Feeding My Bees In The Wintertime With Sugar Bricks

These days I use sugar bricks to feed my bees in the winter and here’s a quick 2-minute video that demonstates how I do it.

This is a condensed version of a 4-part video series (not unlike the original Star Wars trilogy) that I posted last winter.
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Big Difference Between Anise Extract and Anise Oil

    UPDATE: I’d like to give this post a new title: Why I May Never Use Anise Oil Again. See further updates at the end of this post.

I’ve always added a small drip of anise extract to my sugar syrup.

Anise extract.

Anise extract.

But today I used anise oil instead — an “essential oil,” I assume.

A dram of Anise Oil. A little dab will do you.

A dram of Anise Oil. A little dab will do you.

I meant to add only a drop or two, but more than a few drops fell from the bottle when I tipped it. I got some of it on my hands, subsequently rubbed it into my shirt, and I eventually put the bottle in my garage — with the garage door open.

Highly concentrated anise.  And gluten free!

Highly concentrated anise. And gluten free!

Holy mackerel, what a difference between anise extract and anise oil.

I’ve never seen the bees go so completely insane over an aroma. Every drop of syrup I spilled on the ground while I was filling the feeders attracted a mini-cluster of bees. I had bees following me around persistently, attracted by the anise. And the tiny bottle of anise oil that I left in my garage attracted about 20 or so bees. I went into the garage to get something about an hour later and the place sounded like the inside of a bee hive with bees bouncing off the windows trying to get out. And they were still coming through the door when I got there. The stick I used to stir the syrup mixture was left in my little outdoor bee shed, and that was full of bees too.

I’ve never had anything like that happen when I used anise extract. The next time I use highly concentrated anise oil, I’ll be careful to use only a single drop of it and then put it away in the house where the bees can’t smell it.

Lesson learned.
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A Simple Way to Mix Sugar Syrup

Here’s a demonstration of my quick and easy method of mixing sugar syrup for honey bees. I’m posting it because I keep hearing from people who do things like boil up a syrup mixture on their stove tops at home. That’s a big bag of crazy beans if you ask me, much more time-consuming and complicated than it needs to be. Probably a great way to make a mess of one’s kitchen too.

I don’t measure anything. I fill a bucket about half way with white granulated sugar (not raw sugar or anything with a high ash content). I add a drop or two of anise extract to get the bees interested in the syrup. (It’s important to note the difference between anise extract and anise oil.) I add water from a garden house until the bucket is almost full. Then I mix it with a stick for about five minutes until the sugar is dissolved.

The result is a thin syrup that works for spring feedings. I add more sugar if I want to make a thick syrup for fall feedings. How can I tell when it’s a thick syrup? Because it’s thick. Thin syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water) more or less has the consistency of water. Thick syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water) takes on a goopey appearance. It sounds goopey.

I know that doesn’t seem very precise, but I don’t think a precise syrup mixture matters much to the bees.

Sometimes I add about a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to help prevent the syrup from going moldy, though I can count on one hand how many times I’ve bothered with that. Sometimes I put the syrup aside for a day or two so any left over sugar is more likely to dissolve, but even if some undissolved sugar settles to the bottom of the bucket, is that a problem? I don’t think so. Sometimes the temperature of the water in the hose is warm from being in the sun, though most of the time it’s cold and that works out okay too. While I understand the reason for boiling up sugar syrup and using precise weights and measures in the recipe, and I respect that, I’m just putting it out there that nothing really bad happens when the process is simplified by dumping sugar and water in a bucket and mixing it with a stick.

P.S.: I made a few edits and additions to this post a few days after I wrote it.

Nuc: Day 11 – Almost Full

I installed a 4-frame nuc on July 17th, using frames of bare foundation to fill in the remaining frames. On Day 6 I replaced most of the bare foundation with drawn comb because I wanted the queen to have immediate space to lay and expand the brood nest. Today, Day 11, I topped up the frame feeder and noticed bees covering most of the frames in the hive.

Nuc colony on Day 11. 6 frames of drawn comb. 2 frames that were more or less bare foundation. All the frames filling with bees. (July 28, 2016.)

Nuc colony on Day 11. 6 frames of drawn comb. 2 frames that were more or less bare foundation. All the frames filling with bees. (July 28, 2016.)

Click the image to see a better view of the all the bees on the frames.

I didn’t pull the frames to see exactly what was going on, and I didn’t really need to because seeing the bees working all the frames is a good enough sign to me that the colony is expanding.

Since I installed the nuc, other than removing the bare foundation, I’ve topped up the frame feeder a few times and I’ve I inserted empty drawn comb between frames of brood to encourage the queen to lay there and expand the brood nest faster. I will continue to do that as the colony expands for the next month or so.

The next time I refill the feeder (in four or five days), if I find all the frames are either full of brood or full of syrup and nectar (i.e., the queen doesn’t have much more space to lay), then I’ll add a second deep to the hive. I’ll pull up some brood into the second deep, move the feeder to the second deep, insert plenty of drawn comb for the queen to lay, and I’ll probably steal some frames of brood from one of my stronger colonies to give the nuc colony a boost.

The sunny weather doesn’t hurt.

P.S.: If I was using bare foundation, I might not add a second deep until the middle of August. It can be a different story in warmer parts of Newfoundland. But that’s not the story I’m telling here.

UPDATE: Some unplanned beekeeping happened today. I pulled three frames of brood from a big colony with about 15 frames of capped and open brood and I had little choice but to add them to this nuc hive in a second deep. So this itty bitty nuc hive now has a second deep on top of it with a frame feeder, several frames of drawn comb and three frames of capped and open brood and the nurse bees to go with it — and a big thick heavy frame full of pollen.

A single-deep nuc is suddenly a 2-deep hive. (July 28, 2016.)

A single-deep nuc is suddenly a 2-deep hive. (July 28, 2016.)

Hopefully the nurse bees won’t fight with their new queen and everything will work out fine. I’ve never transferred that much brood to a nuc before.

Nucs: Day 6 – Removing Bare Foundation

I installed three nucs six days ago. Each nuc contained a frame of capped brood, a frame with bare foundation, and two frames with a mix of empty comb, pollen and honey (and maybe some small patches of brood). Each nuc was installed in a standard 10-frame Langstroth deep super with a frame feeder full of thin sugar syrup spiked with anise extract. The frames were placed in the deep in the same order and orientation as they were in the nuc box. I used frames of drawn comb to fill up two of the nuc hives and bare foundation in the other. I recorded a video of me installing the bare foundation nuc because most new Newfoundland beekeepers will probably begin their first nucs with bare foundation, not drawn comb. My intention was to provide an ongoing and honest record of what new beekeepers in Newfoundland are likely to experience during their first year of establishing a colony from a nuc. But what I found in that nuc hive today has compelled me to change my plans.

Nuc colony installed 6 days ago. (July 23, 2016.)

Nuc colony installed 6 days ago, and not much new brood. (July 23, 2016.)

I found some new comb with fresh brood on the original bare foundation frame that came with the nuc, but not much more new brood other than that. In my other two nucs that were full of drawn comb (not bare foundation), I found at least twice as much new brood — a full frame of capped brood and at least another frame of fresh brood. Bees were covering every single frame in the deep (compared to bees covering only four frames in the above photo). That’s a huge difference. The nuc colonies with drawn comb are expanding at least twice as fast. So…

As much I’d like to provide an honest guide for first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland, I’d rather have twice as much brood in my colonies. So…

I removed the top three frames of bare foundation from the nuc hive (as shown in the above photo) and replaced them with drawn comb. (The frame closest to the feeder was already full of new comb and syrup, so I left it alone.) Now the queen will have free reign to start laying immediately. She won’t need to wait for the worker bees to build comb over the bare foundation first.

Drawn comb is worth its weight in gold. I’ve never seen such a dramatic demonstration of that fact. (Sorry I don’t photos of the other nucs full of bees. Technical difficulties.) Okay then…
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Beekeeping Basics: Installing a Nuc

Most new beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland (and many other places on the planet) will start up their first colonies with what is often referred to as a nuc, or a nucleus colony, or a starter hive that contains a laying queen, at least one frame of brood, a frame or two of pollen and honey, and usually a blank or empty frame to give the worker bees something to work on while they’re stuck in a 4-frame nuc box for up to a week. The frames from the nuc are usually placed inside a single hive body (in Newfoundland, it’s usually a deep) with empty frames to fill in the rest of the box. A feeder of some sort is installed. And that’s it. The following 24-minute video demonstrates the entire process.

I’ll post a condensed version of this video at a later date, but for now it’s probably more helpful to show how it plays out in real time (more or less) so that anyone new to all this, or anyone thinking about starting up a few honey bee colonies next year, will have a realistic idea of what to expect when it comes time to install their first nuc. I plan to post follow-up videos to track the progress of this colony right into next spring, again so that anyone hoping to start up their own hives in the future will have a non-idealized take on what to expect.

It was well over 30°C (86°F) by the time I finished installing all of my nucs. The sweat was pouring off my face and stinging my eyes. Expect that too.
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How to Prevent the Bees From Removing Dry Sugar

SHORT VERSION: Dry sugar feeding may be more likely to work when the sugar is given a little spritz.

Bees chowing down on dry sugar. (Jan. 08, 2012.)

Bees chowing down on dry sugar. (Jan. 08, 2012.)


LONGER VERSION: I know many beekeepers who prefer feeding their bees in the winter by pouring dry sugar over the top bars because it’s quick and easy and it works. I know other beekeepers who don’t use dry sugar because the bees, instead of eating the sugar, remove it from the hive like they would with any kind of debris.

But here’s the key to the dry sugar method: THE SUGAR NEEDS TO HARDEN. It probably doesn’t absolutely need to harden. I’ve seen starving bees consume every granule of sugar within a day. Beggars can’t be choosers. But when the bees aren’t starving and the sugar is loose and crumbly, they sometimes remove it from the hive like tossing out the garbage. Anyway…
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Episode I: Making No-Cook Sugar Bricks for Honey Bees

I use dry sugar poured over newspaper and over the top bars in my hives to feed my bees in the winter, not that they always need sugar to stay alive, but as a precaution, the sugar goes in. Sometimes the bees can’t get enough of that delectable white sugar and will eat through it quickly. That’s when I like to add more sugar, again, just as a precaution. Adding newspaper and more sugar on top can get a little tricky, especially if the bees are crowding over the top bars. If I was smart, I would have poured as much sugar as humanly possible into the hive when I first did it so as to avoid opening the hive later in the winter to add more sugar. But I’m not often that smart and so it goes. Pouring more dry sugar in isn’t a gong show, but slipping in hard bricks of sugar has the potential to be much easier. And because I always practice what I preach, here’s a video of my first attempt at making sugar bricks for my honey bees.


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Topping Up a Frame Feeder

I topped up a frame feeder in one of my nucleus colonies today.

Refilling a frame feeder without drowning any bees. (August 10, 2015.)

Refilling a frame feeder without drowning any bees. (August 10, 2015.)


All feeders have their pros and cons. I use a modified frame feeder (a.k.a. a division board feeder) with my nucs because they’re easy to refill without killing any bees, and they give me an excuse to take a peek at the bees.

Refilling hole plugged up after the frame feeder is filled. (August 10, 2015.)

Refilling hole plugged up after the frame feeder is filled. (August 10, 2015.)


The disruption to the bees is minimal because no smoke, not even mist, is required. It’s also easy to do a visual inspection without removing any frames.
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