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What's a bee feeder and do I need one?

1 August 2022
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If you're a beekeeper in the UK you're probably considering how to manage your colonies over winter. A healthy honeybee colony should be able to produce all of the honey stores it needs for the colder months without any human intervention.

However, weather conditions and external factors like parasites can lead to your bees not being able to produce enough stores for winter. So what can you do to help?

Thankfully beekeepers have come up with an ingenious solution to keep bees well fed over winter with the introduction of a bee feeder.

If you're new to beekeeping you should head over to our guide on how to start beekeeping to learn the basics of this amazing hobby.

What is a bee feeder?

A bee feeder is used by beekeepers over winter to provide their bees with an extra source of food in the form of pollen, honey or a man-made substitute like Invertbee or Ambrosia.

A winter bee feeder is a feeding device used to supplement a bee colony's diet in the winter months when natural honey stores have been depleted. The main purpose of a winter bee feeder is to keep the bees alive through the winter so that they can continue to pollinate plants and flowers as soon as spring comes.

The most common types of winter bee feeders include:

  • Feeders that contain sugar water, which you can make yourself at home by mixing 1 part sugar into 4 parts water (do not use honey or molasses)
  • Feeders that contain specially formulated syrup, which you can purchase at your local beekeeping store or online

The purpose of the feeder is to help your bees survive the winter by giving them a source of food that they can rely on and not have to leave the hive in search of.

The temperature outside during winter can be dangerously cold for bees and if they have to leave their hives, it could put them at risk of death from the elements or predators.

bees using an entrance feeder outside of the hive

What are the different types of bee feeders?

Before you go ahead and purchase a feeder for your hives let's look at some of the different types of feeders available and some you should undoubtedly avoid.

Entrance feeders

These simple feeders are without doubt the most popular amongst beekeepers due to their relatively cheap price and easy set-up. The feeder itself consists of an upturned receptacle that is sealed other than a small hole that will slowly leak out sugar water or syrup onto the feeder's base.

The base of the feeder is specially designed to give bees small islands to stand on while they feed. This is critical to avoid bees drowning and should be a paramount concern when selecting your entrance feeder.

While entrance feeders are a great addition to a hive with low winter stores they can have some drawbacks. Due to their exposed position on the outside of the hive they can suffer from unwanted visitors like ants or robber bees drawn by the sweet syrup contained within.

Entrance Bee Feeders

Entrance Bee Feeders
  • Sits at the entrance to the hive
  • Easy to install and clean
  • Relatively cheap
  • All surfaces non-toxic

These plastic feeders are a quick and easy way of ensuring your bees get enough sustenance over winter.

 

Internal top feeders

As their name suggests internal top feeders are located within the hive and attached to the brood boxes just below the lid of your hive. Internal top feeders allow you to fill up considerably more syrup than an entrance feeder and because they're contained within the hive you don't run the risk of other insects and predators.

Be aware that internal top feeders have varying solutions to avoid bees drowning with some of the cheaper models offering ineffective methods. If you're in doubt always purchase your feeder from a reputable brand.

Frame feeders

Often referred to as a division board feeder, frame feeders sit inside your hive just like a normal frame and can be purchased in either a plastic or wood finish. They vary in capacity starting at 1.5l all the way up to 6l for the jumbo feeders.

It's critical that any frame feeders have a float of some sort for the bees to land on. Without this frame feeders can be harmful to a hive, drowning bees that are essential to the colony's survival through winter and the sparse spring months.

If you opt to use a wooden frame feeder we strongly recommend sealing the seams of the feeder with candle wax to create an extra seal and prevent syrup leakage.

Plastic bag feeders

Without a doubt, the most cost-effective solution is baggie feeders or plastic bag feeders. Quite simply this is a syrup or sugar water solution placed in a food-safe plastic bag (freezer bags are great for this) and sealed tightly shut.

You can place the bags directly on top of your hive by adding a spacer (a wooden frame that sits on top of your hive internally and creates a cavity for your bag feeders to sit in).

Once your bags are safely in place you can use a sharp knife to simply pierce a few holes that will allow the bees to access the precious contents.

We love baggie feeders because they don't drown any bees when installed correctly and they cost virtually nothing. The main downside to this kind of feeder is its environmental impact, due to the plastic bags required and the inability to rescue them after they've been cut.

If you need some help with placing your baggie feeders in your hive you can check out this awesome video from Garden Fork:

What can I use inside my feeder?

What you use to feed your bees will depend on where you're located and how many hives you have.

Common bee feed includes:

  • Native honey from nearby hives
  • A homemade sugar water solution
  • A specially formulated glucose/fructose syrup
  • Fondant cakes

Native honey

Always the best option for overwintering bees because this is what they would normally consume. Unfortunately, this option isn't available to all beekeepers because you need high-producing hives to supplement the underperforming hives with their honey.

It's really important to understand that you should only feed local honey to your bees. Other honey may be considerably diluted and ins some cases may contain parasites and diseases that could be transmitted with consumption.

Learn more about the questionable marketing practices of some honey producers in our short read real honey vs fake honey.

Sugar and water

This simple but effective fix is really quick and easy to do at home. Mix 1 part sugar to 4 parts water up to the amount you need and place it in your feeder of choice.

The key takeaway here is to only use white table sugar, brown sugar and molasses don't go through the same process of refinement that removes any possibility of infection or disease so should be avoided at all costs.

Syrup

If you want to focus on your bees rather than creating your own syrup then a pre-formulated syrup is a perfect choice. There's a wide range of bee feed available online and you're local beekeeping supplies store will normally keep some in stock.

I personally can recommend Invertbee from Simon the Beekeeper who was incredibly helpful when I had some questions about giving syrup to my hives during winter last year.

Fondant cakes

This option is reserved for those in the coldest of climates. When temperatures drop below zero all of the options above run the risk of freezing which can mean starvation for your bees.

Fondant on the other hand is a solid that won't be affected by plummeting temperatures and is the perfect fix for beekeepers living in cold climates.

Conclusion

Now you know all of the different ways you can feed your bees and what to feed them with, what's the best option for you?

Want to learn more about bees and the fascinating world of beekeeping? Check out some more of our short reads below for more fascinating bee knowledge.

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