© Naturally, the best food for honey bees is the plant pollen and plant nectar they have collected for themselves.
Pollen is high in protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. It provides nearly all their nutrition.
Honey is about 80% sugar and 19% water with only small traces of anything else.
It provides the sugar for the energy or fuel supply the colony needs to keep busy and keep their nest warm.
What to feed…
Honey previously harvested from a colony can be fed back to them by first diluting it, 2 parts honey to 1 part water but honey and pollen will carry and spread disease so never feed your bees honey or pollen that has come from another colony unless you are certain that it is disease free.
Sugar must be pure refined granulated white cane or beet sugar and nothing else. Never use any other sort of sugar such as unrefined or brown sugar or syrups, it gives bees terrible dysentery.
Sugar can be given in different forms depending on the reason for feeding but it is usually in the form of a liquid syrup. This needs to be in about 50% concentration or less if the bees need to consume it immediately.
To make 50% syrup add 1 part sugar to 1 part water, this can be by weight or volume, it does not have to be precise. Stir well and allow to settle for 30 minutes, repeat twice if necessary. The syrup must be clear but may have a very pale straw colour. There is no need to use hot water to dissolve the sugar but ideally, when the syrup is put into the feeder, it should be about the same temperature as the colony i.e. 25°C, 77°F.
Syrup will naturally start to ferment and cause dysentery so we recommend the addition of Hive Alive.
Making syrup of higher concentration or making fondant or candy is neither necessary nor economical.
When to feed…
Bees become less active and stay clustered together as temperatures go below about 14ºC, 57ºF. They will not be able to easily process syrup or take food unless it is in direct contact with the cluster.
The bees also respond to syrup in the same way as they do to an income of nectar causing excitement with foraging bees scouting nearby for the source of the income which can then result in robbing amongst colonies. It also stimulates bees to increase the amount they feed the queen which increases her rate of egg laying. Therefore syrup should only be fed during the normal active season and never when the bees are inactive in winter. Syrup is best given to colonies in the evening when flying has stopped. This will reduce scouting foragers and the chances of robbing. Avoid spilling syrup because it can start a robbing frenzy when it is found by scouting bees.
Colonies sometimes fail in spite of the best efforts of the beekeeper but there is no need for a colony to die from starvation, it is fully preventable. It can happen at any time in the active season, even in mid summer, so colony stores should be assessed at every hive inspection to ensure there is at least enough to last until the next inspection. If in doubt feed syrup. As a rule of thumb, erring on the safe side, a strong colony can consume 1 pound of honey stores per day.
Syrup can be sprayed directly into empty combs or onto the bees in an emergency e.g. a colony on the brink of starvation will be cold, less mobile and unable to access a feeder.
Spring and Summer feeding…
Newly started nucleus colonies, any small colony, newly hived swarms and artificial swarms will all need to build new comb and fill their brood boxes. In these cases, if there is no steady nectar flow, feeding with 50% syrup will be necessary if the colony is to expand and grow as large as possible before the approach of winter. Be wary of over feeding syrup in these cases or else the bees will start storing it in the space needed by the queen for laying eggs. If this is observed, ration feeding or restrict access to the feeder until a balance is achieved.
The major honey flow in Britain is usually over by the end of July and the last harvest of any honey should be done soon after in August. Colony stores should then be assessed at the last inspection of summer to ensure there is enough to last until the first inspection of the following spring. As a rule of thumb, erring on the safe side, 50-60 lbs, 20-25kg of sealed stores is more than enough. This means the colony should have the equivalent of at least 15 National shallow frames of sealed stores so in practice leaving a full super is not far off the mark. The colony cannot be overfed at this time of year so if there is any doubt provide syrup. This can be 50% concentration, it is not necessary to make higher concentration. It is important for the colony to process and store all the syrup it needs before the weather becomes too cold for them to take it so start feeding as soon as any honey harvest has been taken in August. Syrup can be continually supplied until the colony stops taking it, usually when the nights become colder.
Bags of granulated sugar can be left on the hive as an insurance policy against starvation during the winter when syrup cannot be fed. Make a hole in the side of the bag and slowly pour in a cup of water. Use just enough water to make the sugar crystals cake together. Invert the bag over the feed hole in the hive crown board so it is in direct contact with the bees below so the bees can access the sugar. Sugar paste or bakers fondant can be used in the same way. It is not something that is economical to make at home so it is best purchased from your local friendly baker or bee farmer
The most commonly used is the plastic 4 pint rapid feeder. The bees must crawl up through a chimney into the feeder to access the food. The feeder is placed over a feeding hole so the bees have access to the central chimney. Dribble a little syrup down the chimney so the bees find the feeder quickly as they clean up the dribbled trail of syrup. Filling these feeders is easily done without disturbing the bees and the access can be restricted so feeding can be rationed. It is important to ensure that no robbers can access the feeder or the food so an empty box or feeder eke must be used to house the feeder so the hive roof can be replaced. There are also large capacity box versions such as the Ashforth Feeder that fit on the hive instead of the crown board so they do not need an eke. They are very useful when feeding honey cappings back the colony after harvesting. Frame feeders are open top feeders designed to fit inside the hive in place of a frame in close contact with the bees without needing a feeder eke. They are especially useful for feeding small colonies and nucleus hives. Be wary of upside down bucket feeders, known as contact feeders. They can cause problems when temperature changes make them discharge, or 'glug' the syrup onto the colony with disastrous results. We do not recommend them.
Remember that every year is unique, every locality is different and no two colonies are the same so every hive should be treated as an individual and managed accordingly.