Feeding Bees in Winter: How (& why) to Make Sugar Blocks

Posted on Jan 18, 2016 | Comments Off on Feeding Bees in Winter: How (& why) to Make Sugar Blocks

Late winter is a challenging time for hive survival. The colony’s stores may be running low even in a good year. With the unusually warm December, they are much more likely to be running low on honey as the warm temps kept the bees unseasonably active.

Beekeepers: Please do a tilt-test and check the weight of your hives SOON even if you left plentiful honey in the fall. This post is about my favorite method of emergency/back-up feeding when —despite your excellent fall care and careful winter prep— the bees don’t have enough honey to survive the winter.

Regular readers: Part 2  of the Great Farm Search of 2013 will continue shortly….wanted to get this out to beekeeper readers. Disclaimer: this may be too nuts-and-bolts to hold the interest non-beekeepers.

It would be a shame to lose bees that have made it this far to starvation that is completely preventable. This is the kind of winter that can easily happen. I lost a small hive back in Arkansas my 2nd winter of beekeeping. They “should” have had plenty since I took no honey.  But I didn’t actually check and didn’t provide any just-in-case rations.

They died hungry and trying to stay warm together during a winter night. Finding them this way a sad sight that will haunt you if you care about bees. Especially because you know they shared every last drop of honey between every bee to the bitter end. That’s how they roll: together for better or worse. Major beekeeper fail. While there are dozens of reasons you may lose a hive over the winter, starvation is not ever going to be one for me ever again, bee gods as my witness.

hives in fall

There are some who will not feed bees sugar under any circumstances, even if the bees starve. They say things like ‘it’s not natural to prop them up,’ or ‘sugar is bad for them.’

Listen, if you are starving to death (in real life rather than a philosophy class) and someone hands you a krispy kreme donut, don’t be a dead fool on the altar of righteous-notion.  Eat it so you can make it alive to the raw food bar. Intentionally letting bees starve because of some story about what’s ‘natural’ is cruelty and animal neglect. If we wanted the bees to be able to survive all naturally…well we shouldn’t have eaten the whole damb planet ourselves.

But really, if you plan to have bees in a box and call them yours, yet do not plan to help them at all in this crazy world, please, do us all a favor: Buy yourself an air fern and call it a day. OK, whoa Nelly….

The most important thing, obviously, is leaving plenty enough honey on the hive to get them through the winter. Here in the WNC region around 60 pounds is a rough minimum. Up north it can be much more, even double that.

Some other groups of bee enthusiasts promote the virtue of not taking any honey at from the bees at a compassionate/superior path. There are some years, even if you take no honey at all, other factors  — like drought, rain, bad weather in general, emergency queen replacement, to name a few — can keep them from storing enough to survive. (I’ll stop there for now but from what I’ve seen, beekeeping while never taking any honey, ironically, does not lead to better hive survival. More on that in a future post.)

Even when you are willing to feed and aware when your bees need it, feeding bees in the winter is a trick. Sugar syrup, the usual emergency fallback, is rarely practical in winter since the bees can’t use it if temps are chilly.

There’s a method inexplicably called ‘mountain camp feeding’ where you just pour dry sugar on the inner cover or even on a paper plate set on the top bars. Usually the humidity of the hive will make it crust over into a makeshift bee lollipop that works for emergency feeding, sometimes. Other times they dutifully carry out every grain since they don’t recognize the grains as food and won’t tolerate random ‘stuff’ in the hive. (Loose-end/ocd wise, I was relieved to track down that it’s called ‘mountain camp’ because that was the user-name on discussion boards of the fellow who popularized the method back in the day…)

Fondant or candy boards are a winter option for some. The downside is they involve very exact mixing ratios, candy thermometers….and heating the sugar to boiling. That last part can create a safety hazard to a beekeeper in the kitchen. I mean both burns and cleanup/spousal issues. There’s also an issue with the heating of the sugar creating compounds that are considered toxic to the bees in high quantity. While some losses may be better than colony death by starvation, it’s still a concern.

Best case scenario may be that you reserved frames of capped honey back in the summer heyday to give to hives who are running short now. Jon Christie of Wild Mountain Bees calls this ‘robinhooding.’ You are dependent on a day warm enough to open the hive and replace empty frames with the full ones.

I wish I’d thought to save capped frames of honey this year for some robinhooding. I’d never done this before since I’d rarely ever needed to. Also I’d need to store them in the deep freeze to assure safety from hive beetles. Freezer space has recently become more possible now that my beloved spouse has somewhat given up on keeping bee and garden related stuff out of the freezer. Life with a farmer can be hell on housekeeping standards…

The handiest emergency or back-up winter feeding method I have tried is Lauri Miller’s famous no-cook sugar blocks. The sugar blocks are easy to slip under the lid even in bad weather. She puts them directly on the top bars using a shim build of 1x2s or similar. A ‘baggie feeder shim’ can be purchased from most bee supply houses. I’m in the process of altering some of my inner covers to accomodate the sugar blocks. The block is placed directly over the cluster (important detail) as the humidity is required to soften the block for bee consumption — while also helping absorb hive moisture which can be its own problem. With a block overhead they have a bit of ceiling insulation they can also nibble all through the long winter nights as needed.

Lauri is a queen breeder in WA-state who is fabulous to follow on Facebook and Beesource.  She shares her classic sugar block recipe here, but she makes it in large quantity (25lb at a time) which folks have dutifully attempted to translate into smaller portions with mixed results in getting it to harden correctly.  Lauri’s post on this winter prep thread is excellent reading with good pics too.  The photo below is from the thread and show her handy screened shims and the sugar block in use. Look for the white block under all the bees!

Photo by Lauri from Beesource Post

Photo by Lauri from Beesource Post

I share my version of the sugar block recipe below. As dozens have testified online, and I can join in the chorus, my bees love the blocks! A few say their bees won’t touch it unless they run out of honey. Mine love it! I’ve noticed they use it most when it’s really cold and they can’t move around the hive to fetch honey stored on the outer edges of the hive. (Which is another way a hive can die in winter, starve inches away from pounds of honey because the weather is too cold for the cluster to move to get it.)

(p.s. they’ll likely eat a hole right up through the middle of the block. I push the remaining chunks all together in the middle again. When they have it down to small pieces, I add another block if needed.)

It helps my nerves a lot.  The bees have back up food even if they are stuck right in the middle of the upper box during a several day arctic spell like we are having right this very week….they are huddling right under an inner roof they can eat if they need too. They have food if they run out of honey. They have food if the spring is late or the spring weather is rainy. And so on. I sleep better.

Making sugar blocks is easy (and kinda fun) and they are a layer of insurance your bees will still be around when the blooms finally return. Here’s to that day!

———- How to make Honey Bee Sugar Blocks — Leigh’s version ———

Ingredients  (see notes for details)
5lb sugar (Handy: Full size “Solo” cup is about 1 lb sugar)
1 1/2 tsp citric acid
1/8 tsp electrolytes
1/4 tsp probiotics
1/4 c Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 C water
splash of HoneyBHealthy

Or, If you happen to buy sugar in 4 pound bags:

4lb bag sugar
1tsp citric acid
Scant 1/8tsp electrolytes
Scant 1/4 tsp probiotics
1/8 c Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 c water
Splash HoneyBHealthy

Notes on ingredients: I use regular cane sugar. Do not use confectioners sugar (which contains corn starch) or organic/brownish/brown sugar all of which cause bee digestive issues. I’ve read that many avoid sugar not specified as ‘cane’ since it’s likely from gmo beets. Citric acid is in the canning supplies section of the grocery. Use real apple cider vinegar not apple ‘flavored’ vinegar (check the ingredients). The electrolytes and probiotics I use are from Tractor Supply sold in little packs to supplement baby chicks. Lauri uses a similar livestock blend. Go easy on both these and don’t overdo. HoneyBHealthy is a feeding stimulant with natural herbal oils. Smells splendid and provides some herbal nutrition too.

How to make:
Put the sugar in a really big mixing bowl or a clean bucket and add the ingredients. I put on rubber gloves and massage it all with my hands, Lauri uses a paddle mixer on her 25lb version…You thoroughly mix the ingredients. This takes some time. You are basically getting ALL the sugar damp, till it’s more like snow than sugar grains. For a long while they’ll be wet clumps and dry sugar, keep going, massage the moist portions throughout.

When it’s all, every last grain damp, press the mix into some sort of container as a mold. I aim for thickness between 1-2″ — it’s got to fit between your shim and the lid. Too thin and they’ll break up too easily to last long. Lauri uses food dehydrator trays. I’ve used deep cookie sheets and casserole dishes lined with parchment or wax paper. Any paper would likely work to keep it from sticking to the pan too much as it dries — this is only an issue if your container is deeper than a cookie sheet. Press it down in the mold as tight as you can, firm up the edges. A rolling pin, or your hands, will work. IMPORTANT: you must score the blocks to the size you want while they are wet! I use a metal spatula and just cut lines all the way to the bottom so the blocks will come apart clean.

Blocks drying in baking dishes. (You were out of town and not using them sweetheart...)

Blocks drying in baking dishes. (You were out of town and not using them sweetheart…)

 

Lately I’ve been using a particularly thick shoe box lid to press them into, then carefully turn them out onto newspaper and maybe firm up the edges a bit. I like the size it makes two nice thick blocks. (I score it carefully once I’ve turned it out.) The message is: improvisation on the mold is a-ok.

Now dry them. I have used a good food dehydrator set to about 95 degrees and they are pretty dry overnight. When they are hard enough to gently flip the mold and turn them out, you can let that side dry till hard. In a room that’s pretty warm and dry — say any room with a wood stove or even a dehumidifier – you can just set them out in room air to finish drying. When both sides are dry, the block is easy to handle. While the edges my shed some crumbles, it’s solid otherwise. While it would likely shatter if you threw it on the ground, it would be hard to break with your hands. (Which is why scoring while wet is vital.)

Removed from dishes, bottom of block drying. (I used that box later for a package Mrs Postmaster!)

Removed from dishes, bottom of block drying. (I used that box later for a package Mrs Postmaster!)

OK have at it! Your bees will thank you for helping make sure they get another season in the sun.

bees

 

 

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