Module 10: Honeybee Habitats & Feeding Honeybees

Mr. Richard Matthias, Master Beekeeper Cornell University and Mr. John Frederick, Vice President, Iyanola Apiculture Collective 

Table of Contents

What Are Bee Habitats?

Bees require forage in order to survive.  Internationally, much research has been conducted in the importance of providing bees with proper forage in order to ensure their health and wellbeing.

A lot of work has also been done internationally on the linkages of bees and conservation of protected areas.  Holzchuc et al. (2012) and Ricigliano et al. (2019) both state that bees need not just artificial habitats, such as provided by monocrop fields, but also semi- to completely natural and diverse habitats to survive. 

As such, beekeeping is an excellent opportunity to encourage conservation of natural areas whilst facilitating sustainable livelihood and pollinator population expansion.

Why Do Bees Require Diverse Natural Habitats?

Honey bees require four key nutritional inputs to maintain healthy colonies

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Lipids


Natural habitats such as forests and mangroves are abundant with nutritional inputs bees require.


Obtained from nectar, is the fuel that powers bees to undertake their day to day activities. On average a colony of bees will require 35 – 45 kgs of honey to survive.


Colonies of bees require protein for brood production, and the development of young adult bees. There are 20 amino acids needed to build all the proteins required for bee life.

10 of these amino acids can be produced by the bees in their body. The other 10 must be acquired through pollen, which bees consume in the form of bee bread. Protein is needed for the production of brood. Brood are eating protein in the form of royal jelly and bee bread. A typical colony of bees will annually consume on average 22kg of pollen.

Vitamins and Minerals

Bees mostly acquire these from pollen and small amounts from nectar. Water soluble vitamins are common in pollen B1, B2, B3, B5, B7, B9, B6 and Vitamin C are essential in brood development. Pollen contain trace elements of potassium, sodium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorous.


Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K aid in brood production. Sterols are needed for creating ecdysteroids in honey bees, a category of hormones that are involved in larval development and worker polyethism. Nurse honey bees, who have high lipid stores, are able to transfer sterols they have previously consumed to larvae through bee bread, ensuring the brood will develop properly.

Supplementing Bee Diet With Sugar

The supply of white sugar (sucrose) to honey bee colonies can be a valuable management tool for beekeepers. It is used to supplement a shortage of stored honey to prevent starvation of the colony, or to stimulate a colony to artificially promote breeding. Feeding sugar syrup may also be useful in increasing the number of field bees foraging for pollen from the hive. 

This will enhance their role as pollinators of a range of economic crops. The methods of feeding sugar are diverse and varied. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. White sugar (sucrose) is the preferred sugar to feed to bees. Many other products have the potential to contain substances that could be deleterious to honey bee health. Sugar should not be fed to bee colonies when they have access to a natural nectar flow.

The Effects Of Sucrose (Nectar) To Fructose And Glucose

Honey bees collect nectar from flowering plants when in season and store this nectar as honey. In the process of collecting nectar and ripening it to form honey there is a chemical conversion from sucrose (nectar) to fructose and glucose, the main sugars in honey. This is achieved by enzyme activity both naturally occurring in the flower nectar and added by the bees.

The availability of nectar stimulates brood rearing and the expansion of the colony population. If only stored honey is available this does not have a stimulating effect on a colony. Rather, the colony behaves in a conservative fashion and minimises brood rearing and colony expansion. These actions by a colony of bees are designed to maximise the colony’s survival in a natural system.

Colony Requirements

A colony of bees requires access to either stored honey or nectar to survive.Without either the colony will die from starvation within days. A cluster of bees without brood will maintain a temperature of 20°C

A colony that is looking after young brood the temperature will be 34-35°C. The colonies requirements for larger volumes of honey/nectar have substantially increased.

In early spring it is relatively common for colonies to starve due to the consumption of all stored honey and lack of fresh nectar. This lack of nectar could be due to adverse weather conditions that prohibit bee flight. 

By strategic feeding of sugar it is possible to artificially stimulate a colony to breed, expanding its population in anticipation of a major honey flow.

Nectar And Honey

Nectar is secreted by glands at the base of the flowers, known as nectaries. Field bees collect nectar from blossom in the field. At this stage, the nectar has a high level of sucrose sugar with some laevulose (fructose) and dextrose (glucose) and a high moisture content.

There are also traces of other substances such as minerals, vitamins, pigments, aromatic substances, organic acids and nitrogen compounds. Bees convert this nectar into honey in a series of steps. When the nectar is initially collected, it is stored in the honey sac of the returning field bee. 

An enzyme called invertase is added to the nectar while in the bee’s honey sac. Invertase converts the nectar, primarily a sucrose solution, to a mainly laevulose and dextrose solution. 

The ripening nectar is then stored in the beeswax cells where the moisture content is reduced to 13–18% by the manipulation and fanning of the house bees. When honey is ripe, bees cap the cells with beeswax.

Which Sugar?

There are a range of sugar products available to feed to bees including honey, brown sugar, raw sugar, organic sugar, white sugar, waste sugar. The main concern for beekeepers is what effect these supplements have on the colony?

Honey – The first reaction by beekeepers is probably that this is the ideal food for colonies requiring supplementation. This is not a desirable food to feed back to colonies

vector of a range of microbial diseases including, American foulbrood, European foulbrood, chalkbrood, and nosema disease.

Nectar or sugar syrup will have a stimulating effect on a colony promoting brood expansion, whereas honey has the opposite effect.

Feeding honey back to bee colonies in some cases makes the colony more defensive and aggressive. Exposing honey in feeders will promote heightened robbing behaviour, putting weak colonies in jeopardy of being invaded by robbing bees from stronger colonies.

A naturally occurring acid in honey Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), increases in concentration the older the honey. The HMF levels also increase faster when honey is exposed to heat. Levels of HMF above 30ppm are considered toxic to bees.

Bees are twice as attracted to sugar syrup than they are to honey. Economically it does not make sense to feed honey back to bee colonies when sugar is a fraction of the cost

We are lead to believe, from a range of information sources, that this is not a desirable food for human consumption, particularly in excess quantities. What we are not told is that the sugar, sucrose is the dominant sugar in the nectar, produced by flowering plants to attract pollinators, including insects, bats, birds and small mammals. 

White sugar is the supplement that will provide the least risk to bees in the form of digestive complaints, usually manifested as dysentery in bees. White sugar is also economically attractive as a supplement for bees when compared to other sugars and honey.

Although essentially a sucrose product.

Brown sugar is produced by the addition of molasses to refined white sugar. Brown sugar may contain up to 10% molasses, which normally results in digestive complaints, usually dysentery in bees.

At times beekeepers have been able to obtain waste sugar from sweet factories or food manufacturers. 

The problem with waste sugar is that additives in the sugar may be toxic to your bees. Salt and starch are poisonous to bees in increasing concentrations. It is inadvisable to feed waste sugar to bees unless you are aware of what else may be included in the waste sugar.

The Role Of Sugar Syrup In Bee Management

Sugar feeding can be used as a supplement in several beekeeping activities including:

  • Providing food for bee colonies during shortages of honey or nectar. Rain season or dearth period.
  • Stimulating colonies to increase the amount of brood being reared.
  • Stimulating a colony to collect pollen preferentially to nectar to enhance the pollination of certain crops.
  • Used extensively when rearing queen bees to ensure the best possible nutritional conditions and stimulate brood food glands in young nurse bees.

Amounts of Syrup To Feed

White cane sugar probably remains the safest and most reliable nectar substitute for honey bees. The concentration and quantity are equally important. For colony stimulation in spring or when queen rearing, feed small quantities (1–2 L) every few days of a 1:1 concentration of sugar and water by volume. To provide stores for winter, a colony should be fed in the autumn with quantities of 5 to 10 litres on a regular basis (weekly) until the colony has sufficient processed sugar stored.

If the bees do not consume all the syrup within a few days there is an increasing threat of yeast growth in the syrup mixture within the feeders. Yeast at rising concentrations can be very toxic to bees and lead to an early death of the adult bees. It is important to keep and mix syrup in clean sterile containers.

The feeders should be thoroughly cleaned and sterilized between feeds of sugar syrup. Any syrup with evidence of fermentation or which has a sour taste should be discarded and not fed to bees. Mix enough syrup for immediate use only. 

For winter stores a ratio of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water is used to provide a thick syrup. Do not feed a sugar syrup mix thinner than a 1:1 ratio as bees have to do too much work to retrieve the sugar.


Feeding sugar in syrup form is the most popular and probably most effective method. There are numerous different types of sugar syrup feeders.The type of feeder used will depend on what materials the beekeeper has available and possibly what types of commercial feeders are currently on the market.

Boardman Feeder

A jar placed on a special feeding frame at the entrance of a hive has been popular, but has some major restrictions. These containers are often referred to as Boardman feeders. They are only useful for very small quantities of sugar syrup in a situation where stimulation of a colony is required. 

They should be refilled each day if empty. These feeders may encourage robbing due to their location at the hive entrance.

Division Board Feeder / Frame Feeder

Division board feeders or frame feeders are purpose-made frames that will hold syrup.This may be useful in a queen rearing apiary where stimulation of the hive is desired.

Top Feeder

Top feeders come in a variety of designs and sizes and are probably the main method of feeding quantities of sugar syrup to a hive. 

Various size buckets or jars with small holes in the lids are inverted over the top frames or a hole in the lid of a hive.

Or a rapid feeder as pictured on the right.