One of a beekeepers main goals is to get his/her hives through winter and into spring. This means that as beekeepers we need to make sure that the bees have enough honey to survive through winter. Sometimes the year just doesn’t go as planned. You may have great nectar flows throughout the summer only to be disappointed with a failed fall flow. The great thing is that we can do something about starving bees. We can feed them. We just have to do it differently than in the summer. Feeding regular sugar syrup from late fall through winter and into early spring will kill your bees. We have to feed our bees differently in winter. Plain granulated sugar or bee fondant/candy should be used instead.
In the winter time feeding sugar syrup can be lethal. A lot of new beekeepers mistakenly feed their bees too late in the fall or in mid winter and the bees are never able to cure the sugar syrup properly. This leads to the sugar syrup fermenting resulting in sick bees and also increases the condensation in the hive. During the day, the water in the syrup evaporates. When things cool down, in the evening, all that moisture in the hive condenses on the cover and drips onto the bees. To prevent this we have to make sure that we only feed bees sugar syrup when the temperatures are warm enough. In order to supplement our light hives in winter we need feed the bees food that is mostly dry. Pure granulated cane sugar or bee fondant/candy work well to accomplish this.
Feeding Bees Granulated Sugar
Feeding bees with granulated sugar is a really easy to do. All you have to do is put a piece of newspaper on top of the frames and put the sugar on top of that. For some reason the bees have a harder time finding the plain sugar. I have had good luck adding a small drop of lemongrass oil in a 4 pound bag of sugar and mixing it in really well. This seems to help them find the sugar better. Spearmint or peppermint could also be used. Just make sure the oil is food grade.
The major problem that I have with feeding granulated sugar to bees is that a piece of newspaper is needed to put the sugar on. Sometimes the bees will chew through the paper and the sugar will fall right on the cluster. Other things can be used to put the sugar on but when you are dealing with a lot of hives, newspaper gets the job done quickly and cheaply. The problem is the sugar just ends up on the bottom board where it gets pooped on and not eaten. Once on the bottom board the sugar will also attract all kinds of unwanted guests. Mice love the sugar and will build themselves cozy, stinky, disease infested, nests in your best beehives.
Feeding Bees Fondant or Bee Candy
Bee candy or fondant is an excellent way to feed bees in the winter. The great thing about fondant is that it doesn’t fall through the frames like granulated sugar does. All you have to do is place the fondant patties on the frames and close the hive up. No newspaper is required. The only additional equipment you will need is a cover that allows clearance to the patties. Those of us running migratory covers and no inner covers have to have candy boards or find some way to lift the cover a little to make room for the fondant.
The bees really like the fondant. The finer sugar crystals in the fondant are easier for the bees to digest. The fondant also has a bit of moisture in it that keeps it soft and easy for the bees to eat. The only real problem with feeding fondant is that it is hard to make. It isn’t too difficult but does require following a few directions pretty closely. Here is the recipe that I use.
Bee Candy Recipe
3 cups water
10 cups sugar (4 lb bag)
1 cup Karo syrup
1 teaspoon Lemon Juice
Boil the water. While the water is boiling add the sugar, Karo syrup, and lemon juice. Cook until candy thermometer reads 240 degrees or soft ball stage. Allow the mixture to cool to about 200 degrees. Using an electric beater, beat the mixture until it becomes light and fluffy. Place in pan and allow to cool until you are able to work it with your hands. Knead it for 2-5 minutes then place in plastic bag or airtight container.
All of the ingredients do not need to be followed exactly. This is just the recipe I use to keep things consistent. The only thing that you need to do is make sure that your mixture reaches 240 degrees. At this temperature the correct moisture content is achieved and the fondant becomes nice and pliable. Take the mixture any hotter and you have a rock that you won’t be able to shape with your hands. Any cooler and the fondant won’t hold its shape. Make sure that you use enough Karo syrup. If you don’t the mixture will end up with large crystals and will crumble when worked. The acid in the lemon juice, I am told, converts some of the granulated sugar from sucrose to glucose or fructose, it doesn’t really matter. I do it because I have been told to. And in my biased opinion think that it does have an effect on the consistency of the fondant.
Feeding bees is sometimes necessary. It is best to let the bees over-winter on their natural and preferred food but sometimes we need to step in and help them out. The best advice that any new beekeeper can get is to not feed sugar syrup when it is too cold outside. Feeding sugar syrup or fondant can save your butt. Even though the bees don’t digest sugar the same way that they digest honey and it isn’t necessarily good for them, it is still better to feed them than to let them die.