Sugar water (or syrup) is made up of white cane sugar that is dissolved in water and given to honeybees as a reliable substitute for the nectar they usually collect.
White cane sugar is used because it doesn’t contain additives which may be harmful to bees. It is also readily available and inexpensive to buy, which is good because as a beekeeper you may need to use it in large quantities.
Sugar water is made up in different concentrations and quantities depending upon what it is used for. There are two main reasons why you might need to feed bees sugar water:
- When you want to rear queens or stimulate the growth of your colony. This type of sugar water feeding is done in Spring and is fed in small quantities. The ratio of sugar to water in this case is 1 to 1. In other words, for every cup of sugar added, there should also be 1 cup of water.
- The other reason to feed bees sugar water is to provide Winter stores for the colony. This takes place in fall and quantities are much larger. The ratio is 2 parts of white sugar to 1 part water. This recipe is known as sugar syrup.
Why Do Beekeepers Feed Bees Sugar Water?
Beekeepers feed bees sugar water (or syrup) as a substitute for nectar when bees need it. Outlined below are a few reasons when feeding is necessary:
A New Hive
You may have acquired a new hive that has insufficient resources to survive. The foraging bees need to fuel their flights to and from the hive, the queen needs to be fed, and the colony needs to draw out combs of wax foundation so that brood can be laid and food stored. A lot of energy is required to undertake these tasks, so the hive would benefit from being fed sugar water.
A Weak Hive
A weak hive with fewer bees will have trouble collecting enough nectar and pollen to store for the Winter months. Before Autumn, you should inspect the hive to see if they have sufficient nectar stores. If not, you will need to feed them sugar water so they can create and store more honey.
Low Supply Of Nectar
Where you live may be experiencing a nectar dearth or shortage, which means the bees cannot store enough nectar for Winter. Providing sugar water will supply the bees with a food source to help them until more nectar becomes available.
Unseasonal Weather Conditions
Be aware if the weather in your area has been unusually cold, wet or windy. Such unseasonal conditions prevent your bees from foraging as much as usual. The colony will need additional feeding in the form of sugar water to supplement the shortage of nectar.
When Should You Stop Feeding Your Bees Sugar Water?
How long you feed sugar water to bees depends on the reason you have been feeding it to them in the first place.
There is no specific time for you to stop feeding your bees. You need to monitor the hive closely to work out when to stop. Each hive will be different. For example:
A New Hive
You can stop feeding sugar water to a new hive when you inspect the hive and find most frames have drawn comb, the queen has started laying and there is nectar being stored by the foragers.
A Weak Hive
Stop feeding a weak hive when they are established and there is nectar being provided by flowering plants. An established hive will have bees covering almost every frame.
Most frames (6 out of 8) will have drawn comb with nectar being stored as honey. The queen will be laying and a solid brood pattern will be evident across the central frames.
Low Supply Of Nectar
If you were feeding your hive sugar water because nectar was in short supply, you should stop when there is a nectar flow provided by flowering plants and honey is being stored in the super.
A nectar flow is characterized by very active bees coming and going from the hive collecting nectar. Another sign is when you inspect the hive you will see new white wax being built.
You should stop feeding your bees now because the honey being stored is what you will harvest for human consumption – and you don’t want to be harvesting sugar water the bees have stored, as it’s not real honey.
Unseasonal Weather Conditions
You can stop feeding your bees sugar syrup when the weather becomes consistently warm and there is plenty of nectar available from flowering plants. Inspect your hive to see if the bees have begun storing nectar as honey.
When Not To Feed Bees Sugar Water In The First Place
There are many beekeepers who do not recommend the use of sugar water, or syrup, to feed a hive. Feeding the bees sugar syrup may:
- Entice pest such as wasps or ants that are attracted by the large amounts of sugar water.
- Increase the chance of robbing from the hive by other bees wanting to steal the sugar water.
- Increase the possibility of the bees swarming. If the colony is fed too much sugar water too often, it may believe there is much more nectar around than is actually available and this could lead to swarm preparation.
Even beekeepers who do use sugar water would agree that there are certain times when you should not feed your bees. These reasons include:
When there are honey supers on the hive
When there is a strong nectar flow and lots of nectar being stored as honey, you will need to add a box (or super) with frames of wax foundation or drawn comb to your hive. This is so your foraging bees have room to store the nectar that gets turned into honey.
At this time you don’t need to give any sugar water or syrup to your bees. They will store it in the cells as ‘honey’, leaving less room for the real honey to be stored. Also, sugar water stored as ‘honey’ will be without flavor, color or the beneficial enzymes real honey contains.
Unless you live in a tropical area, you should not feed your bees during Winter. During Winter, when ambient temperatures drop to between 12 to 14 degrees Celsius (54 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit) bees in the hive form a cluster to keep warm.
If you open the hive to feed your bees at this time you risk lowering the internal temperature of the hive beyond the tolerance levels of the bees inside. Also, to access the sugar water the bees would have to break the cluster and therefore lose the ability to maintain the constant temperature needed to survive.
In addition, by adding sugar water to the hive you increase the amount of moisture levels inside which could cause the formation of mold.
When there is enough nectar available
You can feed bees sugar syrup during the Fall (Autumn) in preparation for Winter because the bees will consume most of it and little will be stored as honey.
However you should stop feeding bees sugar water when nectar is plentiful. You want them to store the nectar as honey and not the sugar water, which as I said before, is colorless and tasteless.
Nectar converted into honey by bees is the best food source for a colony. However, there are situations when the strategic use of sugar water or syrup as a supplement can enhance a colony’s productivity and in some cases help them survive.
When to stop feeding your bees will be determined by close observation of your hive. If the bees are actively building new comb and bringing in pollen and nectar, then they probably don’t need to be fed.