What to Feed Honeybee Colonies

In our recent Snippet “When to Feed Honeybee Colonies”, we discussed the importance of knowing when it may be time to assist your colonies by adding supplemental feed.  

But if you determine that your honeybee colony could benefit from additional supplemental feed, you must now decide what type of feed to offer them.  

Choosing the type of feed you offer and at what time of the year is so important. Read on to learn the main sources of food available and when you should consider adding them to your beehive.  


Bees use the carbohydrates in honey and nectar to complete very important tasks both inside and away from the hive. They use stored honey and/or nectar primarily as an energy source when acting as foragers in their search for more food sources or inside the hive to help build wax combs.  

During the cold winter months, energy is expended by the bees inside a cluster, buzzing and huddling up to stay warm. Their honey stores are the main source of their food and the carbs they provide are integral in ensuring a colony has the energy to stay warm until warmer weather arrives.  

When natural food sources aren’t available, here are some ways you can provide carbohydrates to your bees:  

  • Frames of Honey – Capped honey is always the superior choice for feeding bees in need of carbohydrates if you have it available. After all, that’s what they typically eat! Use a frame of honey from another hive or one that you’ve stored for an easy way to get some food to your bees quickly. *IMPORTANT NOTE*: Ensure frames of honey have been previously frozen for 24-48 hours to ensure any pests/diseases have been eliminated. Defrost frames before adding them into the hive and avoid any dark honey (especially those with high ash content) unless bees can take cleansing flights.   
  • Sugar Syrup – Sugar syrup is a great way to provide carbohydrates and help bees to easily build wax comb. Sugar syrup is typically fed in a ratio of 1:1 in the spring (1 cup sugar for 1 cup water and so on) as this ratio is the closest to nectar and can be easily converted. 1:1 syrup also stimulates the colony to either rear brood or build wax. Syrup in a ratio of 2:1 (2 cups sugar for 1 cup water) is used in colder months as it has less water content to evaporate, so the bees can store it much faster.  
  • Plain, White Dry Sugar – Plain white sugar with a low ash content can be used as an emergency supplemental feed, simply dump it into the hive on top of frames on a piece of newspaper (Mountain Camp Method). In a non-emergency situation, you can add dry white sugar on top of an inner cover.  
  • Fondant – Fondant is another excellent option for adding carbohydrates quickly to a beehive. Fondant can be purchased in pre-formed patties like Hive Alive (these are often fortified with additional nutrients) or made at home. Here’s a great recipe for making your own by one of our favorite references, HoneyBee Suite. 
  • Sugar Bricks – Sugar bricks or candy boards are similar to fondant but are uncooked.  

Protein/Amino Acids/Vitamins and Minerals

A critical part of any honeybee’s diet is access to the right protein, amino acids, and the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy. Many of these nutrients are found in pollen and, for a honeybee, the best type of pollen diet is a WIDE VARIETY of everything! 

We hope your bees have access to a variety of pollen in your area as nothing can truly replace the natural sources out there. Pay close attention to the range of pollen colors by watching bees coming into the hive carrying pollen or reviewing what’s stored in frames, typically near the brood nest. You can also use guides like “A Color Guide to Pollen Loads” to help you determine what sources they may be finding near your bee yard.  

If bees in your bee yard don’t have access to a wide variety of pollen sources nearby, you can plan for future seasons by adding sources to your yard that bloom at the time they really need them. For example, if there are no early spring sources of pollen, you could use the fall to plant crocus bulbs that will bloom as early as February of the next year! 

Pollen is typically collected by colonies during the springtime to help stimulate a colony’s brood rearing and feed young bees. It is sometimes fed in the fall to build up a hive’s numbers before the colony prepares for winter.  

Here are some ways to add protein, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to your hive: 

  • Dry PollenWhether collected from another colony or purchased from a beekeeping supply store, dry pollen can also be added as a supplemental pollen source. Pollen, in a wide variety of types whenever possible, is critical to a honeybee colony’s survival. Collected pollen grains are often too large for bees to make use of and store. Whenever possible, purchase ground/powdered forms of pollen.    
    • Even high-quality pollen is not shelf-stable. Ensure to freeze any unused pollen so that it doesn’t spoil.  
  • Pollen PattiesPollen patties contain a pollen substitute that can stimulate brood rearing and can provide that much-needed protein. Typically, they are available in either 4% pollen content or 15%.
    • Patties with 4% pollen content are best fed during fall months, this allows bees to slowly but steadily build up numbers of stronger winter bees.  
    • When looking to stimulate brood rearing in the spring, set out to either make or purchase patties that have 15% pollen content.  
    • Beware! Be sure not to feed pollen to bees too early, since it can stimulate brood rearing too much before the resources are available enough to support that brood. As an example, beekeepers in New York state have a rough guideline when it comes to pollen patties: “No patty before St Patty’s Day!” Check out additional words of caution on feeding pollen patties and a recipe for making your own at home by HoneyBee Suite here.   
    • On a related note, Small Hive Beetles LOVE pollen patties & the protein they provide. To help with the issue of SHB interest in your pollen patties, you can add small amounts (like ¼ or ½ of a patty at a time) so that the bees can consume it completely before more is added. You can also flatten the patties out; this allows bees to have their required bee space so that they can patrol and scare away the beetles. 

In-Between Feed (both protein and carbohydrates)

  • Winter Patties Winter patties can be made or purchased and are a supplemental winter feed patty with small amounts of pollen and some sugar for carbohydrates. This is typically used as an emergency feed and typically fed during the cold winter months when stores have been exhausted and no natural sources are available (keep in mind to be careful of feeding too much pollen too early). 

Add a Water Source!

Though not technically a food source, ensuring your bees have access to water can make a huge difference in the health of your colony. Especially in colder climates, ensuring water is available close by is crucial to bees’ diets as it’s used to dilute a bees’ food source into something consumable. A chicken feeder or bird bath is often used to provide water to bees (within 10-100 yards of your bee yard).  

Keep this note of caution in mind: Honeybees can drown quite easily in open water! Place small pebbles, sticks, and/or moss inside your water source to ensure bees do not drown. Add your water source to a sunny area and add black pebbles/stones within the water source to soak up some of the sun’s warmth and keep water from getting too cold in cold weather. Moss can also be used to keep the water from freezing in cold weather.  

Approximately 10% of a hive’s foragers are water collectors, so providing an easily accessible source can be so important! We talked about water (and food) sources quite a bit in our March 2024 Colony Cluster discussion. Colony members, you can review the recording of that event here.

Impacts of Insufficient Food Availability 

If bees can’t access the right food at the right time, it can have a negative impact on their health in many ways.  

When they can’t access the carbohydrates they need, especially during cold weather, even the strongest colony can succumb to starvation.  

When bees are unable to access the protein and pollen they need, huge impacts to brood rearing can be seen. There may be smaller amounts of brood since bees are aware they don’t have the resources to support that new growth. You may even see bees that will eat younger larvae to repurpose the protein and feed it to older larvae instead. The older larvae are already more progressed in their development and are closer to not needing feed in the pupae stage so are considered a higher investment. This can further impact the jobs that bees are meant to work within a hive as there are now gaps in the brood age.

Without the proper nutrition, malnourished bees develop into adult bees that are smaller, weaker and have less ability to fight off disease. They may even have diminished learning capacities, further inhibiting their ability to forage and produce honey and grow the colony overall. Learn more about how much impact pollen really can have on a colony’s diet here.

Coming Soon

Check out our PerfectBee Snippet “How to Feed Honeybee Colonies” where we cover the methods and equipment used to feed your bees.  

Learn More   

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