These days I use sugar bricks to feed my bees in the winter and here’s a quick 2-minute video that demonstrates 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.
I boiled up some hard candy (similar to candy cakes, candy boards, etc.) to provide emergency food for my bees during my first winter of beekeeping, and I hated every minute of it. I’ll never cook up syrup for any reason ever again. I then switched to pouring dry sugar over the top bars (sometimes referred to as the Mountain Camp Method) because it didn’t require mixing of any kind. Just dump dry sugar over newspaper on the top bars and you’re done. While I still think dry sugar works great if it’s done right, I’d probably choose fondant if it was easy to make or cheap to purchase where I live. But it isn’t. So I make sugar cakes — or big bricks of sugar — instead.
I’ve settled on sugar cakes as my winter feeding method for a few reasons…
#1: It’s the cheapest and easiest method available to me.
#2: It’s much easier to slide a sugar cake or brick into the hive when the bees are clustered above the top bars than it is to open the hive and pour sugar in.
#3: The bees are less likely to toss out the sugar when it’s all stuck together in one big piece, though that doesn’t seem to be an issue when it’s cold and the bees are clustering most of the time, or when they have nothing else to eat but sugar.
#4: It works.
Some people mix in essential oils and pollen supplement with their winter feed. Some people don’t add sugar or any kind of winter feed until they notice their bees have run out of honey. I usually add sugar sometime in November once the weather is cold enough to drive the bees down below the top bars, and I don’t add pollen supplement or essential oils to my sugar (not yet), but it’s all a matter of personal choice. My feeling is, as long as the bees don’t starve to death, then good enough.
December 2018 Postscript: I’ve continued to feed my bees in the winter time following this procedure, and so far so good. But here are a few variations, because is anything in beekeeping written in stone?
1) There’s a formula for mixing the sugar and water that involves calculating air pressure according to sea level. I don’t do that. I go with the 12 parts sugar and 1 part water recipe and tweak it if it seems too wet or too dry. But when I mix the water with the sugar, I err on the side of adding slightly less water than slightly more because really all I’m trying to do here is glue the granules of sugar together, not dissolve them, and it doesn’t take much water to do that. When I dump the bricks out of the aluminium pans and the bottom side is still damp and crumbly, then I know I added too much water and I have to leave it out to dry for another day or two.
2) I use my hands and fingers to mix the sugar and water. It’s easier and works better than any kind of stir stick.
3) I try to add a dash of something to attract the bees to the sugar, such as anise extract or lemongrass oil or honey, because sometimes when they’re way down below the top bars, they won’t even realise there’s food waiting for them upstairs, and it’s possible they could starve within inches from the sugar because they didn’t clue into it as a food source.
4) I don’t always put the sugar in when it gets cold in November, because, with global warming or whatever’s going on, the temperatures on the east coast of Newfoundland where I live don’t become consistently cold until December or even January. And when it’s warm, the bees tend to toss out the sugar like it’s garbage. So unless I think they’re low on honey, I wait until it’s cold for a least a week before I dump in the sugar. Sometimes that’s not until the new year.
5) I don’t score the bricks or divide them into smaller bricks anymore because I prefer to slide them in as one big block of sugar. Just a personal preference.
6) This one is counter-intuitive, meaning it doesn’t make sense at first glance, but here it is: I usually wait until a COLD DAY, not a warm day, to open the hives to slip in sugar. I don’t do it on an absolutely instant-nostril-freezing cold day, but around -5°C or close to zero (whatever that is in the antediluvian Fahrenheit scale), just cold enough so that the bees are more concerned with clustering than they are with flying in my face. I do this because of what I just said — when it’s warm, the bees are more active, more likely to be defensive, more likely to create a horror show for me, and I’ve had enough horror shows, so no thanks. A quick hit of cold air won’t kill the bees. It might put them into a temporary state of torpor, but they’ll come back to life as soon as it warms up inside the hive again (as long as I don’t open the hive late in the day as temperatures are naturally dropping). Chilling the brood isn’t really an issue because there’s usually not much brood in the hive, if any, during most of the winter months. This might be more of a personal preference than a wise preference, but I do it all the time and my bees are okay, keeping in mind that the bees are exposed to cold air for probably less than 30 seconds.
January 2020 Postscript: I normally take my time when I make sugar bricks, often making them weeks or even months before I need them. If they don’t harden on the bottom after a night in my oven with the light on (a common occurrence), I flip them upside-down and let them dry out or harden on top of the fridge I have in my basement laundry room. I don’t know how long it takes the sugar to dry out like that, but I don’t care because I’m not usually in a rush. But the other day I had to get some sugar bricks on one of my hives in a hurry and I didn’t have time to wait for the sugar to dry, so after a night of drying in the oven and not fully drying, I decided to turn on the heat a bit to speed up the process. I’ve only done this once, but here’s my conclusion: Turning the heat on in the oven to speed up the drying processes DOESN’T WORK. Within minutes of turning up the heat (to about 120°C / 250°F), the sugar bricks began to crumble apart. I’ll let someone who understands physics better than I do answer that one. So… you can’t hurry the process. The sugar bricks need to be allowed to dry out in their own sweet time.
What do I do with sugar bricks that fall apart? Do I just throw them out? Nope. I can put the mess of sugar aside until spring or whenever and make sugar syrup from it. But I can still dump it all in the hive. I just need to lay down a layer or newspaper over the top bars first. The old dry sugar feeding method but with pieces of sugar bricks instead of solid bricks. It ain’t great but it’s good enough in a pinch.