Spring Feeding Sugar Syrup to Honey Bees

Thursday 6 April 2023

Last week’s blog gave some insight into feeding pollen patties to our bees in the spring.  If you want to read one of our previous blogs on this topic, have a look at Blog #54 called Pollen Patties: To Feed or not to Feed?  There is also information in our fact sheets found on our ATTTA website.  This week we will continue the conversation about spring feeding.

Spring Feeding Sugar Syrup to Honey Bees

Early spring is a precarious time for honey bee survival, perhaps even more so than winter.  This is the time in the beekeeping season when many colonies can be lost to starvation.  In addition to feeding pollen patties, as discussed last week, sugar syrup can also be provided to support bees until environmental food resources are available.  Let’s explore some key points in deciding whether or not spring feeding of sugar syrup is necessary and how this can be achieved.

A common statement made by experienced beekeepers is that spring feeding is done in the fall!  What this means is that, under normal circumstances, a honey bee colony that has been well prepared for winter and fed correctly in the fall will be provided with enough stores to survive until the spring floral bloom.  In the Atlantic region the first flowering plants to provide nectar for honey bees are from the aster family.  Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is generally the first of this family to flower in April.  But the first significant source of nectar for honey bees comes from the Common Dandelion (Taxacacum officinale).  Dandelion bloom is the signal for beekeepers that the season has begun and after this point sufficient resources will be provided by abundant natural nectar sources.

The first step in the decision whether to feed sugar syrup in the spring is to assess the colonies themselves.  A simple way this can be achieved is with the “heft” test.  Experienced beekeepers will determine the remaining stores of honey in the hive by lifting the hive slightly to feel the weight.  If a hive is sufficiently heavy (>25 kg in early spring) then no feeding is required. A light hive will require feeding.

Figure 1. A beekeeper feeding sugar syrup in the spring to a colony via a frame feeder.  Most frame feeders will have a wooden top with vertical ladders access by the bees through holes.

If feeding is deemed necessary, then a solution made from granulated sugar (glucose) is recommended. This spring solution is typically one part sugar to one part water by weight.  This concentration of sugar is theorized to more closely resemble the sugar content of spring nectar.  This concentration may entice the bees, by mimicking favorable spring nectar flow, to increase brood production and improve spring build up.  Many beekeepers make up their own solutions of sugar syrup but premixed bulk syrup is also an option.

There are several choices available to beekeepers to deliver feed to bees.  A range of the most common feeders are seen in the pictures.  Frame feeders can be a convenient method of feeding bees, especially if they have remained in the hives since the previous fall.  If this is your practice, remember to remove and clean the feeders annually as they can become a habitat which will support certain pests of honey bees. These style feeders also allow the bees to access the feed without leaving the hive.

Figure 2. A pail feeder (left) and a top feeder (right).  Both good options for feeding bees sugar syrup.

A pail feeder can be placed on top of your colonies and will deliver feed directly to the bees below.  This method is preferred by some beekeepers as the location of the pail, like the frame feeder, allows the bees direct access to the feed.  This method also can be applied by the beekeeper without having to enter the hive.  Most often placed over the opening of a wooden inner cover and is best used in conjunction with an additional empty super surrounding the feeder with the outer cover then placed on top of the whole structure.  As another option, the top feeder acts in a similar way to allow bees access to the feed through the inner cover.  This is a good method for ease of access, once in place, and a large quantity of feed can be made available to the bees.

There are other methods of feeding sugar syrup and beekeepers are advised to find what works best for you and your operation.  One thing to remember when spring feeding is that pollen patties and sugar syrup will stimulate your bees into growth mode.  If we are artificially inducing spring build up then we must support this additional growth until natural resources are available.  So once started, careful monitoring of your bees will be required, along with possibly continued supplemental feeding.  So, assess individual colonies, in consideration of operational demands (i.e. pollination), and provide feed as appropriate.  Once bees are progressing along a spring growth trajectory, make sure they have the nutritional resources to maintain it.  Many beekeepers keep healthy bees without any spring feeding of sugar syrup!  So, the choice will be based on your experience, seasonal variation in weather, and the performance required from your colonies.

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