Feeding honey bees to prevent starvation

Honey bees store honey in the hive for food:

  • during winter
  • when  nectar-secreting flowers are scarce.

When nectar is in short supply or unavailable, bees draw on the honey stores in their hive. You need to frequently monitor the amount of stored honey during these times, because when it has all gone the colony will starve.

Starvation can be prevented by:

  • moving bees to an area where plants are yielding nectar
  • feeding them white table sugar
  • feeding them syrup made with white sugar.

Bee colonies can be kept alive for long periods by feeding white sugar.

Honey as feed for bees

Do not feed bees honey unless it is from your own disease-free hives. Spores of American foulbrood disease can be present in honey.

Feeding honey from an unknown source, such as a supermarket or even another beekeeper, can cause infection in your hives.

If you feed suitable honey to your bees, place it inside the hive. Never place honey in the open outside the hive — this is illegal under the Livestock Disease Control Act 1994.

How and when to feed bees

Don't leave sugar syrup or dry sugar out in the open. You will end up feeding bees from nearby managed and feral colonies  as well as your own. It is a waste of money.  Feeding in the open can also cause robber bee activity in the apiary as well as the spread of bee diseases.

Place sugar syrup or dry sugar inside the hives towards evening — as this minimises the risk of bees robbing hives that have been fed.

Feeding dry sugar

Medium to strong bee colonies can be fed dry white table sugar placed on hive mats or in-trays under the hive lid.

Bees need water to liquefy the sugar crystals. They will source water from outside the hive or use condensation  from inside the hive.

Some beekeepers prefer to wet the sugar with water to prevent it from solidifying. This creates a partial syrup.

Don't feed dry sugar to weak colonies as they may be incapable of gathering sufficient water.

Regardless of colony size, feeding dry sugar works best during autumn and spring when humidity is relatively high. Hot, dry summers make it hard for bees to dissolve sugar crystals into liquid.

A colony at starvation level should be fed sugar syrup first before dry sugar is given. This will give the bees immediate food without the need to liquefy crystals.

Bees will generally not use dry sugar when they are able to collect sufficient nectar for the colony's needs. The sugar will remain in the hive or be deposited by the bees outside the hive entrance. A small amount of dry sugar may be converted to liquid and stored in the cells.

Making and feeding sugar syrup

There are differing views about the correct amount of sugar to use in syrup.

Some beekeepers prefer a ratio of 1 part of sugar to 1 part of water — measured by weight (known as 1:1). The 1:1 syrup is generally used to:

  • supplement honey stores
  • stimulate colonies to rear brood
  • encourage drawing of comb foundation, particularly in spring.

Other beekeepers prefer a dense syrup of 2 parts of sugar to 1 part of water (known as 2:1). The stronger syrup is used for food when honey stores in the hive are low. You can measure the sugar and water by either weight or volume as there is no need to be 100% exact about the sugar concentration.

Heat the water in a container large enough to hold the water and sugar. As soon as the water gently boils, remove the container from the heat source. Pour in the sugar and stir until the sugar crystals are dissolved.

Never boil the mixture after the sugar is added. The sugar can caramelise, becoming partially indigestible and toxic to the bees.

The syrup must be cooled to room temperature before it is fed to the bees. The cooled syrup can be placed in the hives using one of 4 methods.

1. Container feeder with sealable lid

Fill a clean container (such as a jar or a tin with a push-down lid) with sugar syrup. Drill or punch the lid with 6 to 8 very small holes. It is a good idea to remove the cardboard insert commonly found in jar lids.

Cut two 12mm high risers from a piece of wood and place them across the top bars of the frames that are in the top box of the hive. Invert the filled container and place it on the risers.

Place an empty super on the hive to enclose the feeder and  replace the hive lid. The risers provide a bee space between the top bars and the holes in the container lid.

2. Plastic bag feeder

Partially fill a plastic freezer bag with sugar syrup until it's approximately half full. Gently squeeze the bag to expel all the air, then tie the neck of the bag using an elastic band.

Place the bag on the top bars of the frames in the top box of the hive, under the hive cover.

Use a broad or very small diameter nail to punch about 6 to 8 small holes in the upper surface of the bag. The bees will suck the syrup through the holes.

Never put the holes on the under surface of the bag as the syrup may leak out faster than the bees can gather it. This can lead to loss of syrup outside the hive and cause robbing by nearby bees.

It is important to have a bee space between the upper surface of the bag and the under surface of the hive lid so the bees can access the syrup. If needed, a wooden riser of the dimensions of the hive can be used to raise the lid.

3. Shallow tray feeder

Place the sugar syrup on a shallow tray (such as aluminium foil tray) under the hive lid.

Bees need to be able to reach the syrup without falling into the liquid and drowning. Grass straw or wood straw (such as that used in cooling devices) can be placed in the syrup for this purpose. Do not use any straw or floating material that has been treated with (or been in contact with) chemicals as this may be hazardous to bees.

The hives should be on level ground to prevent loss of syrup and a riser may need to be used if the tray is not shallow.

4. Frame feeder

Place the sugar syrup on a 'frame or division board feeder' which is a container, the size of a full-depth Langstroth frame. It has an open top which sits in the super as a normal frame does.

The feeder requires flotation material so bees can access the syrup without drowning.

How often to feed

It is normal for bees to:

  • remove syrup from a feeder
  • reduce the water content
  • store it in the combs as if it were honey.

A medium to strong colony usually empties the feeder in a matter of days regardless of the feeder type used.

For colonies with virtually no stored honey and no incoming nectar, the initial feed will be largely determined by:

  • the amount of brood
  • the size of the colony
  • to some degree, the size of the syrup container.

It is safer to over-feed a colony than to skimp and potentially cause the death of the colony.

Try an initial feed of around 1 to 3 litres, then frequently check the combs to see how much syrup has been stored. Use this to guide to determine how often and how much syrup to feed your bees. Feeding can be stopped when nectar becomes available.

Properly ripened syrup should have a moisture content of around 18%. Syrup that is not ripened properly will ferment and adversely affect bees.

Bee colonies with insufficient stores for winter should be given enough syrup to boost their stores before the cold weather of autumn sets in. This will enable the bees to fully process the syrup.

Sugar contaminates the honey

Sugar remaining in combs must not be extracted with the next honey crop. The sugar will contaminate the honey and the extracted product will not conform to the legal standards set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code - Standard 2.8.2 – Honey.

It is ideal if the amount of sugar you give the hive is fully eaten by the bees at the time hives are placed on a honey flow. This is not always possible to achieve.

During expansion of the brood nest, sugar stored in brood nest combs may be moved by the bees to the honey super.

Page last updated: 05 Mar 2024