Feeding Syrup to Honey
(See also Feeding Protein to Honey Bees )

Feeding sugar syrup honey to honey bees helps ensure that they survive periods when honey may run short, such as winter.  Sucrose syrup is a superior wintering feed, since it stays liquid and contains no solids that might cause digestive problems during a long confinement period, particularly in northern continental climate areas such as ours (~55 degrees North). Feeding syrup is also an important way to ensure bees build up well in spring. Bees should never be allowed to run short of feed. 

For fall feeding we use white refined table sugar dissolved in water so that solids are 67% by weight.  Syrup can be mixed on premises from bagged sugar, but this requires labour and heat and suitable water.

For spring feeding we normally use the same sucrose syrup as for fall, but sometimes we purchase High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which has 77% solids and which works very well as long as it is high quality.  Before receiving a load of HFCS, we add clean (city treated) water -- about 10% of the total expected volume -- to the tanks before pumping in the hot HFCS.  It mixes perfectly, is an ideal consistency to feed, and will not sugar out, even over winter. Consult your local experts.  Note 3  Note 4

Syrup is stored in tanks and pumped rather than lifted, so there are considerable savings in dollars and convenience over mixing dry sugar into syrup.  Moreover, the sugar is already in solution at the factory and has to be dried to crystal form to be bagged, so it only makes sense to get the syrup direct from the factory, and we do.  By the tanker load.

Sugar should never be fed at any time when it is possible that it will be stored in the honey supers and extracted with honey. Note 2

Here are some pictures of how we feed bees in our operation...

Spring Feeding Pictures
Click any picture with a blue outline for a close-up view in a new window.  
Close the window when finished...
Tanker3.jpg (16172 bytes) A pump equipped tanker delivers over 40,000 pounds of syrup to our farm.  Three 1250 imperial gallon tanks hold the syrup until needed.   Syrup keeps well for a month or more.  After that, slow fermentation is possible in warm weather.  In cold weather, over time some sugar will precipitate out onto the bottom.   An ordinary honey pump is adequate to fill our truck tanks for daily use.
TrukfeedRAW.jpg (31233 bytes) One ton flat-deck truck with feeder sitting on the deck.   The tank is a 200 Imperial gallon farm gasoline-style steel tank.  Attached is one inch gasoline hose with a swivel and a service station quality nozzle.  The auto shut-off has been removed from the nozzle.  In summer when the syrup is thinner due to warmer temperatures, we use 3/4 inch hose.
The unit we presently use no longer has its own battery.   We now run #4 power & ground welding cables to the vehicle battery along the frame.  For more than 30 gallons or so at a yard, the truck engine must be running to avoid a flat battery. The modified Pumptrol® pressure switch is visible at the right on the 90 degree elbow. Camlocks are used for quick connection.  Aluminum ones last longer.
Closeup.jpg (24097 bytes) This is a close-up of the feeder pump.  It is a common brass gear pump ($120 CAD) belt driven by a 12 Volt DC motor.  The motor shown here is a winch motor from a Kelley hive loader, but a starter motor from a small car like a Nissan MIcra might be a good choice.
TwistFeed.jpg (22876 bytes) A helper pre-opens the hives in readiness for feeding by turning the upper box a bit .  We have a feeder in each of the two brood boxes and fill according to need. we use straw or grass to prevent drowning.  Bees tend not to drown in thick syrup anyhow, since they float so high due to its  density and, besides the wetting ability of thick syrup is poor.  Thin syrup will drown bees.
Fillfeed.jpg (31308 bytes) Here, the syrup is being run into a one US gallon frame feeder.  Bees prefer these wood & masonite feeders to plastic ones.   These feeders have a single 3/8" x 1" x 15" stick as a float for the bees.
A feeder fills in 15 seconds or less. The pressure-sensitive electric auto-shutoff switch on the pump allows the operator flow control precise at the nozzle.
Drumfeed.jpg (49365 bytes) In fall, we feed the yards by filling drums and letting the bees help themselves.  The drum here has a lid to keep water out and louvers to allow the bees in. Rainwater, being lighter than syrup  will float on sugar syrup and discourage feeding.  Comb scrapings are placed on a board on top to attract the bees and start robbing.  Otherwise the bees will sometimes ignore the syrup.
The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.
Lucille Ball

Dear Allen,

I have read your "Feeding Syrup to Honey Bees " pages, and need to set up something similar here in Western Australia where once again, due to drought our bees are on hard times!

The problem I have is that the "experts " here say I need a pressure relief valve or bypass valve in the system.

I'm using a 2KVa diesel generator driven 240 volt 1/2 HP electric motor to drive a vane type honey pump. ('Cos that's what I have lying around here).

Since nobody here has fed bees this way before, I'd prefer to defer to your expertise and judgment than that of the well-meaning but inexperienced locals!

Pumptrol® switches here seem to be used extensively for air pressure systems but not much else.

Could you advise what pressure will be required to deliver 67% sucrose syrup through 20 metres of 1 inch hose to the standard unleaded gasoline trigger gun, at ambient temps of 20 to 40 degrees centigrade?

If you have the model number, Type or specs of the appropriate Pumptrol® switch that would be even better!!

Q. Does switching off the pump (automatically via Pumptrol® switch) obviate the need for a pressure relief valve?

Many thanks for your help.


Joel: That's the movies, Ed. Try reality.

Ed: No thanks.

From Northern Exposure

There are several ways to do the job.  We've used pressure tanks, such as a propane tank, and driven the syrup out with regulated air pressure, and we've used gear pumps driven by DC motors.  Other use a system such as you describe, with a motor or engine running constantly and driving a vane pump.  All work, and each has its advantages.

  • 500 or 1000 gallon propane tanks can be used to hold the syrup, and be pressured with compressed air from a tank or compressor.  We used such a system at one point, and some large beekeepers in the US use 1000 gallon propane tanks to dispense syrup.

  • No matter what propulsion system we use, we always use a high quality gasoline nozzle, complete with the swivels, but remove the auto-shutoff mechanism.  The nozzle is connected to a 1" gasoline hose by aluminum Camloc™ connectors, and the hose connects to the pump with a similar connector as well, and a quick shutoff valve is located there.  We always turn that valve off when not feeding, to relieve the pressure on the hose and prevent accidents.  Additional sections can be added or subtracted, since they have connectors as well.  Several hoses can be attached to one system at once for feeding large yards, if there is enough capacity.  If the syrup is thin enough due to warm temperatures, a 3/4" hose works just fine, even for runs of 50 feet or more.

  • We ultimately chose to build a system using a DC motor that starts and stops, depending on the pressure in the hose, for reasons of silence, compactness, convenience and efficiency.  In that plan, the pump only runs when the nozzle trigger is pulled, and stops when the trigger is released.

     A Pumptrol® was used to sense the pressure and activated a DC solenoid (Ford starter type) that controls the heavy current for the DC motor.  A 1/3 to 1 HP motor was used, and drives the pump by a chain, with sprocket reduction of about 6:1.  The motors we used were either starter motors or winch motors, but a nice 12 volt motor can be bought at an electric supply house.  The Pumptrol®  we use is one used for pumps in domestic water systems, but we have found that we have had to jigger the ones we've found to lower the pressure range to below 30 pounds per square inch.

A degenerate disease.
  • We have never used a pressure relief, since the control shut the pump off when 30 lbs -- or whatever pressure we set it at -- was reached, however, if you were to choose a continuously running system, a bypass is in order.  The bypass need not be a relief valve, but merely a shunt made of smaller pipe that allows the syrup to bypass when the hose nozzle is shut off.  Cleverly designed, the bypass can allow the pump to agitate the syrup and mix it on the way to the yard, but provide enough pressure to a hose, to dispense the syrup as well.  An adjustable valve can be used to set the amount of bypass, or a pressure relief valve can be used.

Remember, syrup hardens and gums things up.  Never count on anything electrical being 100% reliable when syrup is around.  Small passages in a Pumptrol® or the diaphragm can block up, especially if care is not made to keep it above the syrup level in the design.

Turn off the power when you are not intending to pump syrup, or expect to come out and find it all on the ground some day or be leaving a trail behind you as you drive down the road.

From Rich, another perspective...

You people make this syrup pumping game way too tough.

  • 3-1/2 HP Briggs engine Cost $200.
  • 3/4" bronze gear pump Cost $110.
  • 2 pulleys, coupling, shaft, v-belt, etc. $60.
  • Relief valve. $55.
  • 60 foot pressure hose with nozzle $95.
  • Misc. iron, bolts, etc. $25.
We live in an age when pizza gets to your home before the police.
Jeff Marder

Total weight for this set up is about 50 to 55 pounds.  Length is 20 to 24" very easy to pick up & move from the truck to storage or what ever.  We use clear 3/4 EVA spray tubing for both suction & relief lines to & from poly supply tank on the trucks. 

As for our tank farm we use a 5 HP Briggs engine that drives a 1-1/2 honey pump ( Viking molasses pump ) with about a 6:1 reduction ratio. We run the engine at a fast idle with no problems. It takes less that 15 minutes to fill a 200 + gallon tank on the truck.  The plastic spray tubing is held in place with just hose clamps & this makes it a very simple & light weight unit to disconnect & remove from the truck. 500 gallon poly blem tanks are worth about $175. & 1500 gallon are worth $375. Not real tough to spend around $1000 bucks or so & have a real nice system that will hold half a tanker load of syrup.


oct13_004.jpg (72120 bytes)

Here's the cheap model Honda engine mounted on a blower.  It bolts up in place of a Briggs, runs on half the gas, makes half the noise, and costs the same.

This system is simple and cheap, and easy to build.  The major complaint is that B&S engines can be hard to start, and are noisy and smelly when running.  Using a Honda would be a huge improvement.  The racket is much less, and fuel economy is double, even using the cheap black Honda motors.

In our case, we preferred to have a system that runs only when the trigger is pulled and which can deliver a lot of syrup quickly.  When we were working hives in Spring, we would only need a shot of syrup every five minutes or so, and did not want the noise of a running engine.  Since we were feeding up to 4,500 hives, we spent some money for what we wanted, but for occasional use, and for those who don't mind the noise and smell of a gas engine, this is probably as cheap as you can get.

I'll give Rich the last word.

I can understand the noise & smell deal, but the new " emission " engines really have very little stink to them compared to the old ones from years back. Yes, the Honda engines are a little smoother but are not worth the darn for the near double the cost factor of the Briggs.  (Actually, the black Hondas are priced the same as B&S -- allen).  Most of the fuel tanks on these engine now a days will hold up to a gallon of gas. So they can run all day without a problem. The engine that is on the truck pump now is 8 years old & all that is ever done to it is change the spark plug in the spring & the oil & call it good for the year. If I recall correctly I did change the v-belt & love joy spider last year for the 1st time. We had an electric motor on the tank farm for a couple of years & found the gas engine deal to be less headache. Just my 2 cents worth, Allen.

By the way all of the gas engine we have usually start on the 1st or 2nd pull.


Good comments. 

(This note came later).

What kind of relief valve do you use?

And, how many hours do you figure your unit has run?

Tried to find the one that I use in the Granger web site but had no luck.

How many hours has this unit run?????  Countless, 10 years old at least.  New plug in the spring & check the air cleaner and let 'er rip. Change the oil at least in the spring & then in the fall.

I did find the cheaper Honda engine for $200. in the Northern catalog.  I will order one to give it a try.  Looks like I can save 8 to 10 pounds of weight also.

By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.
Charles Wadsworth

Who & were in Iowa did you talk to that only had a 5% winter loss.  I would like to call him or E-Mail him.  Brian told me that some of the people who have ads for queens & brood in east Texas posted in the Bee Journal have refunded quite a bit of money to their customers as every thing is so far behind & there is no way they can fill all the orders for Queens & brood.

Maple buds are starting to really swell & it should be near 60 today here. We have had well over 2 1/2" of rain in the last 2 weeks & it really soaked in the ground.  Not much run off at all.

Got a new dog a few weeks back & can hardly wait to see if he likes to eat bees like the old one does!!!!!!!!!!!

Let me know Rich.

(I sent him the contact privately)  Still waiting for the details on the relief valve.  I think that was the original question, wasn't it?

(This note came later yet).

The valve is a Teel brand model #PO-72 or a# PO-73.   Pump is a Teel Model # P-775.  Seems bronze pumps are a better bet than the cast iron ones as I have seen corn syrup set in a cast pump over the winter & leave some nasty holes in the gear bores.


I hope we have answered everyone's questions.

Here's An Article I sent to BEE-L about Drum Feeding

Sat, 25 Jan 1997 16:53:56 -0500
Reply-To: Discussion of Bee Biology <BEE-L@CNSIBM.ALBANY.EDU>
Sender: Discussion of Bee Biology <BEE-L@CNSIBM.ALBANY.EDU>
From: Excerpts from BEE-L <bees@systronix.net>
Subject: Open Feeding

> We did some open feeding tests in late fall in Maryland. <etc.>
> Under similar weather conditions, overall bee flight activity
> increased dramatically - more than 6 fold at one site. However, we
> also experienced about a 6% loss in returning bees - some drowned
> and I suspect others were too old and weak to survive the feeding
> frenzy. My guess, from an energy expenditure and bee loss statepoint
> - we had an adverse impact on the colonies (at least in terms of
> individual bees). Whether the colony experienced a net gain or loss
> from the additional provisions is unknown.

If colonies surviving the winter is an indicator, then open feeding has a huge positive impact here in Alberta, since open fall feeding can reduce colony loss to virtually nil. This is proven time and again when some yards are not fed and return losses up to 100% compared to the 10-20% loss in yards with feed.

The real question, I guess, is whether there is a better way. This is probably a personal matter, depending on resources and time available -- along with other factors.

In the sense that there is little spilling, leakage, or handling involved, it is a very quick and efficient method.

In that the bees must find and retrieve it, it may have some inefficiencies compared to having the feed delivered in the hive. FWIW, we find that feeding in hive with frame feeders does not get as good results as open feeding, since winter losses are higher (and the work is much greater).

The huge plus is that anyone who can read a map, drive a truck, and open a tap can do it, so if you are stricken at feeding time, any neighbour can feed your bees. Or, if you find all your help has gone back to school and the weather is closing in, you can feed 2,000 hives in two or three days *without assistance*. (This is assuming your drums are already in the yards and that you buy pre-mixed syrup, and that you have a big enough tank for delivering the syrup to the yards).

Among the negatives is the question of robbing and the huge cloud of bees that results, potentially scaring neighbours. Moreover, when the feed runs out, if the hives are not full and the weather is hot, severe stinging can occur in the neighbourhood.

Fighting can result if insufficient surface area is available on the feeder and some hives decide to try to defend the feeder. We use about one open drum per 12 hives and that seems okay. The drum need not be full. Some use an abrasive Skil (r) saw to slit drums lengthwise to make 2 trays with greater surface area.

Another consideration is protecting the surface from rain. Water is lighter than syrup and will float, effectively keeping the bees from their feed until the water is finally taken in by the syrup. Moreover, the dilute syrup at the interface is likely to ferment. Therefore, a roof of some sort, suspended above the drum is essential. This roof should be able to keep cattle, horses and wildlife out, since syrup is attractive -- and lethal to them.

Open feeding is not advised if there are neighbouring bees within a mile or so due to invasion from those hives. There is the chance that diseases and mites may be passed between bees if mingle in feeders, but normally there is some progressive robbing in all yards in fall, so I doubt that open feeding is a huge additional concern. Besides drones go into any hive they like -- within miles.

The obvious question is the loss of bees that can be seen occasionally in the bottom of the drum after all is done. My thoughts are that two inches of bees (5 cm) in a drum feeding 12 hives amounts to about a 4 inch ball of bees per hive. That is not a big loss in the fall. Besides, I have *never* seen 2 inches of bees in a drum -- one inch is the most I've seen, and that is rare.

Moreover, many argue that the bees lost are old foragers, and are best removed anyhow for TM control and better wintering. I'm not sure of that, but I do know that too big a cluster will use more stores early in the winter. There is likely an optimum size range for economical wintering, and this small loss will not likely reduce most colonies below that range.

What causes this visible loss? There are two main culprits:

-- drowning (and syrup clogging) -- fighting

Drowning is caused by moving the drum when it is full of bees, using thin syrup, or letting water into the drum -- or by using poor floats. As mentioned before, wheat straw -- or equivalent -- is the best, and a wad 3" thick or more should be made up by sprinkling the straw into the full drum, then patting down gently to make a porous mat.

An important note: once straw becomes wet, it is useless. Thick syrup does not actually *wet* good straw, but rain will make it mushy.

If the syrup is 67% sugar, the bees cannot drown easily, since they float and are often not even wet if they fall on it -- due to the surface tension of thick syrup. Everyone has seen water bugs walk on water; this is a similar effect. The straw mat allows bees to climb out if they slip, and also to have a place to stand to approach the syrup. On the initial trip, they have no idea where exactly the syrup actually is, and rush madly down into the drum until they encounter the syrup with some part of their anatomy. Since it is not like nectar in a flower, some learning is then involved.

Bees that fall into thin syrup or brush against wet straw get coated with sugar, and depending on the day, may or may not be able to get groomed enough to fly again. If not, they will form a mass on the centre of the float, while the less disabled of them will climb the walls and walk as far as they can. I prefer HFCS for feeding because it does not form a dry white scale on the bees like sucrose. Moreover, it does not get a hard scum on top on dry days.

Fighting will occur if the feeders do not have sufficient surface area for the number of hives being fed, Fighting can be observed on flowers when supply is limited, and feeder drums are no different. This conflict can result in robbing, stinging incidents, and loss of bees.

The solution is to ensure that more than enough syrup is available to plug all the hives in the fall, and to have enough surface area on the feeders. The matter of providing enough syrup is one of the most subtle factors in the whole system. We hear that only the strong get fed using open feeding, however the obvious point that is missed by detractors is that once a strong hive is full, their bees stop foraging, and the other hives catch up.

I can't over-emphasize how important this is for several reasons: Firstly, if hives are not full, the bees continue to seek food, and wear themselves out. Even if you eventually feed empty hives in late fall, the bees will be no good since they are worn out from searching and working meager sources, and early winter losses result. Lack of ample feed is a severe stress on bees. That is why it is so important to fill the hives up as soon as we wish brood rearing to end in the fall. For one thing, this buries all pollen under 'honey' in sealed cells, and preserves it for later when it is needed, and secondly, the bees become somewhat dormant and preserve their vigour when there is no room for more honey.

Another thing to think about is whether all the hives in the yard know that food is available. If some hives are fairly well fed, they may be semi-dormant, and not notice open feed available. Usually scouts from active hives will wake them up by trying to rob, but if time is short, it is wise to disturb all the hives in the yard when delivering feed.

An interesting observation on open feeding vs. top feeders: This fall, I had my guys providing supplementary feed to spits with hive top feeders, since the splits were a little light and late getting fed. The whole yard -- including large hives -- had drums available too. The splits got one feeder-ful taken down and the boys refilled them again.

When I went out to wrap in the middle of October, the bees in the splits were clustered down in the bottom (standard) brood chambers, and the centre frames in the upper (standard) boxes were full and capped -- but the outer ones were unfinished. The bees were not interested in their own full hive top (Miller) feeders at all, but were rather flying out to the drums and also visiting *neighbouring* hives to slide under cracks between lid and feeder to steal some syrup to take home!

About Barrel Feeding in the Spring

The idea in the fall is to plug the hives, and the way that we achieve even feeding is by feeding until every hive is heavy. In the spring, we do not wish to plug our hives. This appears to be a problem, however...

In the spring, there is a lot of room in the hives, so the chances of stopping the queen from laying are slight at first. Moreover feed consumption is high, so if the queen gets crowded out by feed, chances are that it will be gone quickly.

In the spring, good beekeepers usually try to equalize their hives. This makes it likely that they will all forage about equally. Those that don't are prime candidates for a little work. Moreover, if some hives do take more than their share, it is very nice to find extra feed in them, ready to share with hungry hives while you are equalizing.

I have found that bees do not respond as well to open feeding later in the spring, as compared to early spring. A yard (24 hives) will often take a drum in a warm spell in March (before nectar and reliable pollen here in Alberta). We can sometimes feed a drum or two later, but it depends on the spring, and the bees are weaker by then.

There are many more factors to consider in using drums to feed, but these are the basics. Unless one considers all these factors and manages them wisely, barrel feeding will not seem too good.

The Boardman feeder controversy still flares up from time to time, and although I personally consider them *worse* than useless, I have to admit that many good beekeepers swear by them and make them work for them. It all depends on one's location, goals, and techniques. What works in one location is a good way to go broke somewhere else.

Open feeding is another *expert* technique that when practiced with less than full understanding can lead to disaster -- or dissatisfaction and puzzlement. As with all beekeeping techniques, careful observation and understanding of bees and their constantly changing ways are essential for success.



To bee continued...  Come back again soon!

In the meantime, P-O has some great pictures of beekeeping items and activities. 
Ya just gotta go there!

And John Caldeira Has some more info on feeding syrup to bees.


Contact allen dick


1. Honey bees are sensitive to some things in water that do not bother people, such as fluorides.  Our local water has high fluoride levels (2 ppm or more). Back to Top

2. Honey is defined as the nectar of flowers gathered by bees and converted to stores by them, and no scrupulous beekeeper would ever allow sugar syrup to be sold as honey. Moreover there are penalties for doing so.  Back to Top

3. HFCS must be diluted with about a 10% volume of sterile water when delivered or it will promptly granulate.  If granulated, the product is quite soft, but is a problem to pump.

4. Here is a MS Excel 4 spreadsheet that compares syrup prices, etc.  Back to Top