a warm inner core where the queen and workers are more active. Much depends on a colonies genetic tolerance to the cold, but generally speaking, when temperatures drop much below 50°F, most colonies are loath to break cluster and do so only under relatively severe circumstances. This is why entrance feeders (sometimes also called Boardman entrance feeders), that position the syrup on the bottom board by the hive entrance are fairly worthless at this time of year. A cluster of bees located up against the inner cover will not break the cluster in order to reach the feeder by the bottom board except on those relatively rare warm days. It is a gamble to feed bees this way with the hope that the colony will process enough of the syrup during warm weather to be able to survive the cold snaps that are still sure to come. A more reliable approach is to use a feeding method that positions the syrup close, if not adjacent to, the cluster.

Hive top feeders that resemble supers in size and shape and are placed under the inner cover on top of the hive, are a bit better than entrance feeders. They will position the syrup closer to the cluster, however the bees will still need to travel a significant distance from the cluster, up the side of the top feeder, over the top of the feeder and down to the syrup reservoir. This also does not work very well in cold weather, though the temperature range at which the bees will be able to reach the top feeder will likely be a few degrees lower than with the entrance feeder, since some heat rising from the cluster may help to warm the space above. Another drawback to the top hive feeder is that many designs on the market seem to result in at least some bees drowning in the sugar syrup.

Quart mason jar feeder behind a follower board in a top bar hive.

Quart mason jar feeder behind a follower board in a top bar hive.

The division board feeder takes the place of a frame within the hive body, and is a much better option since it can be positioned adjacent to the cluster making it easier for the bees to gain access to the feed despite the persisting cold temperatures. Small pieces of wood are often placed in the feeder to float in the syrup and provide the bees with a life raft should they fall in. Despite this precaution, inevitably some bees are likely to drown in the syrup anyway. The biggest drawback to using the division board feeder is that the hive must be opened up in order to insert/remove the feeder, check feed levels and refill the feeder with syrup when necessary. This may require you to sacrifice additional time on those rare warm days in order to care for your bees.

Some beekeepers place a plastic zip-lock sandwich bag filled with syrup on the top bars of the hive body containing clustering bees. Wooden shims or a small super, about 1/3 the depth of a shallow super, is added to provide room for the bees and bags. A slit is sliced into the top layer of the bag so that bees can access the syrup. The feed bag can be placed directly above the cluster making access relatively easy, though some bees may also drown in the feed and the hive still has to be opened when inserting/removing and checking feed levels in the bag. While the feed baggie is the least expensive option initially, regular use will theoretically eventually add up to a greater cost than the one-time expense of purchasing a more permanent feeder. This is also the only feeding option that results in the regular generation of landfill waste (the empty plastic baggie with a hole sliced in it).

My preferred method of feeding if I have failed to feed appropriately in Autumn, or do not have full supers of capped honey available, is to use a pail feeder. Pail feeders come in various sizes from about a half-gallon to over a gallon. The lid of the pail often has a hole cut into it that is covered with a fine screen. When a full bucket is filled and the lid placed tightly on so the syrup won’t leak out the edges, syrup will begin to run out of the hole through the screening but fairly quickly builds up a vacuum inside the bucket. The vacuum along with the surface tension of the syrup causes the syrup to stop dripping out of the bucket within about 30 seconds or so. The syrup will only drip down if something touches the surface of the liquid such as bees that come up through the inner cover and suck down the syrup once these pails are placed over the hole of the hive’s inner cover. Typically an empty deep super or a couple empty shallow or medium supers are placed around the bucket on top of the inner cover and the outer cover is placed on top of the shell created by the empty super(s) in order to protect the feeder from the elements and potential robbers and keep in the warmth of the cluster.
Feed buckets allow the beekeeper to feed colonies without having to open up the hive when feeding or checking syrup levels in the feeder. This system also places the feed directly over the cluster of bees where it is relatively easy for the colony to maintain warmth and reach the feed. There is no danger of bee drowning as long as the lid is on tight and no syrup is allowed to leak out the sides of the lid. One does have to be careful to allow the syrup to stop dripping from the inverted feeder before placing it over the inner cover hole, or syrup will drip down on the bees making them wet and vulnerable should the colony be exposed to cold temperatures before they have a chance to clean themselves up and dry off. Mason jars with nail holes punched into their metal lids are often used in place of plastic buckets even though the lids will rust over time and the glass may break if dropped or knocked too hard.

For years beekeepers have been encouraged to feed thin syrup consisting of one part sugar to one part water in the Spring in order to stimulate early brood rearing. Recently research looked at gene activity in response to diet and found significant differences occur depending on what the bees eat. This research suggests that a colony’s immune response may be weaker when fed an artificial diet as opposed to naturally collected forage. It appears that in both bees and humans, sugar is not simply sugar and various carbohydrate sources can and do have a different impact in the body.

Given the increased annual die-off of honey bees in the last decade and the widely held suspicion that nutrition plays a key role in honey bee declines, the wisdom of spring feeding of syrup becomes questionable when compared to ensuring that wintering hives are extra heavy with honey instead.
If for some reason I have miscalculated and a colony needs feeding in late Winter/early Spring, I will provide hives with a thick feed syrup made up of about two parts sugar to one part water in order to get as much food into the colony as fast as possible to prevent the possibility of starvation. But I will only supply feed until the bees are able to get out and successfully gather forage on their own.
While some beekeepers may enjoy taking the time to measure out the sugar and water while mixing up their bee feed, there is a way to mix up 2:1 syrup without having to do any measuring. First fill the bucket or feeder with granulated sugar up to the level where you want the level of syrup to come to once the feeder is full. Then add liquid and mix, dissolving the sugar until the level in the feeder once again comes up the where you want it. It turns out that this process results in syrup that is just about two parts sugar and one part liquid.

If you have colonies that require feeding and it will take longer than you would like before you will have a chance to get a feeder installed in the hive, the emergency feeding of granulated sugar sprinkled around the hole in the inner cover can help. The bees will come up through the inner cover hole and use any moisture they find in the hive to dissolve the sugar crystals. It is a slow process and will not work well in cold weather, but it can sometimes buy the beekeeper some much needed time when necessary.

Fondant (sometimes referred to as sugar candy) can be fed to hives by either placing the fondant on the top bars over the cluster or in a candy board on the hive. Fondant tends to be fairly soft and pliable so it is easy to place in the hive and for the bees to consume as long as it is within their reach. It may even absorb excess moisture in the hive, however like granulated sugar, it is more of an emergency feed since little if any tends to be stored in the combs. It can be preferable to syrup though when temperatures are consistently cold, since the moisture in syrup is difficult to evaporate in cold weather making liquid feed hard for the bees to process and store properly.

As colonies first emerge from Winter, they are typically in their most vulnerable condition of the year. Adult bee population numbers are low, food stores are low, and brood levels are still being built up. By ensuring that the bees have adequate food reserves to hold them over until fresh forage becomes abundant we help the colony avoid starvation and assist the colony in building up its strength in time to take advantage of the first major nectar flow of the year which, in the northeast, is just around the corner.


Ross Conrad authored the revised and expanded 2nd edition of Natural Beekeeping published in 2013