Carbohydrate Supplemental Feeding of Honey Bees: why, when and how to feed?

Carbohydrate Supplemental Feeding of Honey Bees: why, when and how to feed?

This post is also available in: Spanish

As we said at the end of the previous article, we will now present all the details regarding the goals of supplemental feedings along with how to choose the right time and the best ways to do it.

It is universally accepted that the honey bee needs nectar and pollen in order to survive. There are however times when the natural sources of nectar are missing and thus supplemental feedings with carbohydrates are required. These supplemental feedings must be carried out for a clearly defined purpose; depending on this particular purpose, we can then decide when and how the feedings should be performed.

As a general rule of thumb, administrating sugar in high concentration (plain sugar, sugar patties, 2:1 syrup, 5:3 syrup or even 3:2 syrup) is recommended for supplemental feeding as they DO NOT have a major impact with regards to stimulating the colony. Sugar syrup with lower concentration (1:1 or 50% syrup) helps stimulating the colony and speeds up the development of the colony.

We will now list the most frequent goals that can be achieved by means of carbohydrate supplementation.

1. Supplementing the food reserves for overwintering

In this case it is recommended to use a solution of sugar and water in a 2:1 ratio (67% sugar). This operation should be done using large quantities of syrup (3 to 4 liters per feeding) but also taking into account the strength and size of the colony. Since a solution of sugar and water with a 2:1 ratio is saturated, dissolving the sugar is quite difficult; for this reason there are often used solutions with a 5:3 or even 3:2 ratio. We consider both of them to be equally effective as long as the feedings are not carried out too late. Otherwise the excess humidity will make the bees to seal the food reserves slower, leading to the fermentation of the syrup and dysentery. Bellow you’ll find two tables to help you calculate various amounts of 2:1 syrup:

Water (liters)Sugar (kg)Syrup (liters)
Syrup (liters)Water (liters)Sugar (kg)

2. Stimulating the colonies in the Spring or during periods with no nectar flow (to maintain brood rearing and population)

As we mentioned above, the most effective way to stimulate a colony is to use a solution of sugar and water with 1:1 ratio. As a side note, we often see beekeepers using sugar patties at the end of the winter and even early in the spring to stimulate the colonies. It is often thought that by consuming the sugar patties, the temperature inside the nest will rise (and this is true, but not necessarily beneficial) and thus will lead to early brood rearing. As far as we are concerned, brood rearing in well organized colonies occurs naturally in January (February the latest during difficult years) and is carried out in accordance to the colony’s needs and capabilities. Once the queen starts laying eggs, the temperature will rise to approximately 34 degrees Celsius and the bees will start consuming the honey.

Honey will stimulate the colony to a higher degree compared to sugar due to the fact that honey also contains residual pollen. As a conclusion we do not see any benefits in using sugar patties unless there is a risk of exhausting the food reserves. Sustaining brood rearing early in the spring or during low nectar flow by supplementing with carbohydrates (protein supplements are also just as important) is best carried out by administrating 1:1 syrup in small to moderate amounts. In spring the feeding should be performed only when the temperature allows it. We are not talking only about the temperature from the day of the feeding, but during the next days as well; this is important as the bees need to ventilate the syrup and reduce the humidity. By introducing a large amount of water inside the colony we increase the risk of Nosema, the spring period being extremely hazardous in this regard. It is a paradox that many beekeepers try to find ways to reduce condensation during winter, but at the same time they use 1:1 syrup in the spring when temperatures are still too low and then they’re left wondering what caused the Nosema outbreak.

3. Supplemental feeding for stimulating pollen harvest and drone rearing

Sugar syrup with a 50% concentration (1:1) can be successfully used in both situations (small to moderate amounts, 1 to 2 liters per week). Apart from the financial standpoint, supporting pollen harvest is definitely beneficial, especially at the end of an active season. Supplemental feeding during that period will achieve two major benefits: brood rearing is maintained at a high level (young bee is needed for overwintering) and also the necessary amount of bee bread is ensured (a key factor for next spring buildup).

Sustaining the drone population may seem catered towards bee breeders, but it should also be considered by beekeepers who want to produce their own queens. By having a healthy and large drone population, mating will occur in optimal conditions. Furthermore, by supplemental feeding we can stimulate drone rearing inside colonies that exhibit the desired traits without having to use a separate location for reproduction. Even if the effectiveness of this selection method is not the best, it represents a first step towards the selection of a paternal line.

Bellow you’ll find some useful data for preparing various amounts of 1:1 sugar syrup:

Water (liters)Sugar (kg)Syrup (liters)
Syrup (liters)Water (liters)Sugar (kg)

In all of the three cases presented above, choosing the right time for the supplemental feedings is crucial. Performing a feeding too late or too early can be detrimental to the colony and end up being a waste of time and money. Likewise, the lack of supplemental feeding during long periods with no nectar flow and even late interventions in this scenario can be very harmful for the colonies. Alongside a drastic decrease in brood rearing and population, the hygiene instinct of the colony will also be reduced during periods with no nectar source, leading to a higher incidence of specific diseases.

It’s often said that the honey bee should be just fine without human intervention during an active season – the so called naturalist theory. Even though it is partly true, in practice there are serious limitations to this approach as the nature doesn’t always provide the optimum conditions for a colony to develop and thrive. There is a natural mechanism that prevents the over development of a species to maintain a natural balance. Besides, the honey bee is in a state of constant competition with the humans as we change its natural habitat conditions due to certain needs (the use of insecticides to increase productivity, the use of mono-cultures, land clearings and so on). A professional beekeeper cannot let nature solely decide the evolution of his colonies. By using the most elementary logic, we can see that even with optimal natural conditions the development of a colony is limited by nature itself. How comes that in a virgin forest for example, the bee population remains constant even though during the active season it will naturally multiply by swarming at least once? Not to mention that nowadays the conditions for the development of a colony are far from ideal as we said previously. Therefore, supplemental feeding during longer periods with no natural resource is essential for obtaining good results.

The right time for performing a supplemental feeding depends on many variables (the strength of the colony, climate conditions, nectar flow etc.) and there will always be different opinions regarding this topic. Developing a feeding system that conforms to the needs of the beekeeper is one of his main responsibilities and requires thorough research and some practical experience.

In this article we tried to simplify as much as we can this topic and to offer practical information that will help you implement an effective program of carbohydrate supplemental feedings. Things are pretty clear with regards to this topic and there’s no use in over-complicating the simple and effective methods (the carbohydrate needs of the honey bee were intensely studied and we now know a great deal of information, unlike the protein requirements of the bee where information is constantly evolving). It goes without saying that the best results are obtained when both resources (carbohydrate and protein) are provided; for this reason we will approach the topic of protein supplemental feedings in our next article.

Leave a Reply