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Sugar slurry: another feeding option

While many of us are debating the virtues of sugar cakes vs. granulated sugar for winter feeding, others avoid the controversy by using a sugar slurry. The slurry is partway between dry sugar and liquid sugar, at a point where the sugar is wet but doesn’t actually dissolve. Technically, a slurry is a thick suspension of solids in a liquid, but this is very close in appearance and texture to a true slurry. It is generally fed in a baggie feeder and is made as follows.

You take a baggie—say a gallon size—and measure into it 9 parts of sugar and 1 part of water by either weight or volume. You close up the bag and knead the mixture with your hands until it is thoroughly combined. You place the bag on the top bars inside an eke or spacer rim, then you slit the bag with a knife. The moisture content is almost ideal for winter feed. It is not so dry that it needs additional moisture, and it is not so wet that the bees refuse to eat it.

The 9:1 proportion yields a solution with roughly 10% water. This is drier than honey but wetter than fondant. Some beekeepers like to get closer to 12% water, which can be achieved by measuring 8 parts of sugar to 1.1 parts water.

In prior years I have made slurries using granulated sugar, pollen substitute, a few drops of essential oil, and just enough water to make it muddy but not wet—about the consistency of thick brownie batter. I use this instead of pollen patties in the spring because it is less likely to dry out and become hard and unpalatable.

One problem I have noticed with slurries is that sometimes the sugar dries out along the slit in the baggie, forming a crust that seals the bag. This can be remedied by cutting an opening about one ¼-inch wide instead of making just a slit. I use a utility knife to remove a rectangular piece of plastic about 4 inches long and ¼-inch wide diagonally across the center of the bag. This makes a feeding trough for the bees.

Another problem with slurries—as with anything fed in a baggie—is that the bees have to eat from the top of the bag instead of from the bottom. This requires them to break cluster and so is most effective on those days when the temperature in the hive is warm enough to allow them to crawl to the top of the bag. However, baggies have the advantage of being thin enough that the entire contents are readily warmed by the heat rising from the cluster.

Slurry bags are easier to prepare than sugar cakes but more work than dry feeding. I don’t advocate one over the other but, if you are anything like I am, you like options. Sometimes a particular hive responds better to one method than another, and slurries offer you another “try-it” for a problem hive.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Jim Withers
Reply

Just when I thought I’d tried everything! 🙂 This sounds like a cool idea and worth trying. We are having an exceptionally mild and warm winter this year in Michigan and the bees are using up much more of their stores. I’m going to try this on some of my hives.

Thanks Rusty

Anna
Reply

Super-duper newbie question here, so I’m sorry if it’s stupid but why not feed honey? I remember faintly reading about some people who left honey in the hive over winter and only harvested in the spring once the nectar flows were going.

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

Without a doubt, honey is always the best food for bees. Sometimes, though, it’s just not an option, so you feed sugar instead. As an example, the two hives I’m feeding this winter are swarms that I caught near the first of July. Neither made enough honey to take them through the winter. I stole frames of honey from some of my other hives and gave them to these new colonies, but they went through that quickly.

Your idea of leaving honey on the hives till spring is a really good idea as long as they have honey to leave. There are many situations when the bees just haven’t made enough to see themselves through the winter, and if you don’t feed them something the colony will die. Examples of other situations are especially dry summers when there wasn’t sufficient nectar, times when a hive has been robbed of its honey by other bees, or small hives that just didn’t have the workforce to store enough food. Believe me, it happens. In a perfect world, we would never have to mess with sugar.

The other issue is that a beekeeper must know the source of any honey he uses as feed. Honey can carry bee diseases that can infect a clean colony. That’s why buying commercial honey of unknown origin to feed bees is not a good idea.

Sarah
Reply

How about agave nectar?

Rusty
Reply

I don’t know what agave nectar contains or how it might affect bees but, in any case, it is too liquid for winter feeding.

Sarah
Reply

Ok, I have a ventilated/insulated telescoping inner hive cover and I have 1 extra medium super. Would the space between these two things be too much for winter slurry baggie feeding? It’s been a warmish winter, normally 40 degrees, but is it too cold to take off the inner cover?

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

The main problem with space between the bees and the inner cover is that they can build bridge comb there. In the winter, however, they will not so you can use that space for your baggie feeders. It won’t take you long to slip the feeder in and close up the hive again; just do it on a warmish day.

Matt Heritage
Reply

Rusty, Ive got a question about something that I’ve wondered about for some time. Feeding bees dry sugar in the late winter/spring… how do they get enough water? Bees put off a lot of moisture. If they are so low on honey you have to feed them sugar… where does the moisture come from?

Any ideas?

Rusty
Reply

Matt,

Moisture in a wintertime hive can be a big problem. Moisture is a by-product of respiration and also damp air comes in from the outside. This moisture condenses on the surface of the hard sugar and dissolves a thin layer which the bees then consume. This is way hard sugar should always be kept above the cluster: it is the area most likely to accumulate the moisture of respiration.

Matt
Reply

Hey Rusty… Thanks for the quick response. I don’t think I was clear enough. I know where you’re coming from with the moisture not being a good thing. What I’m wondering is if they are eating dry sugar, where do they get the moisture they need to live? They are respirating moisture, but don’t seem, to be taking any in. Do they have extra stored? Could they be getting it from condensation? Thanks a lot!

Rusty
Reply

Matt,

As I said before, moisture leaves the bees’ bodies in the form of water vapor and also comes in from the outside air. This vapor condenses on the solid sugar and dissolves it, making a thin layer of sugar syrup. The bees eat this, which provides them with both food and water. Think of it as recycling if you will. The vapor from their bodies collects on the sugar and they consume it again. My point about too much water in the hive was meant to illustrate that there is, indeed, plenty of water in the hive for the bees’ survival and, in some cases, even too much.

Angela
Reply

Hi there,

Before I read your article on making a sugar slurry, I had actually made one without knowing it was called a ‘slurry’. However, I put my sugar slurry in a wax paper sandwich baggie that has one end open. I added a few slits on the bottom, then put the whole thing directly on the top bars over the bee cluster. I’m hoping it will work in my ‘dink’ hive. Do you foresee any problems with this method (rather than the plastic bag method you described)?

Another question I have is, could it ever be that using too much apple cider vinegar in a candy/slurry recipe could be bad/poison/toxic for the bees? I realized I may have added more than a splash in my sugar slurry, so I’m worried…

Thanks, Rusty. I love your site!

Rusty
Reply

Angela,

I think the wax paper will work as long as it doesn’t get soggy. The bees may eat it fast enough that it isn’t a problem.

I wouldn’t worry about the vinegar. It inverts the sucrose into glucose and fructose, but a little extra won’t hurt. Honey is very acidic, so the vinegar won’t affect them. They are used to very acidic foods.

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