The tricky bit with feeding honey bees dry sugar in the winter is that they will sometimes discard it from the hive like they would with any other kind of debris.
It can take up to week for dry sugar to harden from naturally occurring moisture inside the hive after it’s been added. If it’s warm enough for the bees to move around during that week, there’s a good chance they’ll start hauling the sugar out of the hive, or at least drop it down to the bottom of the hive. I’ve seen it many times. It’s an extra little mess to clean out of the hives in the spring, but that’s fine with me. I’d rather deal with that than starved out bees.
Something similar to a no-cook candy board would probably prevent this because the sugar is a semi-solid block that isn’t going anywhere. Spraying down the newspaper and the sugar while adding the dry sugar might help harden the sugar faster too. Not that adding moisture to a hive is usually a good thing, but I use moisture quilts that quickly wick away any excess moisture, so it’s not much of a concern for me.
DECEMBER 20, 2015 (UPDATE): I think I jumped the gun in writing this post. I still suspect the bees will clear out the dry sugar like they would with any debris. But the photo I posted may not be evidence of that. Let’s clarify this situation…
The sugar in the above photo wasn’t pulled out of the hive by the bees. I scraped it out. I have seen the bees clean out sugar in the spring, but I don’t think they’re getting much of a workout at the moment. My guess is — at least while they’re warm enough to move around and still have honey stores — the bees discard some of the sugar from the brood nest, but they don’t make a great effort to remove it from the hive. I suspect they just let it drop to the bottom.
I say this because I added dry sugar three weeks ago. I scraped out dead bees from the hives about two weeks later — and I didn’t find any discarded sugar at that time. Later that day I cleared a hole in the middle of the sugar…
…and I spilled some sugar down into the hive in the process. (That’s the part I overlooked.) Either way, the hole gave the bees immediate access to the sugar and they went at it, either eating it, discarding it, or both.
Then yesterday, a week later, I decided to scrape out some dead bees, and that’s when I found the sugar in the mix with the dead bees. So…
It’s possible all the sugar I found on the bottom of some of the hives came from me clearing a hole in the sugar and spilling sugar down into the hive. When I discovered the sugar mixed in with the dead bees yesterday, I jumped to the conclusion that the bees discarded all that sugar. But maybe they didn’t. I’ve seen the bees pull chunks of dry sugar out of the hive in the spring — and I assumed the bees were responsible this time too. Oops. I still suspect the bees tidy up the dry sugar when they first notice it, though I’m not so sure they go mad clearing it out of the hive — at least not in my particular climate where, despite the occasional warm day, it’s pretty damn cold most of the time.
So for anyone who still cares, let’s take a look at some photos from yesterday and ponder…
I really should have added twice as much sugar to this hive when I did. But anyway, the first photo of this post showing the scraped out bees and sugar was from this hive. After I cleared the hole in the sugar last week, I noticed the bees in this hive immediately came up through the hole and began some kind work on the sugar. The newspaper has been chewed away and the sugar has been eaten or discarded. The bees are now clustered back down in the hive.
The bees in this hive are eating the sugar. There’s no sugar on the bottom board. I was also unable to clear a hole in the middle of this sugar last week because the bees were already on the sugar and I didn’t want to bother them.
I cleared out some dead bees from this hive (above), but hardly any sugar. I don’t think they’ve touched it yet.
This colony has a pollen patty because it’s small and I’m concerned it’ll die without an extra boost in brood. The bees came up to check out the sugar when I cleared a hole in it last week, but they haven’t cleared out or eaten any of the sugar yet. Another small colony, which I forgot to photograph, also has a pollen patty over the hole in the sugar and the bees either consumed or remove a fair bit of the sugar and the pollen patty. I’ve cleared out dead bees and some sugar from that hive too.
What can I conclude from all of this? Nothing. However, I can speculate that the bees that need the sugar eat the sugar. The bees that don’t need the sugar discard it by dropping it to the floor of the hive, but they don’t go out of their way to remove it from the hive. I also suspect that on cold days, they don’t concern themselves with dry sugar at all.
I should also mention that this is the first time in three years that I’ve been able to monitor my bees closely. In the past three years when I gave my bees sugar, I dumped the sugar in and came back a few weeks later. I didn’t have time to notice how much sugar, if any, was falling to the bottom of the hives. Much of what I’m learning now is sort of new to me, things I would have normally become familiar with during my first couple of winters of beekeeping, not my sixth.
My beekeeping since 2010 has been a mix of emotions. The first two years were wonderful. Then one of my colonies swarmed and my next door neighbour freaked out and beekeeping instantly became a source of extreme daily stress until I was able to move my hives. After that beekeeping became a chore that sucked up precious weekend and vacation time and too much of my money. Even though I love where I am now, I feel like I’m still recovering from something seriously unpleasant. I’ve learned a lot over the past three years, but I think I can learn a lot more — and enjoy it — now that I’m around my bees every day, in my own space. It’s a different kind of beekeeping experience. I’ve missed it. It’s only now beginning to sink in. It’s like I’m getting to know the bees and beekeeping all over again.
This post, as uneventful as it seems, is part of that rediscovery. I’m seeing new things every day again.