As any beekeeper will tell you, winter is a scary time for our buzzers. After inspecting your hives every few weeks for the last nine months, you basically enter into this cold, dark season of not really knowing what’s going on with the colony.
You hope you’ve left enough honey stores to last through the winter…
You hope the bees keep things warm and dry enough…
You hope the threats of mites, beetles, moths, mice and every other possible invader of hive space has been addressed….
You hope. You hope. You hope.
Some beekeepers who practice completely organic and only nature-inspired methods prefer not to offer too much artificial support to get through the winter. But as my husband and I both come from families with proud traditions of offering treats when you’re stressed – we offer a more hands ON approach.
Hope be damned! We’re making bee candy!!
(The truth is, we view our bees as basically pets, and feel that feeding them to get through the winter makes sense to protect our critters and give them a leg up when spring rolls in. Besides, investing in becoming a beekeeper can get pricey and we want to take measures to protect our investment.)
The premise is rather simple. Bees typically form a cluster in the winter to keep warm. In case you didn’t know, a cluster is literally a tight little ball of thousands of bee friends just hanging out, shooting the breeze, exchanging heat, and basically trying not to – well – DIE. A tight cluster of bees actually generates an amazing amount of heat, and with the queen at the center of the cluster, the objective is to protect her (and therefore the future of the colony) from the harshness of winter.
The bees hardly ever venture from the hive once winter time temperatures kick in. If temperatures allow they may break away from the cluster and take a quick trip “upstairs” for some honey – upstairs being the honey stores left in the hive. Occasionally and as temperatures allow, cabin (hive) fever sets in & bees may break free from the warm comforts of the cluster and venture outside. Maybe for a quick potty break (for reelz… they ‘go’ outside) or maybe in search of food. I’ve seen ours flying around in temperatures in the upper 40’s, and just last week there was A LOT of activity when the temperatures reached the mid 60’s.
(Here’s a pic of our ladies from just a few days ago. Loving the spring-like temps in January!)
Either way, staying alive – whether flying or not – requires energy in the form of food. There are lots and lots of stories of beekeepers who fed their bees simple syrup over the winter, and still had colonies die by the spring. A theory is that bees simply didn’t move that far down in the boxes to get to the syrup and literally starve to death. So, we utilize the bee candy layer, and hopefully capitalize on the bee instinct to move UP through the boxes in search of food. It worked well for us last year, and from the looks of things so far this year, it’s working again.
So here’s how we did it…
Step 1: Build a candy frame.
The length and width of the candy frame will match the dimensions of your boxes, and should rest on top of your uppermost box. The frame has wire mesh (1/2″ squares) to hold the candy. The hubby built this frame for an investment of less than $5 a frame. Maybe $2 in wood and a $10 roll of metal screening. There is plenty of screen on a roll to make multiple frames like this one, and if you’ve got multiple hives like we do, or want to have multiple frames available for super hungry bees, one roll of screen will do the trick. Simply screw the sides together, and staple the screen into the bottom.
You’ll notice that the screen is stapled INSIDE the frame. You want to make sure that this frame will sit flush with the uppermost box in your hive. Gaps allow access for problems like wind, water, bugs, etc. In summary…..gaps are bad.
Also, be sure to drill an entrance hole into this upper layer so the adventurers can come and go as they need.
Step 2: Make the candy.
This will require you to buy a quantity of sugar that makes one look over their shoulder in case their dentist is around. Our frame is approximately 4″ deep and the size of a medium 8-framed hive box (14″x19″). The recipe for just one of those frames is eight POUNDS of sugar and about a cup of water. You really only need enough water to combine the sugar into a sort of malleable putty. (Rough math for those of you who who don’t like scales: if 1 cup = 8 oz; 2 cups would equal 16 oz. or 1 pound; 16 cups = 8 pounds.)
Warning: mixing eight pounds of sugar with only one cup of water is a bit of a workout. Grab your big pot and a big sturdy spoon. Then just roll up your sleeves and dive in.
It’ll take a bit of time to get it to the consistency that you need, but persevere. Take turns. And really, if you need to add a bit more water to the mix, that’s fine. Just not TOO much or you’ll start making syrup, so use caution.
Step 3: Prep the frame.
Really this is up to each beekeeper’s discretion on whether or not to do this, but we decided to add a bit of protein to their candy tray in the form of what’s called a bee patty.
These patties are a nougat-type food you can buy online or from your local bee supply store, and are made of a mixture of fat, protein and vitamins specifically formulated for bees. The patties are sold in groups, separated by a thin paper layer, and can be stored in the freezer for several months. Simply pull off a layer and add it to your frame. No need to take the paper lining off, the bees will just eat it and it’s harmless to them. Also be sure to save a little gap of space for the bees to get to the entrance/exit hole you made in the frame. We used a few building blocks to keep the space free from candy.
Step 4: Add the candy.
Like a lot of kitchen projects, this one is best done with your hands. Just start laying in the sugar mix and packing it in. You’ll see that we placed our tray on an old table cloth to catch the crumbs. It’s also a good idea to move your work onto a harder, and more portable surface like a large cookie sheet. It makes transporting the tray a lot easier, and being able to move the frame will come in handy. The frame will take a few days to dry completely, and don’t be surprised if a little syrup makes it out during that drying process. The sugar candy mix will eventually harden after a day or two.
We made ours weeks in advance of actually using it. There’s really no sense giving them the supplement until their foraging days are over for the season.
So before I sign off, I just wanted to show you one of our frames in action from last winter. During a warmer day, the hubby took a quick peak inside to see how the bees were progressing through the candy. Lo and behold! The bee patty was gone as was much of the sugar. We ended up adding another frame to get the ladies through the rest of the winter, but that was basically it. By spring, the girls were healthy, happy, and ready to go!!
Rest assured folks, spring IS coming. Just grab a snack while you wait.