Tuesday, July 26, 2016

When do I stop feeding my package?

The number one piece of advice new beekeepers get is: Feed, feed, feed your package. However, one rarely hears when to stop feeding. That's when new beeks get in trouble because in their zeal to do the right thing, they feed first-year packages until they swarm (speaking from experience here). Anyway, multiple people have contacted me this year about when to stop feeding your new colony, so the question seemed worth a post.

Before we get any further into this post, I have to make a couple of assumptions:

  • Assumption 1: You're not planning to make splits from your package. If you do plan to make splits from your package, you may be feeding it all season, so this post really doesn't apply.
  • Assumption 2: Your flows work like mine (a main flow in spring, a summer dearth, and another flow in autumn, then a cold winter when the bees are huddled up all season). If your flows are different, you'll probably want to talk to someone local.

OK, so let's say we're on the same page. Before you decide when to stop feeding your new colony (split, package) in the spring, I would find out a couple of details:
  1. What the recommended amount of honey to leave over winter is for your area
  2. How heavy a bar full of honey is in your hive. Since there is no standard for TBHs, that number may vary greatly based on your design
In my area, 60 lbs is the recommended amount for winter & my average bar weighs 4 to 4.5 lbs when full of honey, so by the end of the fall flow, my bees need 15 bars of stores (15 bars x 4 lbs each = 60 lbs). Note: The number of bars you need may be different based on location and bar size.

When the spring flow ends, any new packages should have at least 15- 20 bars built out. They don't have to be completely full of honey, but I want them to have enough nectar/syrup to make it through the summer dearth without starving. By the way, it's natural for bees to slow down brood rearing during a dearth, but I don't like to see it stop altogether because that means they're hungry. Also, I want those 15-20 combs in place so that when the fall flow arrives, the girls have a place to store nectar that they'll need to get through winter. Does that make sense?

My general rule of thumb for when to stop feeding packages is when I see bees storing syrup. I'm just not interested in raising bees with syrup if it can be avoided. I certainly don't want to pull bars of syrup out of my hive. I actually use food color to dye syrup blue or green so that I can tell if they're storing it or not. (The fall is different story. If they don't have enough honey in the fall, I feed them until they burst to get them through winter.)

With that said, let's consider a couple of scenarios. BTW, I'll be upfront and say that my way is not the right way. It's just what works for me. Differences in climate, flow, bees, etc. can have a huge impact on what you see in the hive.

Season: Middle of the spring flow (around mid-May for me)
Flow: Yes
Enough comb: Not quite
Storing syrup: No

Let's say it's the middle of spring and you installed your package at least 3 weeks ago. Bees are emerging, so your colony is on the upswing now. You've been feeding, and there is a flow happening. The bees have not yet built 15 combs (or whatever minimum number you need for winter), but they're not far behind. The combs may have some stores, but not a lot. However, this is the prime of spring, so bees are bringing in nectar.

I would reduce or stop feeding. My spring flow tends to be massive, and I've had packages swarm on me about a month after install. So if they're close to the goal of 15 combs and seem to be chugging along and bringing in loads of nectar & pollen, I'll ease up on feeding. If the colony is really thriving, I might even stop feeding altogether and let them build up on nectar.

However, this is where regional differences can play a big part in what you see. You may not have a massive spring flow. You may have lots of rain. In that case, you may want to play it by ear.

Season: Spring
Flow: Yes
Enough comb: Yes
Storing syrup: No

Let's say it's springtime and you've installed your package. You've been feeding, and there is a flow happening. The bees have built 15 combs (or whatever minimum number you need for winter). The combs are not full of stores, but the bees are bringing in nectar.

I would stop feeding. They have the minimum number of combs they need built, and the bees are still bringing in stores. Let them do the work. It's better for them to consume nectar than sugar. Also, if the flow stops unexpectedly for some reason, you still have enough time to resume feeding them up before winter.

Season: Spring
Flow: Yes
Enough comb: No
Storing syrup: Yes

It's springtime, and the bees are bringing in nectar. However, they have not yet built out the minimum number of bars. You notice that the bees are storing syrup & may even be backfilling the nest.

Because they don't have enough bars, I would want them to expand. Because they're storing syrup, I would worry about them getting honey-bound and swarming. In this situation, I would encourage them to build more comb by adding empty bars to the brood nest to open it up as well as empty bars between fully built honey bars. If they start storing syrup again once they build the bars, I'd stop feeding. Obviously, they have more than they need.

So those are three situations I could think of. If you have other situations when you'd recommend stopping feeding, I'd like to hear them.


  1. The general rule of thumb I've heard is to stop feeding when they stop taking the feed. However, as you note, they may still take the sugar water even when the honey flow is on. Les Crowder says that 12 bars is enough for winter, but he's in a warmer climate than either of us, so I try to have at least 14 combs which seems to have worked well. But my most productive package made it through the first year on only 12 combs when I thought it would surely die over the winter. Giving them empty bars in the brood nest to build new comb (as in scenario 3) seems to stimulate them to build more. And the queens seem to prefer new comb to old comb.

    Another thing to consider is that sometimes you'll be installing a package on already built comb left over from a previous year (although some argue not to do that). This year most of my packages were installed on existing comb which definitely helps the hive build up faster (as Phillip at Mud Songs recently posted). In this case, I found that I stopped feeding much sooner than in past years. I guess that would fall under "having enough combs" though.

    1. Yeah, definitely stop feeding if the bees aren't taking syrup. My experience, though, is that there is never a time when they won't take it! LOL!


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!