Bee Buffet: The Ultimate Guide to Honey Bee Supplemental Feeding

Beekeeping is rewarding, but it can be challenging. Whether doing it for fun or as full-time work, beekeeping means knowing the insects inside out, from their anatomy, habitats, and lifecycle.

As a beekeeper, you’ll also need to devise dietary plans to aid the insects when their natural food source is scarce. Yes, like a dedicated nutritionist to the bees.

This vital aspect of beekeeping is what we call “supplemental feeding.” But don’t worry, we’re here to walk you through everything—what it means, why we do it, when, and how you do it.

So keep reading!

Why Do Honey Bees Need Supplemental Feeding

Sunflower Bee Buffet

You probably already know that bees love to eat pollen and nectar. They collect these materials from flowers and plants nearby and use them to feed their larvae and colony members.

However, there are instances when the worker and foraging bees can’t find enough food for the colony. That’s when beekeepers step in and help through supplemental feeding.

In simple words, supplemental feeding means providing the bees with the necessary nutrients they need. Essentially, we’re helping the colony survive through the harshest bee seasons.

Here are some of the most common reasons beekeepers provide supplemental food to their buzzing buddies:

Scarce Food Source

Ideally, beehives should have enough honey stored for the colony. However, there are months when flowers produce little to no nectar, and the bees might be at risk of dying from starvation.

During periods of low nectar production, you’ll need to supplement food for your colonies. And it can happen multiple times every year.

Season and Weather

The changing season also poses challenges for our buzzing friends. Especially in the winter, when the freezing temperatures prevent the worker bees from going outside the hive.

For this reason, preparing enough food and honey before the cold months is necessary for the insects to survive. It sustains brood rearing and colony development throughout winter as well.

Supplementing is especially important if you live in the South, Southeast, and Southwest U.S. Honey bees in these areas go into low levels of brooding activity, which means they need more food reserves than those in the Northern parts.

Sustain Beehive Population

Bees are susceptible to pesticides and chemicals used in agriculture. So, there are times when the bee population plunges due to pesticide losses.

We found in our research that agriculture chemicals don’t only affect worker bees. Unfortunately, these pesticides can kill the queen, too, causing much devastation to the bee population.

Supplementing food can help sustain your beehive’s population after pesticide losses. It boosts package-bee production and drone numbers, ensuring a high reproduction rate.

Stimulate Bee Population

That said, survival isn’t the only purpose of supplemental feeding honey bees. And there are various circumstances when we can exploit the season to the bee population’s advantage.

For example, you supply food to encourage population growth before spring when nectar becomes abundant. The same goes for when crops pollinate during late winter through summer.

Doing so will ensure an increase in pollen and nectar collection, which basically means more honey.

Supplementary Food for Honey Bees

Okay, now that you know why and when beehives need supplemental feeding, let’s head to the types of food you can use to supplement the bees’ nutritional needs.

1. Honey Supplement

Honey is a popular food supplement for beehives. So, if you have honey reserves tucked in your pantry, you can use them to feed your buzzing friends.

However, although convenient, we found several issues with using honey as supplemental food.

For one, you can’t use honey purchased from the store. And you can only give the honey produced from the same colony you’re feeding it to—and there are important reasons for it.

See, presenting foreign honey into your colony risks disease spread. Worst case, you’ll introduce American Foulbrood (AFB), an infectious bacterial disease that weakens and kills bee colonies.

AFB can spread readily through spores and survive in any conditions for decades. Thus, it’s crucial that you know where the honey comes from and that it’s disease-free before you give it to your bees.

There are behavioral issues associated with feeding honey to colonies as well. Robbing and aggressive behaviors are more common in bees fed with supplemental honey syrups.

So, if your goal is to stimulate your beehive population, it might be best to use other food options. Practically speaking, you’re better off selling your honey reserves and buying other supplementary food.

2. Carbohydrates Supplement

Sugar is an excellent supplement in instances (like winter) when the hive badly needs help to make food and survive. It’s a viable alternative to nectar, their primary source of carbohydrates.

Pouring Sugar into Water Dipper to Make Water Syrup

In our research, we found that feeding sugar in syrup form is the most effective method. It increases the number of worker bees foraging for pollen and stimulates the queen bee to start laying eggs.

That said, you’ll find several opinions about the amount and thickness of sugar syrup for bees. But in our experience, it’s best to look at the condition of the hive to support its nutritional needs appropriately.

The consensus among beekeepers is the 1:1 sugar-water ratio, measured by weight. This ratio is suitable for general uses, such as supplementing honey stores, boosting reproduction, and drawing comb foundations.

Making Water Syrup Supplement

Here’s how you make sugar syrup for your buzzing companions:

  1. Heat water in a container large enough to hold both water and sugar.
  2. Allow the water to boil.
  3. Once it boils, remove the container from the heat.
  4. Pour sugar and mix until it dissolves.
  5. Let the syrup cool to room temperature before feeding.

As an important note: avoid reheating the mixture after adding the sugar. Doing so will caramelize the syrup, which can cause digestive problems for the bees.

Additionally, you can measure the sugar and water by weight or volume, as there’s no need to be 100% precise.

Other beekeepers prefer a thicker 2:1 formula for their sugar syrup. However, they typically use this denser mixture when the hive reserves and bee population are at an all-time low.

How to Feed Sugar Syrup to Bees

You can try feeders or DIY containers when feeding sugar syrup to your bees. But the most convenient way is to use shallow tray feeders.

Pour the sugar concoction into a shallow container like an aluminum foil tray. Then, slide the tray under the hive lid so the bees can freely eat.

The position of the tray should allow the bees to drink without drowning in the liquid. But you can also add grass straws to the syrup for this purpose.

It’s worth pointing out that leaving sugar syrup in the open is bad practice. It’ll encourage robbing activities and risk disease spread within your hives.

3. Protein Supplement

Protein serves a crucial role in bee colonies. Without protein, which they get from pollen taken from crops and flowers, bees suffer from weakened immune systems.

Hives with extremely low protein supply will ultimately experience population decline. And as a beekeeper, you’ll need to resupply this much-needed nutrient.

A good protein source is one that your bees will consume happily. But it must also provide the right quality and quantity of lipids, vitamins, and minerals.

Fortunately, we have several alternatives to replace pollen.

Soya Flour

Soya flour is a popular choice as a protein supplement for bees. It has over 50% protein content, and beekeepers everywhere have used this flour for years.

Still, you can’t just pull any old soya flour from the department store and call it a day. What you need is an expeller-processed flour with lesser oil content.

Sorghum Flour

Sorghum flour is another excellent protein source for your bees. However, because it contains less protein than soya (11%), we don’t really recommend it as your primary protein supplement.

We also found that sorghum flour attracts bees better than soybean flour. It might be best to mix sorghum with other higher protein sources.

A Bowl of Sprouted Sorghum and Sorghum Flour on a Dark Wooden Table

Torula Yeast

Torula yeast, like sorghum, attracts bees better than soybean flour. Plus, it contains high amounts of protein (50%) and low fat content, which is ideal.

The only downside to this yeast is its high amino acid content. So, we don’t recommend using torula yeast as your sole protein source.

Brewer’s Yeast

You might be familiar with brewer’s yeast as a typical ingredient for beer and bread. So it might surprise you that you can use it to improve your bee colonies’ health.

Like soya, brewer’s yeast has over 50% of protein content. And it’s a better alternative than torula as it provides a more balanced amino acid.

How to Feed Protein Supplements to Bees

You can feed protein supplements as a dry mix, combining protein-rich flour or yeast. Supply it inside the hive using division board-frame feeders or outside using open trays and containers.

That said, there are cases when the bees refuse to collect or eat the protein dry mix. If it happens to you, try adding sugar to the powdery mixture to stimulate the insects.

4. Pollen Supplement

Despite the wide variety of protein supplements available, pollen remains the best source of protein for bees. And most colonies consume pollen more readily than protein supplements.

So, can we help bees get natural pollen?

As it turns out, there’s a method to collect pollen and feed it to bee colonies. And beekeepers have been employing this technique for decades.

Through pollen traps, beekeepers collect natural pollen and feed them to your bees later.

A pollen trap is a device you place over the hive entrance. It has holes to fit the bees coming in and out of the hive and a collection tray underneath.

The device works quite simply. 

Worker bees foraging pollen and nectar will pass through the holes of the pollen trap. Crawling through these openings will scrap some of the pollen, which will fall on the collection tray.

Storing Collected Pollen

Unlike honey, these pellets are more prone to spoilage caused by molds, fungi, and bacteria. So, after collecting, you’ll need to store the pollen in secure containers.

Beekeepers use two methods to preserve pollen for later use: freezing and drying. Freezing simply means storing it in an airtight container and placing it in the freezer or cold room. 

Drying, on the other hand, involves reducing the moisture content of the pellets to 2.5% to 6%, which prevents mold and deterioration.

Risks with Pollen Supplements

One risk of using pollen as a food supplement is that it can carry and transmit bee diseases. Like honey, pellets can carry AFB spores and infect your colonies.

Ensuring your hives are disease-free is crucial when trapping and collecting pollen. And if you’re buying, look for pollen products sterilized by gamma irradiation.

5. Water Supplement

Every creature needs water to survive, so don’t forget it when supplementing food for your bees. 

Like most animals, bees enjoy their share of cool and fresh water. They need water to keep themselves healthy and provide air conditioning for the colony.

As a beekeeper, you should supply a constant water source for the hive. So leave a container of water out for them or keep your garden bird bath full at all times.

But remember: bees can’t swim. They also can’t fly and drink like hummingbirds.

You can add pebbles and small rocks to the water container to help them sip. For deeper waters, you can provide them with floating devices like pieces of wood.

How Often Should You Feed Bees

Don’t worry about giving your bees too much food, especially when there’s not much around. It’s always safer to provide more than they need than too little and risk losing the colony.

It doesn’t mean feeding them at all times, though. 

Whenever possible, let them find their food. And in the late fall, refrain from giving them too much protein to help them survive the winter.

Final Thoughts

Maintaining a hive’s health is one of the trickiest parts of being a beekeeper. After all, despite their resilience as a species, bees are susceptible to all kinds of hurdles, from unpredictable weather and deadly diseases to hungry predators.

Nevertheless, understanding supplemental feeding for bees is an essential skill for beekeepers. Knowing how and what to feed them at the right time helps solve a big problem for our buzzing buddies: starvation and survival.

Happy beekeeping!