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.
The bigger issue for me was adding more sugar later in the winter. Usually the bees would eat from the middle of the sugar, coming up over the top bars, sometimes clinging to the ceiling of the hive or the screen of my moisture quilt. How do I get the bees out of the way so I can put the sugar in? Placing a new sheet of newspaper over the bees, letting all the heat out, pouring in the sugar, sometimes with the wind blowing the newspaper everywhere, bees flying in my face and bouncing off my veil — that got to be a horror show real fast. Not often, but enough for me to realize there’s room for improvement here.
I used to love the Mountain Camp method because it was relatively easy and it meant I didn’t have to put myself through the messy, laborious, time-consuming chore of boiling up a batch of hard candy syrup in my kitchen ever again. The absorbent dry sugar also helped reduced excessive moisture inside the hive. With the right timing and the right conditions, the Mountain Camp method, in my experience, is an effective method of feeding the bees in the winter. I’m in touch with many beekeepers who love it. But for me, sugar cakes are better because, even with a little more work required upfront (though not much), they’re much easier to add to the hive under any conditions, and because they’re solid bricks of sugar, even on warm days the bees are unlikely to make much effort to clean them up. A few grains of sugar are easy to lift and carry away. A few thousands grains of sugar all bound together, not so much.
I may switch to something else by this time next year. Who knows, I may never feed sugar or syrup to my bees ever again (that’s my goal). But for now, this is what works for me. I still haven’t put any sugar in my hives because it seems like every other day the sun is shining and the bees are flying everywhere, carting out dead bees, etc. I don’t want to get my face into any of that. I’ll wait until I know the bees are cold and clustering and so far below the top bars that any opening of their hives won’t bother them. Then I’ll drop a big brick or two of sugar right over the top bars and leave them alone, I hope, until next spring.
A word to anyone who thinks these sugar cakes (or anything another beekeeper does) seems like a great idea:
The timing of every beekeeping tweak to a hive depends on the local environment, not any kind of hard set date. As always, all beekeeping is local beekeeping. Not everything works for everyone because not everyone keeps their bees in exactly the same climate, or has exactly the same kind of hive set up, or has the same number bees inside their hive, or the same kind of bees. I watch what other beekeepers do so I can be guided by their experiences, but before I jump on their bandwagon and do exactly what they do because what they do is so cool and seems to work so well for them, I curb my enthusiasm by considering how I can apply their methods to my specific climate and my skills as a beekeeper. In other words, I consider everything that could possibly go wrong. Because no matter how specifically I adapt someone else’s methods to my little beeyard and to my personal preferences, I always find something that doesn’t work quite the way I anticipated. Welcome to beekeeping.
NOVEMBER 13, 2016: I suppose I should add that I’d probably choose fondant over sugar bricks, dry sugar or hard candy if I had affordable access to it. But I don’t. Only very recently has fondant became available on the island of Newfoundland at $12.25 for a 2.5kg bag called Apifonda. If it takes one bag for each of my hives, with nine hives, that’s too much money for my pocketbook. I can make my own sugar bricks with little time and effort for about a tenth of the cost. Most beekeeping related items in Newfoundland usually cost at least twice as much as they do elsewhere in North America, after taxes and shipping. The cost makes beekeeping inaccessible to many people. That’s why I will always promote the simplest and cheapest approaches to beekeeping before anything else. It’s also why I get annoyed by people who advise new beekeepers to spend money on things they don’t need. But that’s another topic for another day.