Navigate / search

My bees are dumping their sugar

You recently fed sugar to your bees, either to supplement their winter stores or to cover an emergency shortage of honey. You figure the extra calories will see them through the cold months. But as you watch them come and go on a warmish day, you see them carry the crystals in their mandibles and drop them in the grass. Why would the bees be dumping their sugar?

This behavior is not unusual. Everyone who has fed granulated sugar has probably seen it happen, especially when the boards are fresh. Why the bees do it is a good question, but I don’t have an answer. I can only assume they don’t recognize the crystals as food. To them, it’s a piece of junk to be removed from the hive.

Dumping occurs soon after feeding

In my experience, dumping seems most likely to happen soon after sugar is introduced. The format of the sugar doesn’t seem to matter much. It can be granulated sugar, candy board crumbs, or even dry flakes of fondant. If it is hard, dry, and small enough to carry, they will.

Of course, the weather is important too. If soon after you add candy you get some okay-to-fly days, you are more apt to see the sugar come out. If the weather is cold and the bees stay clustered, they won’t be removing anything from the hive.

Most people who feed hard candy seem to do it late in the year. There’s a “rule of thumb” that recommends giving candy boards after the winter solstice. One reason for waiting is colder weather. If fewer bees are flying, dumping is less likely to occur.

Bees need moisture to eat sugar

Hard sugar needs to dissolve in water before a bee can eat it. In the hive, hard sugar becomes damp on the surface when in-hive moisture condenses on it. The surface layers dissolve and the bees can then lap it up like syrup. This exposes the next layer, which also gets damp and then eaten. As you can see, eating hard sugar is a process.

But when you first introduce a new sugar board or a fresh bag of sugar into a hive, the sugar surfaces are dry and many of the crystals are still discrete. This means the bee can’t eat them, but she can cart them away. As the sugar is exposed to more and more moisture, the crystals begin to dissolve and stick together.

No-cook candy boards work because you partially wet the sugar, pat it into place, and let it dry. In a day or two it’s like stone. However, there are always a few grains here and there that didn’t adhere to the main clump, and your bees will carry these away. The same goes for bags of sugar. During the first few days, many grains get removed. But once it bricks together, it takes water or a chisel to break it apart.

How to hasten the hardening

Some beekeepers hasten the hardening process by squirting the surface of their candy boards or bagged sugar with water. There is nothing wrong with doing this, so if it makes you more comfortable, go ahead and wet it down and then let it harden.

This fall, I’ve gotten more questions than usual about bees dumping their sugar. I believe the reason for this is the erratic weather we’ve had in various parts of the country. What happens is simple. The beekeeper puts a sugar board on because the weather is getting colder. Then, before the sugar has completely hardened, he gets a warm snap. Because the bees are flying and the sugar isn’t yet hard, the bees begin housecleaning. He’s left wondering, “What the?” All that work and they dump it!”

My recommendation is to ignore the dumping. Pretend you don’t see it. Once the cold weather returns and the candy fully hardens, hive life will return to normal. Later, if your colony runs short on winter stores, you will be gratified to see them feasting on their rock candy mountain.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Honey bees treat sugar granules like annoying little rocks, dumping their sugar in the grass.
Honey bees treat sugar granules like annoying little rocks. Pixabay photo.

Comments

harold meinster
Reply

In the beginning of November I put some sugar water in a feeder for the bees to supplement if needed. They were not going for it with a voracious appetite. It was still warmed up in the afternoon in the high 50’s. they appear to be sufficient with honey or they would have devoured it quickly.

I will try again with some sugar water around Christmas. This will give me some indication if they will need support feeding. So far no dead bees outside the box or in the bottom board and the hive is doing well.

Salim
Reply

I mixed some dry sugar with some honey, water, orange juice, and apple cider vinegar.

Is that good for the bees?

Rusty
Reply

Salim,

I wouldn’t give fruit juice to bees. Too much ash.

Jeff, bottom of NZ
Reply

The 5 second rule.

Any sugar dislodged or crystals not adhering and falling down through the colony to reach the floor and falling into all the other trash in that area will be carted out and dumped. I mean if you drop your toast when eating say in the garage, and it falls honey side down amongst the grime that has fallen off the bottom of your car, do you eat it, or trash it?

Dave Maloney
Reply

Very timely article. I am in mid-MD. Last year I added no-cook candy bricks around this time of the year. By spring, I was unable to remove the mite boards from the hives having screened bottom boards. Rather than removing the sugar grains from the hive, it appears the bees just let them fall to the bottom where they built up so much so that a pyramid of accumulated sugar extended up and through the screened bottom. I had to tug hard to get the board out and had to dispose of a lot of loose sugar that had built up on the mite board. So, while they might carry some out the front door, I think they also simply “let fall,” too.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

I agree. I’ve seen them drop it on the bottom board but never in that quantity. That would have made a great photo!

Kathy
Reply

Why did my bees swarm in early November we did have some very warm weather in PA for several weeks, I never gave it a thought. All my other hives are good. Went into fall with at least 80# of honey in each hive.

Seattle Mike
Reply

Rusty I’ve had pretty good luck putting dry sugar in shallow plastic food trays above an escape board. Then pour sugar syrup over it. They can climb all over the dry and lick it up. I also pour syrup in a separate plastic tray I fill with small pebbles. I have to refill it every 3 – 4 days. Another question/ comment: I’ve noticed some of my hives are so hardy they are out flying on 45 degree days. Others laying low. Anyone else finding bees out on very cold days? Seattle Mike

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

I too have seem them out on really cold days. Usually when it’s sunny, though.

Vic Macdonald
Reply

Hello Rusty.

The problem can be overcome by forcing bees to clamber over an obstacle to get to the sugar. See our website for the feeder type that we have successfully used for a number of years. Your information on the moisture levels present on the sugar is accurate (well done) especially for those beekeepers that scatter sugar around the opening in the inner cover, a practice we do not advocate as it is wasteful in most instances.

Keep up the good work Rusty.

Kind regards.
vic.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Vic.

Dan
Reply

Love reading your blogs Rusty. Quick question. Is the reason you use candy boards because a 2:1 saturated sugar solution will freeze and harden to uselessness? Just wondering … dan

Rusty
Reply

Dan,

I use candy boards because bees generally won’t drink syrup that is too cold, less than about 50 degrees. Also, syrup contains a lot of water that the bees must get rid of. I want to keep excess moisture out of a winter hive.

Eddy Radar
Reply

I usually go to the trouble of powdering the sugar first (I throw it in the food processor) so it dissolves faster. I guess if it doesn’t make a difference, I should waste my time elsewhere!

Vic Macdonald
Reply

Hello Rusty.

The reason for adding a little fruit juice (usually lemon) is to lower the pH of the mixture closer to the level of honey. For the winter emergency feed we use a modified Haydak mixture ie cane sugar, brewers yeast, water with a little lemon juice. The mix must just be a damp mix, place in the top feeder pictures of which can be seen on our Twitter site Beesincorporated.com. Agreed it is the wet not the cold that harms the bees.

Enjoy.
Vic

Victoria
Reply

Interesting. Beekeepers in the UK don’t tend to give granulated sugar straight out of the bag to bees. We’re always taught to dissolve it in water, on the basis of 1:1 (one pound to one pint) for drawing out comb in spring; 2:1 (two pounds to one pint) or ambrosia in autumn and early winter for feeding colonies as forage disappears: and fondant (like cake icing but specially produced by apiary suppliers) in winter because it won’t freeze.

I throw some nettles into boiling water first, to make a sort of weak nettle tea. Discard the nettles before adding the sugar. I also add a bit of lemon juice, and this along with the nettles replicates the taste of nectar more than plain water, and the lemon juice seems to stop the sugar syrup going mouldy so quickly. The bees seem to like it anyway!

Barbran
Reply

So here in Central Washington, I needed to “refill” the empty TBH combs and did so by packing the cells with a “just damp enough to stick” sugar paste (3# caster sugar + ~1/4 cup water). Then we had some nice days and bees were flying. Didn’t notice any sugar removal but through the windows, it DOES look like the sugar-paste-in-comb-cells might be molding? Didn’t think this would be possible given such cold nights. What do I do now? Pull out the combs with very slight fuzz on them? How would I clean them, put in freezer for 48 hours? Leave the very slightly fuzzy combs in place, as is? Add a TBH candy-board-in-shape-of-follwer-board? Wait to do so until January when more supplies have been eaten up? Love having your newsletters to smarten me up, thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Barbran,

That surprises me, too. But I never tried filling comb with anything, so I don’t know. Freezing won’t harm the mold. It will just start up again when it warms up. Usually, I spray moldy combs with a mild solution of bleach in water and then let them dry. But often the bees clean up mold all by themselves. So if it doesn’t get too thick, you might just wait to see what they do. Bees generally deal with mold easily as it’s something they evolved with.

Bridgette
Reply

Greetings Rusty,

I’m a first year beekeeper and it’s been an incredible experience so far. I have two hives which produced an amazing amount of honey this summer. I’ve left a full honey super over the brood box, put a spacer frame with a small entrance hole and then the candy board on top (a queen excluder staple to the base), then a screened box filled with hemp and cedar shavings with a few holes drilled into it, and then the covers. It’s been a few weeks and I was also noticing rather large amounts of sugar at the bottom entrance. I checked the hives (lots of honey) and candy boards – the bees were right in there, eating away at the sugar and chewing on the pollen patty encased within. Why would they be going after the candy board when they have so much honey stores? Also, it’s been mild, 7 to 10 degrees C, no snow yet, and they are really active too, flying around the yard and busy at the bottom entrance and top hole.

I decided to take the candy board out of one hive for now, and put some jars of sugar syrup instead, thinking that they may want to be fed more right now. I left the other hive alone, as it was a lot of work and I really upset the bees in the first hive. What are your thoughts on all of this? Thanks so much for any guidance you can provide!

Rusty
Reply

Bridgette,

Bees tend to dump sugar crystals as long as it is warm enough to fly. Hence, people often wait for cold weather before installing candy boards. As far as preferences, I always find that bees eat sugar and syrup before honey. Maybe they like it better, or maybe they are saving the honey. Who knows?

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.