How to Make Sugar Water for Bees (and Feed It to Them)
Making sugar water for bees? That’s easy! Just mix water and sugar, put it in a bowl, and let the bees eat whenever they want. That’s all there is to it, right?
Oh, boy, are you wrong. The correct preparation, feeding, and storage of sugar water is a matter of life and death for your bees. Luckily, we’ve made this 7-step guide on how to make sugar syrup for bees that won’t kill them.
Plus, get a pro tip on adding more nutrition to this alternative food source. Sweet right? Let’s get started.
- What you’ll need:
- How To Make Sugar Water For Bees In 7 Safe Steps
- The Bottomline
What you’ll need:
- Granulated Sugar
- Large Pot
- Bee feeder
- Mason jars or recycled cans
- Nutritional Additives (optional)
- Food-grade Lecithin Granules
- Food-grade Spearmint oil
- Lemongrass oil
How To Make Sugar Water For Bees In 7 Safe Steps
You don’t always need to feed your bees. But when you do, this step-by-step guide about how to make sugar water for honey bees will sustain your colonies without killing them in the process.
1. Know When Your Bees Need Sugar Syrup
There are only a few instances when you need to feed your bees sugar water. The most common is when you’re building a new hive from package bees (1).
Imagine moving to a new city and you don’t know where the good restaurants or grocery shops are. That’s what your new package bees feel. So, after you set up your beekeeping starter kit, give your bees food while they try to map out the new area.
Honey bees also need sugar syrup in the fall when flowers are fresh out of nectar. Feeding bees sugar water in winter as an alternative food source is their saving grace.
Let’s say your bees didn’t need additional feeding during the winter because they stocked up on honey. But spring takes a bit longer to arrive, and the honey supply is running out. It’s time to whip up some sugar syrup until flowers start blooming (2).
2. Choose Your Sugar
So your colony needs additional feeding. But what sugar do you give bees?
Honey is technically the best food source for your tiny workers. Why? Because that’s what they naturally eat! The problem is that unless you have an established bee farm, getting pure and safe honey is hard.
Getting honey from unknown sources or the neighboring farm is a bad idea. Your bees can get sick with an infection because of how other people processed the honey. Grocery-store honey is also off-limits (2).
Here we have the safest sugar option for feeding honeybees (3).
“The sugar, sucrose is the dominant sugar in the nectar, produced by flowering plants to attract pollinators, including insects, bats, birds and small mammals.”
That said, cane sugar is not only the safest option for making bee sugar syrup. It’s also the most affordable considering the costs of honey and less processed sugars.
Healthy living campaigns recently hyped up raw and organic sugars. So they are more expensive than white sugar. And they are even slightly less nutritious.
On the other hand, brown sugar is bad since it contains molasses and has more additives that don’t agree with bees’ stomachs (3).
3. Use The Right Sugar Water For Bees Ratio
Before mixing the syrup, you’ll need to consider the concentration. There are different sugar water recipes out there. But two of them are the most popular choices for the seasons.
Ideally, you give a lighter syrup during early spring. Just mix equal parts of water and sugar to get this sugar water for bees ratio. It has a runny syrup which has the closest consistency to natural nectar (4). Spring means the brood-rearing season for honeybees. So when the queen gets a dose of light syrup, it tells her that it’s time to start egg-laying.
This sugar water ratio is a mixture of two parts sugar, and one part water, resulting in a thicker, sweeter syrup. It’s almost like the consistency of honey (4). This ratio is perfect for fall feeding.
Bees need to work on preparing their hives for winter. So they need a more substantial energy source. Remember, sugar is a form of carbs. Your buzzing workers need their “go food” just as much as we do. The low carb life does not choose these tiny workers.
4. Make The Syrup
Now that you have all the sugar water basics sorted, it’s time to make the syrup.
Grab your white sugar and mix it with hot water according to the proper ratio for the season.
Pro tip: Do not boil the syrup. Boiling changes the chemical composition of sugar, making it indigestible to bees.
Boiling also makes the syrup thick enough to crystalize at room temperature. It will either kill your bee colonies or make them very sick. But you can heat the water to almost boiling. It helps the sugar dissolve faster.
Let the sugar water solution cool to room temperature before giving it to your bee colonies.
Add Secret Ingredients
Sugar syrup alone is already good for all types of bees. But you can fortify it to make it more nutritious. Adding pollen is a great way to reintroduce protein to the bees’ diet (5). These buzzers don’t live on sugar alone, you know?
Before flowers start dying out in the fall, collect pollen. Then store them in a ziplock bag and pop them in your freezer. Mix it into your sugar syrup solution before giving it to your bees.
Another neat additive to plain sugar syrup is an essential oil recipe (6). You make another batch of 1:1 sugar syrup but with slightly more sugar. Mix some lemongrass and spearmint oil with a pinch of lecithin.
Add this oil mixture into the cooled sugar and stir well. When it is at room temperature, add a few teaspoons into the main sugar syrup.
This magic solution keeps mites and fungi away while acting as an appetizer for bees.
5. Feed The Colony
Don’t pour the syrup into a bowl and leave it out like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Hungry workers will swarm all over that bowl, shoving each other. Some will drown, and robbers get attracted to it too.
You don’t want to feed your competition from different bee hives. So make sure you only feed the workers from your hive. There are a few ways to do this without leaving their warm hive or drown in their food. You’re supposed to be saving them, after all. Here are three bee feeders that you can use:
This feeder stays outside the hive right at (you guessed it) the hive entrance. It’s usually just an upside-down mason jar with holes on the lid. The syrup drips into the wooden base that fits perfectly into the grooves of the entrance. Check this feeder out in action.
This method is neat because you don’t have to open the hive to see how much honey you still have. And the colony doesn’t drown because the syrup doesn’t rain on them. There are some downsides, though.
Since it’s right at the entrance, it’s a bit of an invitation for robbers to invade the hive. Plus, it can freeze over when it gets super cold.
This upside-down tin or mason jar feeder stays inside the box, but it will make a mess in your hive since it drips the syrup down. To slow down the flow and prevent your hive from drowning, add a mesh at the bottom of the lid (7).
If you place it on the top-most box, the feeder is safe from freezing, and you can check on it without disturbing the colony.
Again, the name gives away the function. You pour the syrup on the feeding frame and stick it in your hive, like a regular package bee frame. Bees won’t drown if you choose a frame with a resting area for them to stay while they eat. Think of it as a bar seating area.
Since it’s inside the hive, you don’t have to worry about intruders stealing the food source (8). But it also means you have to open up the entire hive and pull out the frame to check how much syrup you have left.
Don’t give a lot of sugar syrup all at once. Stretch out 2 gallons of syrup for two weeks (4). And make sure you monitor how much they eat.
6. Storing The Sugar Syrup
If you have leftover bee sugar syrup, you can store them in plastic jugs. Just make sure that you sterilize and seal the containers properly. You don’t want your colony eating fermented sugar syrup.
Fermentation changes the chemical composition of the syrup, and it releases alcohol. This byproduct is toxic to the colony and can kill the bees. At the very least, it can cause dysentery or bee diarrhea (9). Either way, it’s not suitable for your colony.
Aside from keeping your sugar syrup clean and fresh, you have to keep it cool. Storing sugar syrup in warmer conditions triggers the production of another toxic substance. Hydroxymethylfurfural, or HMF for short, is a compound that causes gut ulcers in bees (10)
HMF develops more often in high fructose corn syrup. But boiled sugar syrup also produces HMF. Plus, using metal storage containers doesn’t help prevent this poisonous substance from forming either because metal conducts heat.
When storing sugar syrup, you should always store it in clean plastic containers and then stock them in a cool, dry place away from the sun.
7. Stop Feeding the Bees
Remember that feeding sugar syrup to bees is only an emergency response or when honey stores are low.
So, when do you stop feeding them? You should terminate the honey bee feeding program when you notice flowers blooming again and your bees coming back into the hive with fuzzy yellow legs.
Fuzzy legs mean that pollen is back and usually so is nectar. Feel free to pull out your sugar water feeders because bee famine season is over.
In the fall, take out the sugar water when you notice that bees aren’t eating it anymore. If it’s been a few days and the feeder is still quite full, that means your bees don’t need the extra food anymore.
You have to take it out, or else it will build up moisture in the hive and will start to ferment. You also want to remove the feeder when you put in a honey super (11). Sugar water will contaminate the honey that the bees make.
There’s a lot more thought and science that goes into feeding sugar water for bees than you may think. Yes, it helps them get through their version of a famine. But if you do things wrong, it can backfire and make them sick, or worse, kill them.
Keeping the sugar water in its pure state is the best way to ensure that your bees stay healthy. And make sure you only give bees what they need. Pay attention to signs that they don’t need it anymore and take the feeder out right away.
Yes, you can feed bees too much sugar water. And that’s a bad thing. Think of sugar water like fast food. It sustains your food hunger, but it’s not nutritious. Plus, living off fast food makes you sick in the long run.
Sugar water only gives bees enough carbohydrates to function for a few months. Aside from carbohydrates, bees also need protein and enzymes to make honey and feed their growing larvae. The artificial sugary syrup doesn’t have all that stuff.
No, bees cannot turn sugar water into honey. That’s because sugar water doesn’t have the properties that nectar has. Honey making involves a special reaction between the enzymes and other nectar goodies and the digestion of bees.
Queen B herself would say that nectar is irreplaceable. So if it’s not made from natural nectar, it’s not honey.
Yes, sugar water will kill bees in some cases. Improper preparation of sugar water by boiling produces toxic chemicals. Improper storage and contamination also lead to bad sugar water.
All of these can upset a bee’s stomach, causing diarrhea, ulcers, and eventually death. That’s why it’s crucial to prepare sugar and store water properly. And in case we haven’t mentioned it enough, don’t give more sugar water than the bees need.
- Spring Feeding for Bees. The Whys, Whens & Hows. Retrieved from: http://www.beeandbloom.com/blog/spring-feeding-bees
- Feeding Honey Bees To Prevent Starvation. Retrieved from: https://agriculture.vic.gov.au/livestock-and-animals/honey-bees/health-and-welfare/feeding-honey-bees-to-prevent-starvation
- Feeding Sugar to Honey Bees. Retrieved from: https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/532260/Feeding-sugar-to-honey-bees.pdf
- Feeling Honey Bees. Retrieved from. https://pollinators.msu.edu/sites/_pollinators/assets/File/FeedingHoneyBees-Final.pdf
- The Benefits of Pollen to Honey Bees. Retrieved from: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IN868
- Using Essential Oils for Honeybees. Retrieved from: https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/using-essential-oils-for-honeybees-zbcbz1403
- The Different Types of Honey Bee Feeders. Retrieved from: https://www.mannlakeltd.com/mann-lake-blog/the-different-types-of-honey-bee-feeders/
- Using Feeder with Your Beehive. Retrieved from: https://www.perfectbee.com/your-beehive/equipment-and-clothing/using-feeders-with-your-beehive
- Will Bees Eat Fermented Honey and Fermented Sugar Water? Retrieved from: https://schoolofbees.com/will-bees-eat-fermented-honey-and-fermented-sugar-water/
- The Effect of Acid-Hydrolysed Sucrose on Honeybees. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00218839.1966.11100146
- Sugar Syrup Ratios: Which One to Use. Retrieved from: https://www.honeybeesuite.com/sugar-syrup-ratios-which-one-to-use/
Tana grew up around island farms and pine forests. Her love for nature lead to her degree in Biology and mission to lessen her environmental impact. Now she grows food in her backyard and shares what she learns from Eco Peanut with others.