Feeding Honey Bees Part 1: Getting Sweet with Sugar Syrup

While honey bees have mastered the art of producing and storing honey for their survival, supplementary feeding is practised by beekeepers all over the world. Why do we need to feed bees?

There are many reasons why beekeepers may need to provide supplementary food to a hive. Beginner beekeepers, in particular, may misjudge how much honey a beehive will need to survive the winter, or may not be aware of local fluctuations in floral resources. Sometimes, honeybee colonies cannot collect sufficient stores, or started building them up to late in the season. Perhaps spring may come unexpectedly late, and nectar may not be flowing when honey stores run out.

According to Amazing Bees, as a flying insect bees need an internal body temperature of 35°C. And bees need fuel to heat up their body. When there is not enough honey in the hive, forager bees responsible for pollen and nectar collection are not strong enough to fly. And so, even when pollen and nectar is available in their range, these bees don’t have enough energy to get there.

What to feed bees?

In Australia the preferred supplementary food for bees is white cane sugar. It is usually fed as a syrup, but in some circumstances it is also fed dry.  

As Amazing Bee elaborates, a colony needs to be fed before they run out of their own food. This provides the energy they need to fly out and search for any available pollen and nectar. As long as your bees are active, which is a greater part of the year in the warm Australian climate, you should be feeding your bees if they are at any risk of coming up short.

White sugar is made up of sucrose, which, believe it or not, is the dominant sugar in nectar. According to the Department of Primary Industries NSW, white sugar provides the least risk of digestive complaints in bees. Organic, raw and brown sugars all have additional content that may upset a bee’s tummy!

Is sugar syrup bad for bees?

According to the DPI NSW, in addition to high levels of sucrose with some fructose and glucose, nectar can have traces of minerals, vitamins, pigments, aromatic substances, organic acids and nitrogen compounds.

So, are bees fed sugar syrup missing out on vitamins and minerals or other nutrients? Well, firstly, if your bees are starving and not foraging, then they are missing out on those anyway!

Some of the concern over supplementing bee diets with sugar syrup may be based on practices in North America. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) became popular as a bee food there in the 1990s. Cheaper and more convenient, HFCS does not requiring mixing like a sucrose solution. However, according to Bee Culture, questions about the safety of HFCS as a bee food were soon raised, with beekeepers reporting mixed results.

Researchers had long recognised decreased longevity in worker bees fed on HFCS, compared to those fed honey (Barker and Lehner 1978). Then in 2009, a similar result was found when HFCS was compared to sucrose syrup (Weiss 2009). In Australia, no doubt thanks to our healthy cane sugar industry, HFCS hasn’t gained as strong a foothold in our food supply chain and it is not known to be used as bee food.

If you are concerned about additional nutrition for your bees, Amazing Bees has some suggestions. It’s common to add citric acid to a sugar solution to better mimic honey. Honey contains some inverted sugars, while table sugar is pure sucrose. But when the sugar is heated and mixed with an organic acid some of this sugar is inverted. This makes it is easier for the bees to digest.

Amazing Bees has also trialled adding multi-vitamins to their syrup with positive results. They report that bees were in better than usual condition after the winter break. While they don’t specify the multi-vitamin tablet used, they suggest letting it dissolve in half a glass of cold water before adding it to the syrup.

Amazing Bees’ Sugar Syrup Recipe is available here.

Ok, but isn’t feeding bees honey better for them?

If there isn’t enough of their own honey in the hive, feeding bees honey can be problematic. As DPI NSW and Agriculture Victoria stress, you must be certain that any honey you introduce from outside the hive is disease free. Honey can carry American foulbrood, European foulbrood, chalkbrood, and nosema fungal disease. More information on these diseases is available at Bee Aware.

Then there is the fact that while nectar or sugar syrup has a stimulating effect on a colony and boosts brooding, honey has the opposite effect. This may make sense in cold climates where bees must hibernate over winter, but in much of Australia, bees can be somewhat active year round. The DPI NSW fact sheet on Feeding sugar to bees adds to this that:

  • Feeding honey back to bees makes some colonies more defensive and aggressive
  • Exposing honey in feeders may promote robbing, putting weak honey bee colonies at risk of invasion
  • A naturally occurring acid in honey, Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), increases in concentration as honey ages. More so if the honey is exposed to heat. Levels of HMF above 30 ppm are considered toxic to bees
  • Bees are reportedly twice as attracted to sugar syrup than they are to honey
  • Adult bees reportedly live longer when eating sucrose, compared to honey
  • For beekeepers running a business, it is more economical to feed sugar, which is available at a fraction of the cost of honey.

When to feed bees with sugar

It’s most common to supplement bees’ diets in winter. First, you need to establish if your honey bees will come up short in honey stores. Based in Victoria, Amazing Bees suggests as a rule of thumb that a common wooden 8-frame hive should weigh around 24-30 kg to have enough honey stores for winter.

It’s best to get local advice from a beekeeping mentor or organisation as local conditions will influence your bees’ requirements. You will need to stay in the loop with local flowering conditions and seasonal changes too. Bees will also need feeding if there are not enough nectar resources in their range.

Amazing Bees notes that many beekeeping books or courses talk about when temperatures are “too cold for feeding sugar syrup,” but these usually originate from much colder climates like North America or Europe. Amazing Bees found it’s rarely too cold to feed bees in their home state of Victoria, and it’s the same story in most parts of the country:

In general, bees start leaving the hive for short foraging trips above 9°C. Below 9°C bees stop leaving the hive and stay home. The temperature of the brood nest is 34°C during winter and the bee population clusters around the brood nest to keep the brood warm. Hence, the inside temperature of the beehive is higher than the temperature outside…

When we adopted an unwanted beehive at the end of May it had run out of food stores; temperatures were lower than 13°C and feeding sugar grains or candy as the “emergency winter solution” was on the agenda. However, when you don’t try you never find out, instead of candy we fed them two lots of three jars of 2.5 litres each, filled with sugar syrup. The first lot was processed after 10 days. For the second lot, with night temperatures as low as 3°C and day temperatures between 8°C and 12°C we did not expect the jars to be emptied within two weeks. When we checked after three weeks all jars were still 1/4 full and after four weeks finally empty, and the hive felt heavy enough to last through the winter.


How to feed sugar to bees

There are a multitude of techniques and preferences for feeding bees, from jars with holes in the lids as used by Amazing Bees, to pouring dry sugar onto the hive mat. Our preference is to use a frame feeder made especially for our langstroth beehives.

Using our bee feeder

Our frame feeder for honey bees is easy to assemble and made from durable plastic. Two bee ladders are included that fit inside. Ian recommends adding a small block of styrofoam or something similar to the bottom of the ladder just in case a bee falls in. Watch Ian introduce our bee feeder in the video below.

Our bee feeder is also used for feeding other bee foods. Next up, what about supplementing pollen for bees?

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