Honeybee Nutrition made easy(ish)

Here are some quick-reference measurements for mixing up sugar water to feed to your bees. Remember, don’t give liquid food to your bees below ~50 degrees outside temperature. Use dry sugar, sugar bricks, or winter patties (NOT pollen patties!) instead.

What ratio is best to mix for my bees? 1:1? 2:1?

The classic wisdom regarding sugar-to-water ratios has always been as follows:

Feed 1:1 in Spring along with pollen patties to help get the queen laying and to help the hive build up, or in Summer during a dearth. 1:1 closely resembles nectar.

Feed 2:1 in Fall to shore up the bees’ food reserves for Winter. Bees need to do less work to dry this to a consumable product.

Feed dry sugar or sugar bricks in Winter as emergency food. Check quickly on warm days to see if they need it. Bees move up the hive as they consume their food stores, so bees at the top of their hive are out of food. If you take the top off your hive in the winter and you see the cluster of bees, put some dry sugar or sugar bricks on. They can go directly on top of the frames with newspaper as a plate, but you might need a shim to make room for the sugar.

This is still good wisdom, but recently, hobby beekeepers have been borrowing some tips from the playbook of the commercial beekeepers, and one of those tips is to just use 2:1 sugar water all the time. Commercial beekeepers don’t have time to fool around with different recipes, so many of them just stick with a high-concentration recipe that they use regardless of the season (except winter in areas like ours where winters are harsh). 2:1 works really well in all seasons because it doesn’t usually spoil, and bees usually eat it readily.


A note on cooking sugar and making inverted sugar water

‘Inverted’ sugar water means that the sugar, or sucrose, has been chemically ‘separated’ into its component parts, glucose and fructose. The bees need to ‘separate’ the sucrose into fructose and glucose in order to make it digestible, so using an inverted sugar water (which means it has already been separated for them) makes it easier for the bees to use the feed. However, inverting sugar water comes at a cost, which we’ll discuss. There are a few ways to invert sugar: using heat, or using an acid, or using both. Bees do it in their honey stomachs with a product called invertase, which doesn’t produce increased levels of HMF. Lots of recipes call for adding some vinegar to your sugar water and heating it to a specific temperature. This causes the sucrose, the sugar molecule, to break apart, or invert, into separate fructose and glucose molecules. However, it also can produce a byproduct that is toxic to bees: hydroxymethylfurfural (often referred to as HMF). HMF is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, and it is also harmless to humans. It is NOT harmless to bees. In fact, it can kill them in high doses.

Mixing sugar water often is easier with hot water, and water alone can be boiled and added to sugar without causing an issue with HMF as long as the sugar isn’t boiled. I like to heat my water on the stove to boiling and then remove it from the heat before combining it with the sugar.

There are commercially-produced bee-feed products that have been inverted using a process that does not increase HMF, so these products can be fed without harming your bees. Many beekeepers use recipes that invert the sugar, and have done so for many years without a noticeable problem. But be warned, and be informed, that you might be producing a mixture that is harmful to your bees. The decision is yours.

1:1 sugar/water mixture

(Spring/Summer feed, can mix by hand, no need to heat, can add about 1 tsp Honey B Healthy feeding stimulant per quart of finished mixture)

1 cup sugar / 1 cup water (or any container as long as you use it for both sugar and water)

1 -4lb bag of sugar / 0.5 gallon of water

1 -10lb bag of sugar / 1.5 gallons of water

1 -25lb bag of sugar / 3 gallons + 1 pint of water

40 lb sugar / 5 gallons of water (this will overfill a 5 gal bucket)


2:1 sugar/water mixture

(Fall feed must be heated or sugar will not dissolve completely, can add about 1 tsp Honey B Healthy feeding stimulant per quart of finished mixture)

1 cup sugar / 0.5 cup water (or any container as long as you use it for both sugar and water)

1 -4lb bag of sugar / 1 quart of water

1 -10lb bag of sugar / 3 quarts of water

1 -25lb bag of sugar / 6 quarts + 1 pint of water

80 lb sugar / 5 gallons of water (this will overfill a 5 gal bucket)

Tip for easily making a “no-measure” 2:1 sugar water: 1.Choose a container that is roughly the size of what you want your finished product to be. (For example, a one-gallon bucket if you want around one gallon of finished feed). 2. Fill your container with dry sugar to the level you want your finished product to be and mark the level on the container. (For example, almost to the top of a one-gallon bucket. I fill mine a little less than full so I have room to stir.) 3. Fill the container, stirring occasionally, with HOT water until it reaches the the same fill-line as the dry sugar. The total volume will decrease at first as you add water and the sugar melts and air escapes from between the sugar grains. Stop adding water once you get back up to the fill line and there are no more large air bubbles coming up. 4. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved. The end result will be close to a 2:1 ratio.

Sugar Bricks

These can be made in any volume with a ratio of 1-2 tablespoons of water per pound of sugar. Yes, that’s all the water you need. If you are using Honey B Healthy or vinegar, mix it with the water BEFORE you mix the water with the sugar. It won’t look like enough water, but mix it in really, really well before you consider adding more.

Add the water slowly and stop when the mix resembles wet sand. Stir with a sturdy spoon and keep going until the water is fully incorporated. Press the mix into your mold (paper plates work nicely) or candy board and let it sit overnight or a few days until it hardens. It should be like a rock.


Homemade Feeding Stimulant (Honey B Healthy)

(Purchase good quality essential oils for this recipe)

5 cups water
2 1/2 pounds sugar
1/8 tsp lecithin granules (as an emulsifier)
15 drops spearmint essential oil
15 drops lemongrass essential oil
Optional: reduce spearmint and lemongrass oil to 10 drops each and add 5 drops each of eucalyptus and tea tree essential oils.

Heat the water & sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Dissolve the lecithin in a small amount of water before adding to the mixture. Remove from heat. Add the essential oils. Cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

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