Candy board fact and fiction

Candy boards are suddenly a hot topic and beekeepers are asking how to make them and where to buy them.

I want to stress that candy boards are for emergency winter feeding. They are not necessary for a normal, healthy hive with plenty of stored honey. Bees are meant to eat honey—not refined sugar—so forego the candy board if you can.

That said, sometimes you need winter feed. For example, maybe the summer produced very little nectar, maybe the colony is young and small, or maybe you caught a swarm so late in the year that it couldn’t store enough food for winter.

Most colonies have some amount of stored honey, so even if winter feed is necessary it is usually not needed until the end of winter. By the end of winter I mean February or March, depending on where you live.

I often hear that candy boards should be in place by December 22, which corresponds roughly to the winter solstice. It is ridiculous to give winter feed based on a calendar; the decision should be based on the condition of the hive. You don’t even need to open it. Lift up the back of the hive. If it’s really heavy, you don’t need extra feed.

If you read my previous post on candy boards, you know I prefer sugar cakes—which are basically the same thing as candy boards except the sugar is formed into disks and simply placed on the bars above the cluster. This is a much cheaper solution than candy boards and, in my opinion, it works better.

Among the many complaints I hear about candy boards—especially commercially prepared ones—are these:

  • The candy oozes out during shipment.
  • The candy liquefies in the hive and the sugar drips down through the Varroa screen where the bees can’t reach it.
  • The candy breaks out of the lid and lands on the top bars.
  • They are expensive to ship.

For a candy board to work properly the sugar must be boiled to the firm-ball stage (244-248°F or 118-120°C) at the minimum. The hard-ball stage (250-266°F or 121-130°C) works even better. Candy cooked only to the soft-ball stage (234-240°F or 112-116°C) behaves like a dense liquid and will migrate easily.

Once placed on the hive, moisture from the bee’s respiration will condense on the cool surfaces within the hive—including the candy. If the candy has high water content to start with, this may cause the candy to liquefy or may cause the candy to drop out of the board and onto the bars. (If you make sugar cakes and place them on the bars in the first place, you save a very expensive step.) And, yes, candy boards are expensive to ship. Sugar and water are cheap, but they are heavy. It’s not a good idea to be shipping sugar and water around the countryside, especially since we don’t need to.

If you still want to use candy boards, I recommend making them yourself and boiling the syrup into a harder candy. Most cookbooks or online cooking resources will tell you how to make candy without burning it (or yourself) and this is what you need to do. Please use extreme caution when working with boiling sugar!

To help keep the sugar in place, some beekeepers shoot staples into the inner side of the empty candy board to give the sugar something to adhere to. These should stick out of the wood part way to form a very rough surface. Once the staples are in place, simply pour the sugar syrup over them and let it harden.

Rusty

Comments

john carey
Reply

I am a new bee keeper and considering using a candy board to feed a new swarm I caught that hasn’t had time to develop a full hive of honey for the winter. However, I am thinking a of a slightly different approach where as I place the sugar cake & place it on top of the queen excluder between the frames & the inner cover. I made the cakes by pouring the boiled sugar water into cookie sheets & then letting them solidify into 1 large cake. My thoughts are that it will be a compromise between the sugar board & the cake method. Also, I was thinking about collecting ragweed pollen next fall & mixing that into the sugar board when I pour onto the cookie sheets. Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Rusty
Reply

John,

It should work. How do you collect ragweed pollen? Just curious.

Nancy
Reply

Hi Rusty and John,

Just speaking as the weed person now: if you want to collect pollen in adequate quantities, I’d suggest corn, being sure it’s non-GMO (the grower will know).

Ragweed makes copious pollen, but it’s wind-pollinated. That means it’s very light and dry, making me think it may not have much protein content. If you have information otherwise, I’d be glad to hear it. You may know that goldenrod gets a bad rap for allergies that are actually caused by ragweed. Goldenrod pollen is heavy, sticky and needs insects coming and going in order to be fertilized. But because it’s showy, and blooms at the same season as ragweed which is inconspicuous, it gets the blame. (Very unfair, yes.)

As far as collecting goes, I would spray a light, rigid surface (foam core board?) with anything sticky and harmless – lecithin, maybe – and just carry it between the corn rows, shaking the stalks lightly. Then scrape it off with a spatula. There will be a lot of pollen on you, too: just brush it in with the rest.

It might work for ragweed too… I just suspect that its wind pollination strategy may have evolved because its pollen is not much use to pollinators.

Aren’t weeds great?
Nan

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

But corn is wind-pollinated as well . . . nearly all the grasses are.

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