A no-cook candy board recipe for wintering bees
For several years I’ve been looking for a way to combine a moisture quilt with a candy board. I wrote a post about this a while back, but the board in that example contained cooked candy. I wanted a no-cook candy board for several reasons.
The first reason is that cooking sugar syrup is both dangerous and boring, a bad combination for me because when I’m bored I don’t pay attention. Not paying attention when you’re working with molten sugar at about 240 degrees F is not a good idea.
The other issue is that I keep reading articles that say cooked sugar forms high levels of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), especially when you try to invert it with an acid such as cream of tartar or lemon juice.
The entire “invert-the-sugar-for-the-bees” argument is kind of ridiculous anyway because honey bees do it instantaneously, thanks to the enzymes in their saliva. Lots of types of nectar have high levels of sucrose, and honey bees have no issue with this, inverting it without knowing it.
The candy board frame
A candy board made to place below a quilt could not be solid, obviously, because moist air from the colony could not be collected by the quilt if that air never reaches the quilt. Secondly, the no-cook candy board could not be flipped over because “upside down” doesn’t work well with uncooked sugar.
Debbe Krape in Delaware sent me some no-cook ideas that she collected, and then directed me to the West Central Ohio Beekeepers, where some of the ideas originated. I went to work altering the plans to make them work with my system. The following is what resulted.
The candy boards are made from baggie feeder rims (or mountain camp rims) that are about three inches deep, and a plastic queen excluder, the kind that many people don’t like. A friend told me about the excluder idea, and it seemed to be the perfect answer. Remember, the excluders are not meant to exclude queens, but simply to hold the sugar in place.
Once the feeder rims were assembled, I nailed the plastic excluder onto the bottom of the rim, adding what I thought was a reasonable number of nails along all four sides. Actually, I started this project using screws, but I didn’t have enough of the type I needed, so I just used nails instead. If I find the nails pull out from the weight of the sugar, I will go back to using screws, but so far, so good.
No holes in the frame
Note that I did not put an entrance hole in the candy board frame. Every candy board design I saw had a hole somewhere, either for an upper entrance or ventilation or both. Most recommended tiny holes that I thought wouldn’t do much good, and most had to be shielded from the candy that might block them.
Since my no-cook candy board will have ventilation through the center, and my quilt has ventilation ports, there is plenty of opportunity for air flow. For the bees—should they want an upper entrance—I simply placed an Imirie shim below the candy board. This shim has the added benefit of providing some space between the candy board and the brood frames, in case the candy board sags in the middle.
Once complete, I spread a layer of plastic wrap on the table, placed the empty candy board on the wrap, and then positioned a piece of 2×4 lumber in the center of the candy board. (No, I didn’t measure the wood; it was just a random piece I found under the saw table.) Later, when the wood is removed, the empty space provides the place where the air will flow from the colony up into the moisture quilt. Some of the moisture will condense on the underside of the candy board, which is a good thing because moisture on the surface of the hard candy allows the bees to consume it with ease.
The pollen supplement
The next thing I did was prepare the pollen supplement. I decided to add the pollen supplement (as others have recommended) so that as spring approaches the bees will have an ample supply for brood rearing. Here, where we have so much spring rain, it is often hard for the bees to get out and forage for early pollen. But it was important to me to have a free choice patty—free choice meaning the bees can eat it if they want to, but they are not forced to eat it. If the pollen is mixed uniformly into the candy, the bees are more or less compelled to eat it even if they don’t want to.
I made each pollen patty from 100 grams of Mann Lake Bee-Pro pollen substitute, 200 grams of baker’s sugar, and 105 ml of water. I like baker’s sugar (also known as bar sugar) because the fine particle size allows it to dissolve quickly. Baker’s sugar in small quantities can be expensive, but in the the 50-pound bag, I pay only 2 cents per pound more than regular sugar, which is totally worth it.
At first the mix looks dry and crumbly, but I just knead it like bread for a minute and it makes a silken patty with the consistency of bread dough. You can make them in advance and they stay moist if wrapped in a piece of plastic wrap.
The no-cook candy
I decided on ten pounds of sugar per candy board based on talking to beekeepers in similar areas. I’ve heard seven pounds isn’t enough, 15 pounds is too much, so I arbitrarily decided on 10. I think most of my colonies should get by on their own honey stores anyway, but the candy board is an insurance policy of sorts and not designed to replace all their food. The feeder rims I used are plenty deep, and I think they could hold 25 pounds, depending on what you need in your area.
I placed ten pounds of baker’s sugar in a pot and added 10 tablespoons of water. Some folks recommend much more water, but one tablespoon per pound worked perfectly when I used the baker’s sugar. I don’t know if it would act differently with regular sugar, but you can experiment. Start with a small amount and add more if necessary, but remember the more water you add, the longer it will take to harden.
After adding the water, I just reached in the pot and worked the mixture by hand. I thought it would be a dry mess, but the small amount of water was amazing. It reminded me of the texture needed to build a sand castle that will hold together without slumping. It also reminded me of really dry snow that barely works for a snow ball.
Once mixed, I spread a layer on the bottom of the candy board, divided the pollen patty and put a piece on either side of the wood, and put the rest of the candy on top. Then I just tamped it down until firm.
By next morning the thing was hard as a rock. I removed the wood from the center and placed the candy on a hive. Just above the brood box I added the Imirie shim with the opening in front, then the candy board, then the quilt, then the lid.
The excluders nobody likes
I always hear stories that honey bees will not go through plastic excluders, so after a few minutes, I lifted the quilt for a quick peek. The central area was crawling with bees that hadn’t seemed to notice the excluder. I think it must be a psychological barrier more than anything: if you have to go through an excluder to do to work, that’s one thing; but going through to feast is something else again. Go figure.
So that’s where I am on the project. I have no results to report, no findings to share. But I do feel better having backup food on the hives, especially since our hot and dry summer produced very little in the way of nectar. I will keep you posted.
Honey Bee Suite