When to Feed Honeybee Colonies

In a perfect beekeeping world, our bees would consistently find what they need in the environment around them at any time of the year! Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case… sometimes our honeybee colonies may need us to help them get through difficult times when little resources are available.   

There are many different types of food and feeders available for our honeybees. Which option you go for depends on what’s happening inside your hive and in the area around your bee yard.   

Factors to Consider

There are many factors to consider when planning to feed your bees such as the time of year, health and size of the colony, and what’s happening in and around the bee yard.   

Bees have two main sources of food, either nectar or pollen, that are gathered by foraging bees from the flowers, trees, and plants near their hives. A plant may provide either pollen, nectar, or both.   

Honeybees use nectar similar to the way that our bodies use carbohydrates; they turn it into energy and use it to build their beautiful wax combs. They also fan out excess moisture within nectar to turn it into capped honey, which can be capped and stored for the future.   

Pollen is collected from flowers or trees, too, as it provides many nutrients and is the main source of protein for bees to help with brood production and rearing. It’s also used for making “bee bread”, a nutrient-rich substance made by the bees from various natural substances, but mostly pollen, honey, and saliva. It makes raw pollen more digestible and is often fed to young nurse bees.

When to Feed

As a beekeeper, knowing when it may be time to feed your bees can be extremely important in ensuring that you’re helping to aid in the health and success of your colony (ies).   

There are 3 main feeding types that a beekeeper should consider:  

  1. Planned, Proactive Supplemental Feeding – This is when a beekeeper supplements the natural food sources that are available to help the colony grow in early spring, build up their numbers for pollination services, or accumulate food storage for the winter. Though supplemental feeding isn’t always a necessity, there are times when it could benefit the colony. There are also ways to plan better for the future and avoid the need for supplemental feeding. For example, you can add plants that bloom during normal times of dearth in your area, you can plan on leaving more honey for the colonies, or even reduce the number of colonies in your bee yard if they are competing for natural resources.   
  1. Starvation Prevention Feeding – Though this type of feeding is more reactive than proactive, it still aims to prevent the colony from starving to death. Starvation feeding occurs when a beekeeper anticipates that food stores are low, and not sufficient enough to sustain the colony until natural flows of pollen and nectar are available again.   
  1. Reactive/Emergency Feeding – This is most prevalent in northern climates, with harsh and cold winters. Reactive feeding is needed when a beekeeper notices that food sources are nearly exhausted and almost completely depleted, and there is an immediate risk of colony starvation. Especially in the winter months, it’s critical to ensure bees have immediate, nearby access to the food source (like adding a frame of honey or fondant directly over the cluster of bees).   

Here are some situations where colonies may need your help in adding supplemental feed:  

  • During a Dearth – When there is little to no pollen or nectar readily available in the area around your bee yard, and bees have little stores, they may need supplemental feed. Depending on where you are, the time of year may vary, but a dearth often occurs during the early spring months and between the middle to end of the summer months.  
  • A New Honeybee Colony – If you’ve recently installed a new package or nucleus colony, or caught a recent swarm, adding supplemental feed can be a huge boost to their wax and brood production.  
  • During the Winter – As winter months progress, especially in cold climates, honeybees may be burning through their honey stores to help keep them warm. As they move through their stores, you may need to add supplemental feed to help them survive until spring and warmer weather arrive and when natural pollen and sources become available again.  
  • When Pollen Stores Are Low – To determine if pollen supplemental feeding is needed, follow these rough guidelines: During the fall months, bees typically need 2 frames full of pollen for winter storage. In the spring/summer months, at least one full frame full of pollen and/or “bee bread” should be present. Look near brood cells to ensure pollen/bee bread is stored nearby. Check young larvae cells, too, they should contain ample amounts of royal jelly. If they don’t additional pollen substitutes may be needed.

Take a look at our PerfectBee Snippet “What to Feed Honeybee Colonies” to find out what supplemental food sources are available to you and your bees.

Learn More

Colony Members, check out the Academy Lessons “Introduction to Feeding Honeybees” and “Using Feeders with Your Hive” to find out more details about this topic.   

Colony Members can also check out the following Colony Forum discussions related to feeding bees below:   

Are you not yet a Colony member but have an interest in finding out more about joining discussions like these with other beekeepers? Or in learning more about beekeeping through our information-rich Academy lessons? Learn more about all the benefits that come with Colony membership here.