One of the questions we are asked most frequently by new beekeepers is, “How long do I need to feed my colony for?”
To understand how we developed our feeding program, let’s start with our goal for the first year and work back from there. Our goal as first-year beekeepers is to get our colony built up enough and to keep them healthy enough to survive their first winter. Before your colony’s first winter, they must store enough honey to survive. In our experience, in the Denver Metro area, that takes 50-75 pounds of stored food. This food can either be honey, which is collected and made by the bees, or sugar syrup. If it’s syrup, the bees process it in a fashion similar to nectar, removing the excess moisture so that it doesn’t ferment or spoil.
The bees must have a place to store this honey. They must have drawn comb. Each deep frame holds about six pounds of honey, and each medium holds approximately 4. If you are running Langstroth equipment, one deep box full of capped winter stores is typically sufficient to get through the winter. These winter requirements are the reason most Colorado beekeepers winter in 2 deep boxes; one box holds the food and the bees cluster below the honey.
Making new comb is resource intensive. We commonly hear that it takes eight pounds of honey to make one pound of wax. We don’t know if this is true or not, but we have heard it cited that it takes about 35-50 pounds of sugar to draw comb in two deep boxes. That’s seven to ten gallons of 1:1 syrup, or even more of nectar, the sugar content of which varies considerably.
Bees draw comb best in the Spring and early Summer. New colonies on foundation with a strong nectar flow or regular feeding draw combs like nobody’s business. The same is not true later in the year. It can be difficult to impossible to get bees to draw comb in the late summer and fall. As the brood nest reduces its size before the winter, the bees can start to fill the empty cells once occupied by brood. When that happens they don’t need to draw new comb to store food; they can use the old comb. Additionally, there are fewer bees at the right age (about 14 days after emerging) to draw wax.
By providing liquid feed, we help ensure our new colonies survival. Having those resources on hand can reduce the amount of labor needed to make comb. In the Spring when our weather is erratic, and the bees cannot always fly, having a feeder full of syrup that the bees can utilize help advance comb-building as well. You can always stop feeding once the colony reaches the point that you desire, but trying to play catch-up at the end of the year is difficult, if not impossible.
In summary, we feed new colonies for at least the entire time that they are making new comb, and maybe even longer.