The following was updated on December 1st, 2016, and will likely be updated again within a week.
I usually add just-in-case sugar above the top bars in my hives around early November. By that time — in my local climate — it’s usually so cold that the bees move to the bottom of the hive beneath their honey stores (and then gradually eat their way towards the top of the hive throughout the winter), which makes it easy for me to put the sugar in without bothering them. But that didn’t happen so much this year because November has been unusually warm. Only in the past few days have I noticed the bees, at least in some of the hives, clustering below the top bars. So I decided to add some sugar bricks today…
This post was updated on November 13th, 2016.
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.
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.
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.
Well, turns out they were eating it.
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.
NOTE: It’s sugar hardened by water. That’s it. It’s not heated sugar syrup made into candy. No heat or major mixing required. It’s just basically sugar. I’m really kind of in love with the simplicity of it and how well it works.
SHORT VERSION: Dry sugar feeding may be more likely to work when the sugar is given a little spritz.
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…
To finalize The Sugar Bricks Quadrilogy, I present Episode IV: A New Hope:
Episode I: I mixed 12 parts sugar with 1 part water and let it harden in a deep dish tin pan.
Episode II: I came back about a day later and dumped out the dried sugar bricks.
Episode III: I slipped the sugar bricks into a few of my hives.
Episode IV: I demonstrate how the same process can be used to make easier-to-slip-in sugar cakes using small paper plates as a mold. Then I add some sugar cakes to a couple of hives. Conclusion: It works.
If I discovered starving bees crowded over the top bars in any of my hives, I would definitely choose this method instead of pouring dry sugar over the top bars. I’ll still dump dry sugar over the top bars in the early winter while the bees are down in the hives and out of my way, but these no-cook sugar bricks and sugar cakes seem ideal for adding sugar once the bees have risen up and are getting in my face.
Some after thoughts…
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.
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.
MARCH 02, 2016: I use this same method to make sugar cakes in the Episode IV.
It looks like I’ve got a trilogy in the making because it’s too cold to slip these sugar bricks in my beehives today. In Episode I, 12 cups of refined granulated sugar were mixed with 1 cup of water and troweled into a tin pan with my bare hands. The last we saw of our big wet bricks of sugar, they were sitting in an oven with only the light on. Ten hours later we return and open the oven to find…
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.