In April, we moved four of our strongest colonies of honey bees from Florida to our homestead in Kentucky. Even then the fields were full of flowers and the trees were in bloom. We felt good that when we returned to Kentucky in the late summer that the hives would be full of honey ready for harvest. Unfortunately, we returned in August to find that the bees were struggling. An excessively dry year and possibly the stress of moving left our bees with dangerously low honey stores. In order to survive their first Kentucky winter, our bees will need a supplemental food source. We tossed around ideas of how we could feed the bees long distance. We finally determined that making sugar bricks for the bees would be our best option.
Why Do Beekeepers Feed Sugar?
Along with pollen, nectar, bee bread, and royal jelly for the queen bee and young larvae, bees make honey as a means of putting up food stores for the winter. As a beekeeper, we can pull honey from the hives for our own use. However, the honey harvest should always be done carefully to ensure that the bees have enough honey to survive the winter. During the winter dearth, pollen and nectar sources will be limited. The bees will depend on their food storage for survival. In the case of our honey bees, we left them all the honey that they produced. However other than one hive that seems to have increased production this fall, the rest of the hives are dangerously low in food stores.
The prominent ingredient in nectar is sucrose, making white sugar an economical supplement that provides the dominant nutrients that are needed by the bees. Unlike brown sugar or raw sugar, plain white table sugar doesn’t have any additional ingredients. Making it the most easily digestible form for bees. Sugar supplements are typically used to supplement bees during food shortages in early spring and to stimulate the colonies to brood rearing or pollen collection. It can also be used when rearing queen bees. Care should always be taken not to provide sugar supplements while the bees are producing honey, as this will not produce true honey.
In all honesty, feeding sugar to our bees is not our preference. It’s actually quite a hot topic among beekeepers. However, we find ourselves in a situation where we’re concerned if we don’t supplement the bees this winter that they will starve.
Traditional Sugar Supplementation
Traditionally sugar supplements are fed by mixing a liquid mixture of sugar and water into a syrup. The syrup is mixed in a 2-to-1 ratio of dry sugar to water. It provides a nectar-like solution that is easy for the bees to use. There are many types of sugar syrup feeding options: mason jars or plastic buckets that are added to the top of the hive. There are also frame feeders or open feeders. With any type of open feeder, pebbles should be added to allow bees a way to escape if necessary.
However, sugar syrup is not the best option for feeding bees in cold weather. One challenge we have is that we are not on the property. Even when the temperatures are right, we typically feed sugar syrup in mason jars that have to be filled on a daily basis. Even buckets would not provide enough syrup to last the winter.
The biggest issue is that once the temperatures drop below 50 degrees, the cold syrup is too difficult for the bees to process. The bees will treat the sugar syrup like nectar and will attempt to fan the syrup to reduce the moisture level as they would honey. Since cold air reacts differently to moisture than warm air, the bees would be burning precious energy trying to complete an impossible task.
Bee fondant is another option for winter feeding. It is a soft pliable sugar supplement. It’s different from sugar bricks because the sugar in the fondant has been inverted. That means that it’s the sucrose molecule has been split into glucose and fructose molecules. Bee fondant has to be cooked to soft ball candy stage and is more complex to prepare.
Mountain Camp Method
One method of winter feeding is known as the mountain camp method. This is a very simple method, where a piece of newspaper is placed on top of the frames inside the hive. White sugar is simply poured onto the newspaper in a mound. Inside the hives, the bees produce moisture that will make the sugar more digestible. Beekeepers can also mist the sugar mound so it crusts a bit on top.
While this seems easy enough, it requires that the hive be completely opened to prepare. In winter, it’s best not to open hives any more than necessary to preserve the heat inside the colony.
Sugar Bricks for Winter Feeding
In researching our options for how to give our bees their best chance of survival this winter, we learned about sugar bricks sometimes referred to as candy boards. As beekeepers in Florida, we had never heard of sugar bricks before as it’s not something we need. While the temperatures do dip well below 50 degrees, they certainly won’t for periods of time that might starve the bees. For the most part, bees in Florida have access to a wide variety of pollen and nectar most of the year.
Sugar bricks are solid bricks of sugar. They are produced with just a few simple added ingredients. While some companies sell sugar bricks, they are simple to make at home. I found many recipes online that are as simple as water and sugar to more in-depth recipes. I choose the sugar brick recipe from Better Bee.
Ingredients in Sugar Bricks
The sugar brick recipe I choose has several ingredients in it that are good for the bees. The white sugar in the recipe is most easily measured by the weight. This recipe uses 6 1/4 pounds of sugar for each batch of sugar bricks. Just like sugar syrup, the best sugar for bees is plain white sugar, as it is the most simple of ingredients and is most easily digestible.
The sugar brick recipe also contains citric acid and real apple cider vinegar. These two ingredients help adjust the ph of the sugar mixture to make it most digestible for bees. Sugar itself has a ph of about 7, however, the added acid adjusts the sugar solution to a more natural ph level similar to that of honey.
Finally, the sugar brick recipe includes Honey B Healthy. This is a feeding stimulant that contains essential oils. This all-natural product contains spearmint oil, lemongrass oil, and lecithin. It is added to attract the bees to the sugar bricks so that they can feed. Since Honey B Healthy is all-natural, it is safe for human consumption. Which is positive as I must confess, I licked my fingers while preparing the sugar bricks.
It’s easiest to mix 12 lbs of sugar in a 5-gallon bucket. The original recipe suggested using a paint mixer for your drill, but the one we had was contaminated with paint. Rather than buy something new, we used the garden auger that fits the drill to thoroughly mix the sugar mixture. I used a rubber spatula to ensure that all the sugar at the bottom was thoroughly mixed and stirred in from the edges of the bucket.
Freeze Drying Sugar Bricks
When I started preparing the sugar bricks, I fully intended on making them in my dehydrator as the recipe from Better Bee instructs. Since I have a round dehydrator, not one with square trays, I was struggling with what I could make the sugar bricks in that would fit in a round doughnut of a tray. I actually had a pretty good idea, but unfortunately, it didn’t work. Using the oven wasn’t an option for us. I felt that it was a poor use of propane to try and dehydrate sugar bricks in the oven for such a long period of time. However, my mother-in-law, Joy Murphy, suggested we make the sugar bricks in the freeze-dryer.
Now if you are fortunate enough to own a freeze dryer, you may be aware that foods high in sugar content are on the “do not freeze dry” list. Sugary items can “explode” or puff up in the freeze dryer. Sugar bricks are made almost entirely from sugar, so I was prepared that this might not work at all. However, Joy reassured me that the worst that would happen was we would make a really big mess!
Preparing the Trays
I think one of the biggest advantages of making the sugar bricks in the freeze dryer was the perfectly sized trays that Joy had for me to use. These “half” trays were a perfect 9 1/2″ x 7″x 1″ size pan. I first cut a piece of parchment paper wide enough to fit the pan. To make the parchment paper fit more easily into the corners of the tray, I crumple the paper into a ball. Once crumpled, it more easily fits down into the corners. It holds its shape better than a piece of parchment paper fresh off the roll that holds the shape of the roll.
Next, I took about three heaping cups of sugar mix and carefully pressed it into the tray as tightly as I could. I used a potato masher for this job, but many people use a rolling pin. Make the sugar as compact as possible so that once processed it will form a solid brick of sugar. I was careful not to leave any air pockets in the mixture. I made a double batch of the sugar recipe which made seven sugar bricks. Once the sugar is pressed, trim the excess parchment paper to fit the trays. If you choose, score the sugar now, so that the solid bricks can be easily broken into smaller pieces.
Loading the Freeze Dryer
Once prepared, we added the trays directly to the freeze dryer without pre-freezing. Joy wanted to keep an eye on the processing to ensure the mixture didn’t explode or puff up, so we left the insulating cover off of the freeze dryer. Following the instructions of the freeze dryer, the machine was started. Joy kept a watchful eye to be sure we avoided a mess if this went poorly.
Perfect Sugar Bricks
It took about 11 hours for sugar bricks to process in the freeze dryer. I am happy to report that it worked perfectly! The sugar did not explode or puff up at all. Every single brick was perfectly dried and created a perfect sugar brick. Using the parchment paper, it was easy to lift the sugar bricks out of the trays. With all freeze-dried products, proper storage is imperative to preserve the products. We packed the sugar bricks into resealable gallon-sized mylar bags with 300 cc oxygen absorbers. While mylar bags are best, at the bare minimum, sugar bricks should be stored in a plastic bag or air tight container to prevent them from absorbing moisture prior to use. The short processing time of the sugar bricks made it possible for us to prepare another double batch of sugar bricks the same weekend.
- 14 cups (6.25 pounds) granulated white sugar
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 1/2 tsp citric acid
- 1 tsp Honey B Healthy
- pans to bake the sugar bricks no taller than 1" deep
I find measuring the sugar by weight is easier and more accurate than scooping. However, scooping is fine if you don't have a food scale.
It's important to use real apple cider vinegar that contains the mother for this recipe.
The pans to make the sugar bricks should be no deeper than 1" thick. The thicker the sugar bricks, the longer they will take to dry. If baking in the oven, a jelly roll pan works well. See the link in "Shop This Post" for the perfectly sized 9 1/2" x 7"x 1" stainless steel trays. These stainless steel pans can be used in the oven. If they will fit into your dehydrator, are appropriate for dehydrator use. HOWEVER, plastic trays are best for use in the dehydrator.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If using metal trays in a dehydrator, only food-safe, stainless steel trays are safe for use in a dehydrator.
Other Options to Cook the Sugar Bricks
While I’m blessed that my mother-in-law has a freeze dryer and is eager to share it with me. I realize that freeze-drying is not possible for all beekeepers. The most common way is to cook sugar bricks in the dehydrator or oven.
Set the temperature to 140 degrees and dry until the sugar bricks are very hard approximately 8 to 36 hours. I struggled to have a way to contain the sugar in bricks, as my dehydrator is round. The recommended heavy duty foil trays would not fit inside my dehydrator.
While I could have baked with foil trays or a cookie sheet in my oven, propane is too expensive to run for such a long period of time. Be advised, that cooking sugar bricks at a higher temperature will not speed up the drying process but can melt the sugar. This can turn the sugar bricks into a gooey mess that never dries out.
Depending on your climate, an easy way to dry sugar bricks is to just let the sugar air dry through a natural drying process. The bricks should be flipped halfway through to allow for even drying. Here in Florida, it’s much too humid to attempt that option.
Using the Sugar Bricks
Once the temperature drops, the bees will cluster together to keep warm. The solid sugar bricks are placed directly on the top of the frames above the cluster of bees in the hive. It’s important that the hives have top ventilation when using sugar bricks to allow moisture to escape. Bees should also be provided protein supplements in addition to sugar. These proteins can be added to the sugar bricks as well.
Since we don’t live in Kentucky where the bees are located, we have already fed the bees the sugar bricks. While the daytime temperatures some days exceed 50 degrees already, there are other days that the temperatures are less than 50 degrees. As a Floridan, I am a little concerned about ants, having fed early, but hopefully, we won’t run into that problem.
Making It Work
We were unprepared with spacer frames to place the sugar bricks directly on top of the frames. We tried to put the sugar bricks below the upper lid, however, that left a large space between the covers. Philip opted to place the sugar bricks directly on the inner cover. There is an opening that the bees can travel through from the hive box to the sugar bricks. This is not the optimal placement of the sugar bricks, but it is the best we could do. Hopefully, Honey B Healthy will attract them to the sugar bricks despite the obstacle. The outer cover was placed over the sugar bricks and created an appropriate gap to allow for good ventilation in the hive.
Please be aware, the proper placement of the sugar bricks would be to place them directly on the frames above the cluster. Sugar bricks should be fed consistently to the bees throughout the winter season. Hopefully, this supplemental food source will help the bees survive the winter, it’s the best we can do.
Philip made another trip to the homestead and while there he checked on the bees. The good news is the bees were eating the sugar bricks. However, the bad news is that placing the sugar bricks on the lid which we did temporarily was attracting yellow jackets. Unlike honeybees, yellow jackets can reuse their stinger making this a real danger to the bees.
Philip took the needed supplies to correctly add the sugar bricks directly on top of the frames. He got a picture for me before he made the change. He removed the sugar bricks and lid. Placed the sugar bricks directly on the frames and added a small box on top, replacing the inner lid and the outer lid. This will hopefully prevent invasion.
Cook with Me!
Shop This Post
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.