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Notes on cooking bee candy

Where I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, candy wasn’t something you purchased, it was something you made. So when it came to making bee candy, the process didn’t seem mysterious at all. However, based on questions I’m getting, it seems that candy-making is difficult to understand if you’ve never done it.

All you really need to make bee candy are sugar and water. The other ingredients alter the basic formula in some way, but they aren’t really necessary—especially for the bees. Take lollipops, for example. A lollipop is just sugar candy with color and flavor added, and when it starts to get hard, you insert a stick. Nothing to it.

Add water, then remove it

When you make hard candy, you are doing nothing more than adding water to sugar and then taking it back out again in order to force the sugar into a specific consistency. A solution of sugar in water behaves in different ways as you drive out more and more of the water.

In the days when cooking thermometers were not readily available, cooks developed certain guidelines so they could tell when a certain amount of water had been driven out of the solution. They called these guidelines “stages” and you still see them in cookbooks and written on thermometers. If you are using a thermometer—and I highly recommend it—you don’t have to worry at all about these stages.

The stages of candy

For the sake of clarity, however, here are some typical candy stages. The test is performed by spooning a few drops of the liquid from the pot and dipping it into a cup of cool water. After a moment, remove the candy from the water and look for the “signs” of having reached a certain temperature.

Stage Temperature in °F Cold-Water Test
Thread 230-233 Candy falls off spoon in 2” long thread.
Soft-ball 234-240 Ball of candy flattens and runs between your fingers.
Firm-ball 244-248 Ball of candy holds its shape for a moment, but flattens at room temperature.
Hard-ball 250-266 Ball of candy holds its shape but can be flattened between your fingers.
Soft-crack 270-290 When first dropped into the water, candy separates into hard but pliable threads.
Hard-crack 295-310 When first dropped into the water, candy separates into hard brittle threads that break easily.
Caramel 330-350 Syrup turns golden brown. After this it will burn easily.

Calibrate your thermometer

But like I said, with a good thermometer you can forget all that staging business and just use temperature. Just make sure you calibrate your thermometer before you start. Calibrating is easy: just heat a pan of water to a full boil, insert your thermometer and, after a moment take a reading. Make a note of this number.

As an example, let’s say your boiling water gave a reading of 220° F. That is 8 degrees above the normal boiling point of water which is 212° F at sea level, so you will have to add 8 degrees to the temperature stated in the recipe. So if the recipe directed you to boil the syrup until it reached 265° F, you have to go to 273° F.

Calibrating for high elevation

If you live at a high elevation, you do the same thing except you first determine the temperature at which water boils at your elevation (use a computer for this) and deduct the difference from your recipe. Then calibrate your thermometer by placing it in boiling water and reading the difference between what the thermometer says and what it should say.

For example, at 5000 feet water boils at about 203° F. So you will have to deduct 9 (212-203=9) degrees from your recipe. If your thermometer reads 210° F at boiling (instead of 203), you will have to add 7 degrees to your recipe. So instead of 265° F, you will cook your mixture to 267° F (265-9+7).

High humidity can make things difficult

Another issue with candy making is humidity. It is difficult to drive off the last small amounts of water when the humidity is high because sugar will absorb that moisture right out of the atmosphere. It is best to make candy on a low-humidity day.

So in the end, how important is all this for cooking bee candy? Not very important at all. The thing to remember is this: as long as you don’t burn the sugar, the bees don’t really care what “stage” it is in. If your candy comes out a little runny, or soft, or hard, or dry or whatever, the bees will still eat it. It might be inconvenient for you, but the bees don’t give a rip.

Many kinds of bee candy

My advice is this: if your bees need supplemental sugar, make sure they get it. You can give them granulated sugar, or go as fancy as you want with candy boards or sugar cakes. The main thing is that they have enough food to get them through the winter. They will not criticize your candy-making ability, so don’t stress over it.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Tom
Reply

The stage can be important if the candy is too soft and oozes down into the combs, smothering the bees you’re trying to feed. Hard-won experience from Spokane, WA.

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

If you are using a properly calibrated thermometer, that won’t happen.

Adam
Reply

I hope that you check old posts. My question is, what do you do with excess syrup? I mixed up some large batches of syrup because my 2 hives were suppose to be downing 1 quart jar per day, according to the person that I purchased the nucs from. Well my thoughts were, “I don’t want to be mixing syrup everyday! I’ll make a Gallon and then I can put it in the fridge and feed it as needed. Well, now I have about a quart left and we are in a massive nectar flow to the point that the last jar took 2 weeks to empty. Last time I checked each hive had about 3 frames of un-capped nectar (tasted it, it will make good honey if I can get supers on). So I don’t want or need to feed it to them and so I figure that I will store it until it’s needed. How should I do that?

Rusty
Reply

Adam,

If you’ve got room just leave it in the fridge till fall; it keeps forever. A quart is nothing. Wait until you want to store five gallons over the summer.

Christina
Reply

Hi Rusty.

It seems people will tell you not to boil your syrup because it makes it toxic to the bees. For some reason I thought I needed to, so I boiled the sugar and water together. I took it off the heat at a very light boil and tested the temp with a candy thermometer. It read 175 F. From what I’ve read some people would tell you to throw that out and start over. But if you need to get sugar to these high temps to make candy, then wouldn’t that be even worse in their eyes? Are these people full of it, or am I just totally confused? Is there any reason I shouldn’t feed this syrup to my bees?

Thanks
Christina

Rusty
Reply

Excellent question, Christina, and I don’t think you are totally confused and I don’t think they are full of it. Since I wrote that post in the beginning of 2011 I have seen a huge swing in the way we handle sugar for bees. It used to be that everyone cooked it, sometimes into thick syrup, sometimes into fondant or hard candy. But with all the attention to honey bee health, people have been looking more closely at some of the common practices. It started, I think, with the realization that high-fructose corn syrup produced HMF when heated, and then we realized that regular sucrose can produce it as well. So gradually many people have stopped heating anything the bees will eat. I am one of those, and I’ve gone from heating everything to heating nothing.

A single batch of cooked syrup will not hurt your bees. Many people still cook it and have been doing so for decades. So don’t throw it out, just use it and don’t worry about it. In the future, though, you may want to consider the no-cook recipes.

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