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How important are sugar syrup ratios?

Although sugar syrup must be the simplest concoction in the history of man, it generates questions galore, many containing complex ratios, weights, and equations. When I make syrup, I simply dump some sugar in a bucket, add some lukewarm water till it looks right, and stir. When the crystals dissolve, I pour it in a feeder. Easy peasy and no math needed.

Why we feed syrup

We feed sugar syrup to honey bees in the spring to help new colonies get started, especially those that began as packaged bees. This feed gives them a leg up because instead of having to forage for a source of energy, they can eat at home and begin building a nursery right away. Colonies that barely survived the winter can also benefit from syrup.

In the fall, honey bees colonies that failed to store sufficient honey for winter (or were over-harvested) may be fed syrup in the hope they can make up the food deficit before cold weather arrives.

For generations, beekeepers have tried to help the bees along by tweaking the ratio of sugar to water in the syrup. For spring feed we try to simulate nectar by using a light syrup. In the fall we try to save the bees some work by feeding syrup with a much higher sugar content. A thicker syrup means the bees have to do less work to get it cured and capped.

Humans decided on the ratios, not bees

But here’s the catch: the sugar-to-water ratios we use are man-made conventions. The honey bees did not tell us what to provide, and they don’t carry mini hydrometers to test for specific gravity.

The sugar-to-water ratio in naturally-occurring nectar ranges from the impossibly low to super high. Honey bees prefer sweeter nectar, a preference which causes them to flock to things like apple blossoms, with nectar containing about 40% sugar, and avoid things like pear blossoms, with nectar containing about 15% sugar. But each plant has a different sugar content from every other plant, and even the weather, the time of day, and the age of the flower make a difference.

So while the honey bees are out foraging on every combination of sugar to water you could possibly imagine, well-intentioned beekeepers are home micromanaging their syrup, measuring and stirring and tweaking to arrive at some magical ratio that the bees don’t give a rip about. If they could roll their large compound eyes, they would.

Guidelines are not rules

I can certainly understand using a guideline like 1:1 or 2:1 as a place to start. Those ratios are easy to remember and palatable to the bees, so there is nothing wrong with using them. But we must remember they are guidelines, not laws the bees etched on stone tablets.

These guidelines are intended to produce a syrup that resembles an “average” nectar, but averages are often theoretical. I just read that the average American woman of childbearing age has 1.9 children. But how many women do you know with 1.9 children? Furthermore, how many average woman do you know with 1.9 children?

My point is that even if 1:1 syrup was an accurate mathematical average of all nectars, it would still not represent any particular nectar in the real world. So when people tell me they tossed their syrup because they added too much sugar, or spent all night trying to figure out how to measure the ingredients to make five gallons, it is my turn for eye rolling. Close is good enough. Even not so close is good enough.

So much to learn

Beekeeping is complex and I understand that, but I think it’s strange that I receive about four times as many sugar syrup questions as I do Varroa mite questions. While miscalculated syrup is meaningless to a colony, poorly managed Varroa can destroy it. Usually, by the time I get the mite question, the colony is already gone.

It makes me wonder what we as beekeepers, writers, speakers, and presenters are doing wrong. How can we help new beekeepers sort out what is important and what isn’t? I keep thinking that explaining why—and giving specific reasons and examples—will help, but I see mixed results. Any thoughts?

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Bob Mallonee
Reply

I measure my sugar like u do. Close or until it looks good

Marc
Reply

I think the value in the syrup ratios is to keep track of colony intake during fall feedings. I approximate the amount of syrup stored by the amount of sugar they have been fed. So, for tracking reasons I find it useful.

As for sorting the important from the non-important presents a huge challenge because of the myriad of sources from which new beekeepers get their information. If you read Beekeeping for Dummies, it gives two recipes, which suggests there’s no in-between. If you ask BeeSource, you get a thousand answers, some of which include how “light syrup encourages comb production”. I think that ‘fact’ plays an important role in why new beekeepers feel the ratio is so important.

Rusty
Reply

Marc,

I see your point. I just hate to see beekeepers relying on recipes instead of logic. But yes, the source of the information can make a huge difference.

Khakijo
Reply

I had 100% survival rates this year on my 5 hives. While I only have 5, I think a 100% survival rate is wonderful and it was not because I managed sugar (I dont use sugar water I leave 70lbs of honey per hive and if I need to feed I use Pro Sweet), but because I manged things that kill bees quickly, Varroa and water.

For mites I treated with essential oils and with other methods like drone frames and year round screened bottom boards. I did mite counts and dusted with powdered sugar, whose efficacy I know is questions but it seems to work and the bees done mind either.

For water, and we have a lot of it in the Pacific Northwest, I built shims to tip the hives froward about 1/2″ and also used moisture boards and pillow cases stuffed with non-treated pine animal shavings to collect moisture. I read cedar is bad for animals and bees.

I am a third year bee keeper and I am learning every time I open a hive, read a book, or watch my girls just be bees. I think I have come to the conclusion that I need to listen to the bees, help them do what they do, and not manipulate them to fit my processes or needs. I will keep learning, that’s what I love about bee keeping, but my goal is to keep them happy, healthy and flying!

Terrihaw
Reply

Last year we lost both our hive of packaged bees within the first 2 months. We live on a lake and had a very wet spring with storms of rain raining sideways. (NE WA) it unlike this year! We lost half within the first week until we tipped the hives as you do, but it was too late. The hive just dwindled a slow death. The other hive, were pretty sure the queen split with some drones….SAD..I failed round 1. I have NOT given up hope. Got our bees last Saturday, using a 2:1 sugar ratio, its cold and rainy, only 1 sunny day in 5 forecast is 1 in the next 7, but the ladies are doing well. Tomorrow is our 1 sunny day, nothing is blooming yet!, but, we’ll open up and check! Your post gives me hope!

Karl F Newman
Reply

Hi:
Sometimes I think that people “fuss” more about little things they think they can control (% of sugar in their bee feed) than about things they are convinced they have no control over (Varroa mites). Perhaps the objectives should be to convince them that they can control Varroa and many other bee diseases and to relax about the bee food.

I use a combination of periodically dusting the bees with powdered sugar, checking for mites, and purpose made drone foundation on one comb that gets removed when it gets capped. My mite counts are always very low.

lazy K

Rusty
Reply

Lazy K,

You sound anything but lazy! Thanks for your thoughts.

Bill Hesbach
Reply

I think the essential difference between the number of questions concerning the recipe for sugar, and the apparent opposite for varroa reflects the primary difficulty we have when facing the issue of varroa. We feed babies, we feed other people and, as a natural extension- we feed bees. The questions concerning feeding are positive, and although we’ve made the formulas overly prescriptive, they’re familiar and approachable. There’s a sense of well-being when feeding our bees.

On the other hand, the very mention of varroa conjures up an image of doom. Also, for most folks just wanting to keep bees, varroa are a crash course in a complex biological system out of step with its host, requiring immediate understanding or their bees will die. I can see the varroa issue as much more than some have anticipated in their initial enthusiasm to become a beekeeper. At least with feeding issues, most folks can formulate a question. With varroa, one can feel horribly uninformed, and the questions just don’t come.

Something needs to change and as instructors, maybe we can dial back on the death spiral aspect and introduce varroa as part of a biological system in a more thought provoking, less dramatic, way. The link we seem to sidestep is between our prescriptive diagnostics and the brood cycle. Our current modality of a roll, count, and treat, with very specific treatment parameters, doesn’t require discussion. It presents varroa predation out of context with bee biology and with an easy, simple pharmaceutical cure – no questions asked. It’s a complicated issue and one we would be wise to engage in further discussions. Thanks for bringing it up- I always think about how to do it better.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Thanks for your thoughtful answer. It gives me some ideas. I’ve been asked to speak/present on the issue of varroa multiple times in the coming year and I’m searching for a different way of addressing the problems and solutions. Everything you say here makes sense.

Steve Rodney
Reply

One advantage to knowing the sugar content of the syrup I feed with is that the higher the sugar the content, the lower the freezing temperature (up to a point, anyway). When our mountain temps dip below 25 degrees fahrenheit only 1:1 or richer seems to remain in liquid phase.

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

That makes sense except that bees won’t drink sugar that’s less than about 50 degrees because they get chilled. That’s why so many beekeepers use solid sugar in winter.

Cheri
Reply

Your blog is an amazing help for us new beekeepers, helping us think about what is essential and what really isn’t. Thank you! Educating people doesn’t happen quickly, but it is the only thing that will ultimately change behavior whether in beekeeping or anything else.

Muzafar
Reply

I reside in north india (kashmir) here the climate is same as in america november to feberuary belongs to winter temperature below freezing and snow falls.i have two hives one belongs to local bees apis cerana (asian bee) which are more agressive and another is europian (apis mallefera) i want convert the locaal one into europian . If i kill their queen add brood from europian bees remove queen cells from their eggs and let them raise queen from europian eggs wil it work please suggest me what to do

Anna
Reply

New beekeepers understand the need to feed bees to get them started. They think they can “wait until next year” to do something about mites or even think about mites. They don’t see it as essential as food. Kind of like exercise “I’ll get to it eventually.”

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

I’m glad I asked this question. I’m hearing a lot of good insights into the problem. Thanks.

Ruth Ann Stagg
Reply

As a new beekeeper i am grateful for exact ratios and exactly how successful beekeepers feed their bees. After having read several books i realize there are many different ways to do beekeeping, but in the beginning i was very grateful to feel like i kind of knew what i was doing. This is my second year and i still feel overwhelmed and not sure if i am doing anything right…i had three hives going into a very cold utah winter and two survivied. I think the entrance was blocked ??? on the hive that didn’t survive. Any how when we tore the hive apart there were loads and loads of bees on the bottom board many bees all over the comb and surrounding the brood, but loads and loads on bottom. I didn’t know it was crucial to make sure the small entrance was not blocked by dead bees… live and learn right?

andre
Reply

Could you elaborate on the process of “syrup needs to be cured and capped.” Is it done the same way as for nectar? What is the final concentration? Where is it stored in relation to the brood? etc, etc.

Rusty
Reply

Andre,

Honey bees do not distinguish between nectar and sugar syrup. They dry it to about 18% water, just like nectar, and store it beside or mixed in with nectar. This is why you never want to have honey supers (for human consumption) on your hive while you are feeding syrup.

Rachel
Reply

I’ve got a syrup question. I installed two new packages today, I’m a first time bee keeper. I accidentally bumped a hive and heard syrup spill inside. Later I could see a bit had oozed out. Do I need to worry about that wetness in there? The bees all seemed to have moved in, and I’m not supposed to open it for a few days, but it is going to be chilly for the next couple days. Am I too worried?

Rusty
Reply

Rachel,

Don’t worry. Your bees will lick it up.

Hugo Maraki
Reply

Hello I’m a new beekeeper I have 8 hives was concern that sum of my hive will need sugar feed as winter is about to start what sugar ratio should I use.

Rusty
Reply

Hugo,

For winter feed, two parts sugar to one part water works fine.

Nancy Baker
Reply

Rusty, I know we feed dry sugar in the winter because bees won’t eat (drink) sugar water if it’s too cold. But if you have a good water source near by, could you feed dry sugar when installing a package in the spring? I’ve always wondered about that and figured you were the one to ask.

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

They will sometimes eat sugar in the spring. Mine are still nibbling on the winter leftovers, but they would much rather be drinking syrup or nectar. The question becomes, “Do you just want them to survive or do you want them to build up their numbers?” Syrup appears to stimulate brood rearing whereas solid sugar does not. Since their natural food is in liquid form, that is what signals them that spring is here and life is good.

Nancy Baker
Reply

Thank you. I understand better now.

Richie Rurup
Reply

Howdy, has anyone tried infusing the powdered sugar with wintergreen (or other) essential oils when doing a powdered sugar dusting for varroa mites?

Rusty
Reply

Richie,

I’m not sure what the benefit would be, but the downside is it might increase clumping.

Richie Rurup
Reply

Rusty, I got a nuc in April ( my first bees) so you can assume that I know nothing. I have read that direct contact of a mite and essential oil is fatal, this is where the thought of combining powderd sugar and essential oils came from, that would be the benefit. A mite that was merely disslodged but didn’t fall through the screen would die by contact.

Rusty
Reply

Richie,

That would be nice. If that worked, we wouldn’t have a Varroa mite problem. Some essential oils are poisonous to mites, like wintergreen, but the old saying “the dose makes the poison” applies here. It can’t be a few molecules, it needs to be a lot more than you could deliver in powdered sugar.

Richie Rurup
Reply

Rusty; Thanks, sometimes I think too much, sometimes too little.

Skeggley
Reply

Hiya Rusty, I haven’t seen a reply with the easiest way to accurately mix the sugar:water ratios so I thought I’d share..
The metric system… 1 kilogram sugar + 1 litre water = 1:1
Easy peasy.

Rusty
Reply

Skeggley,

It’s even easier than that because you only need an approximation. A pound of water and a pound of sugar work just as well. Or a bucket of water and a bucket of sugar. No two mixtures will be exactly alike in sugar concentration just as no two flowers are exactly alike in sugar concentration. The bees can deal with it. Accuracy of sugar concentration is something that exists in human minds, not in bee minds.

Meady
Reply

I’m a newbie and had my first hive last year. Great honey production but bees did not survive winter. I had a nest of mice come spring in the brood hive and no bees. Can I use the honey remaining in the brood box for food for a new hive I get in a few weeks?

Rusty
Reply

Meady,

Absolutely. It will get them off to a quick start.

Meady
Reply

Thank you Rusty! The honey filled frames I have are capped. Should I leave them capped, uncap them and spin out the honey to feed my new hive or will the bees do the de-capping?

Rusty
Reply

Meady,

Let the bees do the uncapping. Opening them may attract robbers.

Jerry
Reply

Is supplying sugar water AND some frames of honey better than just one of each?

Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Jerry,

Sure, you can give them both if you have both.

Mike
Reply

Living in a sub-tropical area, do I need to feed my bees sugar water? If so, when and how long?

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

The only way to know for sure if you need to feed sugar water is to open the hive and look. If they are collecting and storing lots of nectar, there is no point in feeding. If they have plenty stored already, there’s no need. If they are short on stores and not bringing anything in, it’s time to feed. Every colony is different, and the needs of the colony will vary with the local climate. If your bees can collect year-round, they have different storage requirement than those with a long winter.

Brenda Ridenour
Reply

What ratio sugar/ratio do I feed after catching a swarm?

Rusty
Reply

Brenda,

Treat a swarm like a package. One-to-one is fine, but nearly any ratio will work. All nectars have different ratios of sugar to water, and the bees do fine with them.

Brenda Ridenour
Reply

How do I feed after catching a swarm?

Rusty
Reply

Brenda,

Feed a swarm the same way you would feed a package.

Jennifer N
Reply

Hello Rusty,

Is there a reason, or time, to NOT feed sugar syrup assuming u aren’t going to be harvesting the honey? I got a package of bees this spring (my first as I am a newbee) and they were extremely weak. It is July in Colorado now and I still feed them. Some sites say feed it as long as they want it, and some say to stop when the nectar flow is high, but I have not yet found a reason to stop. I’m totally confused — my normal state anyhow, but in this case I’d like to not be !

Johnathan Swift
Reply

Hi Rusty

I am a retired Management Consultant and now enjoying beekeeping in my retirement. I laughed heartily when I read your frustration at some beekeepers being unable to come to grips with estimates, approximations and imprecision. The difficulty of clients unable to give a ball-park figure of a problem in a briefing, bedeviled me for much of my working life. Trying to get them to release any kind of number could be like pulling teeth. The reason appears to be that some people do not want to dig too deep into the reason/understanding of what they are doing and quantification is therefore an issue. They prefer to be given a decent set of “rules” to stick to. This is ok until there is a variance not covered by the “rules” and then they are all at sea and seek ever-more clarification of the “rules”. Give such a person an instruction like “get me a wad of paper” and you create anxiety because a “wad” is not a precise number and they have difficulty working out what might constitute a reasonable “wad”. A reasonable range of numbers is a foreign concept. Bees – by and large – are messy and imprecise but fairly flexible. We have to live with that and (I suspect) that you may have to live with anxiety about imprecise syrup recipes for as long as you run this site. 🙂
Love the site by the way. Keep up the good work.
Johnathan

Rusty
Reply

Johnathan,

Great story, and “wad” is perfect example. My favorite story was a 12-ounce bag of peanuts I purchased in a grocery store. In parenthesis the label said: 340.1943 g. What’s that all about?

Janette Martinez
Reply

I live out in Texas Hill country, recently started feeding bees sugar and water cuz my flowers froze. More and more showed up so knowing the cold weather was coming I upped the sugar and they did fine. Come and leave when it got cooler. Today they showed up so I put sugar water out. As temps cooled down many bees stayed behind. I don’t know where they come from, I collected all and placed them in container inside warm house, some have awakened. What happened? Going to release in am when I see other out.

Rusty
Reply

Janette,

Bees can’t fly when it gets too cold. They may have simply been out too late in the day and then got too cold to return home. If they made it through the night, they may well go home the next day.

Janette Martinez
Reply

Thank you

Janette Martinez
Reply

Thank you Rusty for your response, I kept them in a jar with dish cloth and rubber bands. Once morning came and I saw others out there I let them go.

I’m also learning much, I’m following up on feeding wild honey bees…I have placed 5″ pottery bottoms with the 2:1 ratio and they come crazy! I saw yesterday how they fight and even broke them up, silly me. But yes little trays.. problem is that some do fall in. I have pictures I can send. I collected some more late eaters and will release them tomorrow.

Janette Martinez
Reply

Also ordered some bottle cap feeders on Amazon, gonna try those hopefully cut down on drowning.

Lesster Leow
Reply

Dear Sir/Madam,

Hope this message finds you well. I would like to seek some advice from you. I saw the yellow feeder on your blog. Can it be used both for water and sugar syrup? I have a colony of bee inside an inverted flower pot and I wanted to feed them. I was thinking of using the water feeder but I am not sure will it serve the same purpose if I use sugar solution instead. Thanks in advance for the advice. Best regards, Lesster.

Rusty
Reply

Lesster,

You can use that type of feeder for either water or syrup.

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