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…
The respiration from the bees, along with the humidity of my naturally damp local climate, usually provides enough moisture for the sugar to harden within days of it being poured over the top bars. But because not everyone keeps their bees at my place (i.e., in a humid climate), it’s sometimes necessary to MIST THE SUGAR DOWN WITH WATER to make sure it hardens. Michael Bush talks about this in a video presentation from 2015. The sugar, once it has hardened, isn’t easily removed by the bees, so they just leave it there and eventually eat it when they need it, just like they would with fondant or any other kind of immovable feast. Adding some anise or another aromatic extract to attract the bees so they know the sugar is there probably isn’t a bad idea either.
So not everything works for everyone. This illustrates what is for me the most important lesson in beekeeping: All beekeeping is local beekeeping. The dry sugar method of winter feeding doesn’t work for everyone because not everyone keeps their bees in exactly the same climate (i.e., a damp climate). Moreover, not everyone has exactly the same kind of hive set up (some hives hold moisture better than others) and not everyone has the same number bees inside their hive (more bees usually produce more moisture), and so on.
I don’t usually mist down the sugar when I add dry sugar because I live in Newfoundland, one of the wettest and windiest places in Canada. Rain moving parallel to the ground, which is not unheard of around here, typically has no problem getting into my hives. A lack of moisture is usually not a problem where I live.
But even in Newfoundland I’ve noticed a difference in the dryness of my hives in the winter since I moved my hives last year. I used to keep my bees in a place called Logy Bay, a low-lying foggy area where my bees would have been drenched if it wasn’t for moisture quilts. Sugar I added to those hives used to harden on its own within a day. On the other hand, the new location of my hives is at a fairly high elevation where fog and the dampness found in low-lying areas isn’t a factor. The insides of my hives are so dry now, some of the sugar I added this winter didn’t harden and was cleared out by the bees.
I still plan to follow the dry sugar method next winter, but I might spray some water on the sugar to make sure it hardens (any added moisture is easily wicked away by my moisture quilts). Or I might just switch to using sugar bricks all the time.
P.S.: This post revisits some speculations I made in my last post on sugar bricks. Further reading and the video from Michael Bush confirmed what I was speculating about, namely that dry sugar, or any kind of sugar added to the hive in the winter, needs to be in some sort of solid or hardened form to work. Usually.
November 6th, 2016: I’ve switched over to sugar bricks (for now).