Problems with the “Mountain Camp” Method of Dry Sugar Feeding

Despite following the Mountain Camp method of dry sugar feeding in the winter more or less since I started beekeeping, I don’t do it anymore. I’ve switched to easy-to-make and easy-to-add sugar cakes.

Bottom side of a sugar cake eaten away by the bees. (April 17, 2016.)

Bottom side of a sugar cake eaten away by the bees. (April 17, 2016.)

I don’t use dry sugar anymore because the bees tend to remove it from the hive if they’re not hungry enough to eat it. Spraying the sugar down with water so it hardens helps to prevent this, but if the weather is still warm enough so that the bees are flying around, they’ll do what active bees like to do: clean house. Whatever grains of sugar are not hardened together will often get tossed out of the hive. I used to add dry sugar sometime in November after the temperatures took a serious dip — when the bees were clustered below the top bars, not actively flying around in house-cleaning mode. Overall, the discarded sugar wasn’t a huge problem. If the bees were hungry, they ate the sugar regardless of the weather. But still, sometimes it seemed like a waste of sugar.
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How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter

The following was originally posted on December 7th, 2015, but was edited and updated on October 27th, 2016, to reflect my current practices, such as they are, and could be updated without noticed at any time in the future.

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter.

One of my bee hives after a  snow storm in 2013.

One of my bee hives after a snow storm in 2013. The bees survived.

I’m no expert, but here’s what I do, and what I do could change entirely by this time next week.

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (November 4th, 2015.)

So the big question is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
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Honey Bees Eat Sugar Cakes

I removed all the emergency winter sugar from my hives today. Some of the sugar was in the form of sugar bricks or sugar cakes and I wasn’t sure if the bees were eating it or clearing it out like they sometimes do with dry sugar.

Top of a sugar cake. (April 17, 2016.)

Top of a sugar cake. (April 17, 2016.)

Well, turns out they were eating it.

Bottom side of a sugar cake eaten away by the bees. (April 17, 2016.)

Bottom side of a sugar cake eaten away by the bees. (April 17, 2016.)

The undersides of all the bricks and cakes were eaten away by the bees, and I didn’t find any sugar on the bottom board of the hives. In other words, the bees ate it; they didn’t discard it.

As much as dry sugar feeding has served me well, I might switch completely to sugar bricks next winter. The bees seem to either leave the sugar bricks alone or eat them, and I find it easier to clean up in the spring than the newspaper left behind with the dry sugar method. Just my thinking at the moment.

A Hive Pumping Out Heat

I noticed something unusual yesterday. I happened to touch the top cover of one of my hives and it seemed warm. Warm on a typical frigid April day in Newfoundland. So I pulled the top off and put my hand on the wood chips in the moisture quilt…

A hive giving off some heat. (April 15, 2016.)

A hive giving off some heat. (April 15, 2016.)

…and that sucker was giving off some serious heat. I’ve felt heat over the moisture quilt in the winter in strong colonies that were clustering near the top, but never this late in the winter. (On a practical level, my winter beekeeping doesn’t end until it’s warm enough to give the bees sugar syrup, if necessary.)

Q1501 giving off heat next to the shed. (April 15, 2016.)

One seriously hot hive next to my bee supply shed. (April 15, 2016.)

It might not mean anything, but it could mean the queen has been laying and a big batch of brood recently emerged. That’s just a guess.

I took a peek under the moisture quilt and it was packed with bees all over the dry sugar and devouring a pollen patty I threw in about a week ago. I’m not sure what to think, but to feel that much heat coming out of a hive at this time of year — it’s a new one for me.

UPDATE (the next day): After inspecting the hive, I did find a frame a brood, though overall I’d say it’s a fairly small cluster for this time of the year. Whatever is going on, nothing bad seemed to have come from the heat. Strange.

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 III: Slipping Sugar Bricks Into The Hives

For me, the key to feeding bees emergency sugar in winter is to put the sugar in long before the bees need it (I do it in late November). It can be a gong show once the bees are hungry and clustering above the top bars, in which case these sugar bricks are pretty convenient.

I mixed the sugar bricks in Episode I and popped them out of the pan in Episode II. Now it’s time to slip them into the hives. There’s not much to see, but here it is:

If I do this again, I’ll make the bricks larger. Dry sugar on newspaper over the top bars is still my favourite method of feeding the bees in winter because a large amount of sugar dumped in all at once will keep the bees alive until spring and I won’t have to mess with them again. But I definitely appreciate the convenience of being able to slip the no-cook sugar bricks into the hives as a stopgap measure.

UPDATE (24 hours later): Well, the bees in at least one of the hives are eating the sugar brick.

Honey bees eating a sugar brick. (Feb. 14, 2016.)

Honey bees eating a sugar brick. (Feb. 14, 2016.)

March 2nd, 2016: I use this same method to make sugar cakes in the Episode IV.

July 2019 Postscript: I said, “Dry sugar on newspaper over the top bars is still my favourite method of feeding the bees in winter,” but it’s not. I use sugar bricks exclusively these days because, for me, it’s much easier to slip in a brick than it is to open the hive and pour sugar in.

Episode I: Making No-Cook Sugar Bricks for Honey Bees

July 2019 Introduction: I use these sugar bricks to feed my bees in the winter now. The dry sugar (or Mountain Camp) method is too messy for me. Slipping a brick in under the top cover is much quicker and easier.

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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Dry Sugar With a Hole In It

July 2019 Introduction: I don’t add dry sugar to my hives like this anymore. I use sugar bricks instead. However, I’d probably follow this method if I couldn’t use sugar bricks.

I’ve been feeding my bees in the winter for a while now by pouring dry sugar on newspaper over the top bars. Some people refer to this style of feeding as the Mountain Camp Method. I like it because it’s the quickest and easiest method for feeding bees in my particular winter climate.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

Bees eating dry sugar via the Mountain Camp Method.

Although I’ve never had any problems with it, there is some room for improvement. Some people only put newspaper over the back two-thirds of the top bars so that the front is left open for better airflow. That’s an excellent tweak to the method and it works. There’s no urgent need to change it. However, in my experience, the cluster usually breaks through the top bars in the middle and spreads out from there. Most of the moisture — or humid air from the bees’ respiration — flows up from the middle as well. My little tweak is to create a hole in the middle of the sugar for better ventilation and to give the bees easier access to the sugar.

Dry sugar over newspaper with a hole in the middle. (Dec. 12, 2015.)

Dry sugar over newspaper with a hole in the middle. These bees have about 40kg of honey stores. The sugar is a precaution. (Dec. 12, 2015.)


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A Real Life Demonstration of Feeding Honey Bees Dry Sugar

July 2019 Introduction: I don’t add dry sugar to my hives like this anymore. I use sugar bricks instead. However, I’d probably follow this method if I couldn’t use sugar bricks.

I usually pour dry sugar over newspaper into my Langstroth honey bee hives so the bees have something to eat just in case they run out of honey during the winter. Some people refer to it as the Mountain Camp Method, but I’m00 pretty sure beekeepers have been pouring dry sugar into their hives long before Mr Camp came along and popularized it. I’ll call it Dry Sugar Feeding for now on. In any case, it may not be the best method for feeding bees over the winter, but it works well for me and that’s what matters most. I like it because it’s the easiest method I’ve ever tried and it may be better for the bees than hard candy or candy boards. Do a little research on Hydroxymethylfurfural and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

When I first fed my bees dry sugar, I waited until January or February when the bees, if they were low on honey, would cover most of the top bars in the hive. But waiting that long is a pain in the butt for all kinds of reasons, so now I put the sugar in long before the bees really need it — just like I did today. Here’s an 11-minute video recorded a few hours ago that demonstrates the dry sugar method in all its glory. I also explain near the end how moisture quilts work.

P.S.: I’m not a big fan of feeding the bees pollen patties early in the winter because most of the time they don’t need it and it’s not always good to give the bees solids when they can’t get outside for cleansing flights. I try to reserve pollen patties for small colonies that could use a little boost in brood production. The colony in the video that I refer to as being about the size of a human head will get a pollen patty in a week or two. A small cluster like that, which is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger, won’t be able to stay warm much longer. The colony could be in trouble if I can’t get the queen laying soon.

Another postscript (written in part as a response to the first comment): If I had to do this again, I would place something round in the middle of the newspaper, a small bowl or a jar perhaps. Then after I poured the sugar on, I’d remove the bowl or jar so that a round sugar-free area of newspaper was left behind. Then I’d cut a hole in the exposed newspaper so that when the cluster came up, the bees would go through the hole without having to chew through the newspaper to get at the sugar. The hole would also allow moisture from the cluster to rise directly up to the moisture quilt. (If I have a chance, I’ll record a follow-up video.)

January 12th, 2016: I eventually cleared a hole in the dry sugar.

Pre-Winter Dry Sugar Feeding

May 2019 Introduction: I’ve deleted the post that used to be here except for the video because it went into unnecessary detail about a winter feeding method I no longer follow, the “Mountain Camp” method, or what’s also known as dry sugar feeding. Dry white granulated sugar is poured over newspaper that covers about two-thirds of the top bars, leaving one third free so one can still look down through the bars to see what the bees are doing. It’s a fine method for emergency winter feeding, but I stopped doing it because it was a hassle whenever I had to add more sugar later in the winter — pulling aside the old sugar, putting in more newspaper, etc. I never liked that part of it. Using sugar bricks is ten times easier, so that’s what I do now, if I feed them in the winter at all.

I also usually wait until the new year to add sugar. I used to add sugar in November just to get it over with, but the temperatures are often so warm in November now that the bees end up discarding the sugar, tossing it out the front door. I often wait until sometime in the new year instead.