Top feeders for beehives are a popular and safe method of giving bees the reserves they need to survive nectar dearths.
Most beekeepers need to feed bees to overwinter their colonies successfully and ensure their honey bees start the spring season in a strong position.
Hive top feeding is a highly favored option (and a solution I choose to use in my apiary).
But not every beekeeper is familiar with these systems…
So how do these top feeders work, how do you use them, and are they efficient for feeding your bees? I’ll tell you everything you need to know below…
Overview Of Top Feeders
Top feeders work very well to feed bees in the safety and comfort of the hive during winter. The bees do not have to exit the hive to access the food. In addition, the colony is protected from potential robbing and excessive heat loss since it does not need to be opened to check or replenish the food.
There are several types of feeders, from external feeding stations to entrance feeders, internal feeders, and top feeders… And you’ll probably get a lot of different opinions on what’s best if you ask around your local association 🙂
My personal preference is for top feeders since these systems allow the bees to feed from inside the hive and reduce the risk of robbing by stronger colonies.
So, in this article, I’ll take a closer look at top feeders, what they are, how to use them, and the benefits they offer the beekeeper and the bees!
What Are Hive Top Feeders?
Hive top feeders are a means to feed the bees inside the hive, minimizing the risk of robbing. Your bees do not need to leave the hive to feed.
Feeding inside the hive is particularly useful in climates where the outside winter temperatures are too cold for the bees to fly.
These feeders are so named because the food supplement is placed on a structure above the top bar of the frames. The design has openings that allow the bees to climb up to feed without the need to exit the hive.
Some top hive feeders deliver sugar water to bees. In contrast, others provide solid winter food when sugar water is no longer appropriate.
You’ll find a vast array of different feeder designs that you can purchase from commercial manufacturers and many that you can construct as a basic DIY project.
How Do Hive Top Feeders Work?
Feeder designs vary, but the basic principle is the same. The top feeder consists of a reservoir that holds the sugar water.
The reservoir can be a chamber or a container that will hold sufficient syrup to limit the number of times you need to replenish the supply.
Bees should be able to access the sugar water from below, either directly from below via small holes or where the bees climb into the top feeder chamber to access the sugar water.
A method of protecting the bees from direct access to the reservoir (where they risk falling in and drowning) is a must-have design element for a top feeder! This safety precaution is often created using hardware cloth or some other form of mesh that gives the bees limited access to the liquid.
Some top systems use a float that rests on top of the sugar solution and allows the bees to feed without drowning.
Are Hive Top Feeders Any Good?
Top feeders offer many advantages over other feeding methods. They are a great solution to get bees through the winter season.
The following are the main benefits of bee hive top feeders.
- Prevents robbing. Top hive feeders are enclosed to avoid access from bees outside the hive. Since the sugar water inside the hive, the smell is contained to limit the attraction of outside bees.
- Protected from the elements. Top feeders protect the sugar water (and your honey bees) from poor weather, the sun, and other wildlife.
- Top feeders are easy to check and refill. They are easy to open and inspect the remaining food supplement and refill without opening the hive and disturbing the bees.
- Less invasive for the colony. Top feeders do not require the rest of the hive to be opened to be checked or replenished. This way, the interior does not lose as much heat when the feeder is inspected or refilled.
Hive top feeders work very well and are my personal preferred method of feeding my bees in winter. The security offered to the bees, and the ease of access benefits for the beekeeper makes top feeders a very popular method in the beekeeping community.
How To Use A Hive Top Feeder For Bees
A top feeder is very simple to use. First, the lid of the beehive is removed, and the top feeder and chamber are positioned directly on top of the brood box or super.
The bee hive lid is then placed on top of the top feeder chamber to fully enclose the feeder and protect it from bees accessing it from the outside.
The proper method of installing a top feeder is to give the bees enough space to access the food but not so much access that the bees drown in the syrup.
Many traditional wooden top feeders like this example (Amazon) have the same footprint as the hive boxes below (8 or 10-frame Langstroth hives). Bees can access the feeding chamber via a central entrance. Wooden floats are positioned on top of the syrup so bees can access the food without falling in and drowning.
Some commercial top feeders, such as the Ultimate Hive Feeder, have a reservoir that slowly releases syrup to a drinking trough at the bottom of the feeder. You place this type of feeder inside a medium or deep super on top of the hive. You can fit two of these things inside a 10-frame box. The bees feed at the trough without the risk of falling into the liquid and drowning. (Amazon)
Some advice: use essential oil to prevent the syrup from becoming moldy. Despite the clever designs to keep bees away from the syrup container, you’ll still find dead bees anyway. The mold inhibitor can help keep the syrup fresh!
Choose carefully since drowning is often a problem in poorly designed top feeders or homemade feeders :-/
How To Entice Honey Bees To Use Top Feeders
One of the great benefits of top feeders is that the food is directly accessible from the inside of the beehive. This advantage means you do not need to do anything to entice the bees to make use of the feeder.
As the resources in the hive run low, the bees will be drawn to the sugar water in the top feeder as an easily accessible resource.
To get your bees through the winter, top feeders are not the only method available. But the advantages of these systems make them a consistently popular choice for hobbyists and commercial beekeepers alike.
They work exceptionally well for weak or vulnerable hives that are at risk of robbing and to prevent unnecessary disturbance of the colony during the cold season 🙂