Honey Bee Nutrition

State Apiary Inspector, Nancy Ruppert spoke at our monthly meeting about bee nutrition. The following details from her talk were submitted by Secretary Lynn Wilson.

For kids and bees, nutrition is critical. Beekeeping is more challenging than ever. Why settle for survival when you could strive for a thriving hive? If you haven’t neglected other good bee management practices, investment in nutrition will more than pay for itself. Some things to keep in mind are that timing is essential, delay costly, and recovery slow  (if at all).

While hungry bees are usually a winter problem, this summer’s rain kept bees in hives too long and some colonies starved. Good nutrition lengthens lifespan, improves queen’s performance, builds a healthier immune system, and makes beekeeping economically sustainable.

Both quality and quantity of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, vitamins, minerals and water. The best sources of carbs are nectar and honey, though cane sugar syrup is acceptable. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is better than starvation, but varies in digestibility and may build up toxic Hydroxymethylfurfural if it gets too hot. Healthy colonies need about 700 pounds of nectar per year and at least 40-60 pounds of honey to get through winter. Italian bees are less conservative than other races and bees in warmer climates need more carbs because they fly more. First nectar flow in our calendar year is red maple, but it’s thin and bees use it quickly.


  • Feed carbs during nectar shortages
  • To help build winter stores (Sept-Oct also helps insulate hive)
  • When wax foundation needs to be drawn out
  • To stimulate egg-laying and support brood-rearing

Boardman entrance feeders are easy for beekeeper to see and access, but may be hard for bees to get to if it’s cold and promote robbing if it’s hot. Division board and top hive feeders are in the hive, but you may need to find a way to keep bees from drowning. Fondant or candy board is good in the winter. If fondant is too hard bees can’t take it up. Sprinkles of moistened sugar may help if nothing else can be done. Community feeders can create mob scenes where the stronger colonies get stronger and weaker colonies get left out. Pollen should be available if you’re feeding carbs because bees need it to digest the carbs.

Pollen helps bees fly farther, faster, produce healthier queens and workers, especially nurse bees who are the primary direct consumers of pollen. Adequate pollen stimulates healthy brood-rearing, stronger immune systems and better winter survival due to fat storage and vitellogenin.

Best pollens (like dandelion, canola, and apple) contain about 25% protein; the best substitutes are 15% (or more) protein.  Pine, sunflower and ragweed aren’t very good protein sources. The average colony collects 50-120 pounds of pollen per year and uses 40-110 pounds annually. In NC, pollen is available naturally from 9-12 months out of the year. In March and April you hope to see a rainbow of pollen in the hive reflecting a diversity of floral sources.


  • During shortages, especially late winter or when too much rain keeps bees in the hive
  • Prior to likely stressors such as brood-rearing, pollination, hive splits, raising queens
  • Rearing winter bees
  • Prior to nectar flow
  • When feeding carbs

Be careful though, feeding pollen can result in raising a robust crop of small hive beetles. A few adults is not too bad, but if you see larvae, your bees can’t cope.

Pollen patties need to be consumable, digestible and offer good nutrition value. Nancy has seen consistently good results from feeding Mega-Bee and Global brands. It’s important to note that bees need adequate microflora in their gut to digest pollen. If you are using antibiotics, etc., to treat other problems that may be destroying microflora. As a result your bees may not be able to digest the pollen.

There is some research support for use of Honey B Healthy or ProHealth, in sugar syrup, as feeding stimulants and preservatives that contain essential oils. If bees are not taking pollen, mix Amino-B Booster (amino acid supplement) with sugar syrup and Honey B Healthy. Nozevit or Nozevit Plus is a combination of plant polyphenols which help bee digestion and may help prevent nosema.

Q: Are powdered pollen substitutes okay?
A: Yes. Some people mix with sugar syrup and some hang pollen substitutes in dipper gourds near hives.

Q: When is it okay to open hives to feed?
A: Every NC county has at least one day per month of temperatures above 50 degrees when it’s okay to inspect the hive. Early January feeding will help the queen to start laying eggs. Too much egg-laying too early will result in more brood than workers can keep warm in a cold snap. Brood are much more sensitive to cold than adult bees.

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