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 hot 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

I just ran nails through the plastic queen excluder and into the wooden feeder.
Nail-pattern into feeder
I spaced out the nails in what seemed like a logical pattern. If the nails don’t hold, I will replace them with screws.
I placed a sheet of plastic wrap on the table and then placed the candy board on top.
The pollen substitute-sugar-water mix looks dry, but once kneaded, it formed a nice cohesive ball.
If you must keep the pollen patties for a while before use, just wrap in plastic.
Sugar-and-water like wet sand
The sugar and water mixture feels like wet sand. Ignore the spatula and just use your hands to mix.
Pollen-patties-buried in-sugar
First I put in the wooden board, followed by part of the sugar and the pollen patties.
Then I covered the patties with the rest of the sugar, and patted it down firmly.
The next morning, the sugar was hard and I was able to remove the wooden board. This hole gives damp air a way to travel up to the moisture quilt.
Pollen-peeking-through the sugar
You can see the pollen patty peeking out through the sugar. This is free choice feeding: they can eat the pollen or not, depending on what they want and need.
Imirie-shim with entrance hole
An Imirie shim goes under the candy board. Besides giving the bees an upper entrance, the shim provides extra room in case the candy board sags in the center.


Ten beekeeping crimes you should not commit

What are beekeeping crimes? A beekeeping crime is a skipped step, a missed opportunity, or an unfortunate assumption about either honey bees, beekeeping, or the environment we live in. They are crimes because they often result in the death of bees, the spread of disease, or unhappy neighbors. I’ve limited my list to ten, but you certainly know of others.

The order of these beekeeping crimes is unimportant, except for the first one.


Skipping the basics: Nearly every beekeeper I know started by reading a book about beekeeping. It’s fine to read a book about beekeeping, but only after you’ve read about honey bees themselves—how they work, what they do, how they’re built—in other words, basic bee biology.

It’s hard to manage something if you don’t understand the something you are trying to manage. Beekeeping is the art of managing honey bees, so all the beekeeping books make a heck of a lot more sense after you know something about bees. Trust me on this.

My favorites include The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz and Honey-Maker: How the Honey Bee Worker Does What She Does by Rosanna Mattingly. If you realize that beekeeping practices are designed around honey bee biology, you will realize how much sense it makes to start at the beginning.


Not feeding soon enough or long enough: New beekeepers do not realize how disadvantaged a package of bees really is. You dump them in an empty hive and expect them to perform, but they have no home set up, they have no comb for a nursery or for food stores, and they have no food. To build comb and collect what they need—and to raise new generations of offspring—requires a ton of energy. As a beekeeper, that’s where your job begins. Feed those bees.

Folks argue that they don’t want to feed because they want “natural bees.” But in fact, nothing about that bunch of bees is natural. Those bees are most probably unrelated to each other, they never met their queen, they are far from home, and the move wasn’t their idea—not the time, not the place, not the method. You’ve done everything possible to make it hard for them, so the least you can do is give them a meal.

Natural beekeeping is something you grow into with time and experience. Natural bees don’t come out of package that was just shipped halfway across the country on the back of a truck. With a brand new colony in a brand new hive, do not be surprised if you have to feed all summer.


Ignoring Varroa mites: If you ignore Varroa mites or pretend they don’t exist, you are offing your bees. In North America, Varroa remains the number one problem that honey bees face. It is easy to blame other things for colony loss: neonics, Nosema, CCD, and yellowjackets are common fall guys when, in fact, it is most often Varroa mites that destroy the colony.

Here again, people argue against treatments because they want “treatment-free” bees. I applaud those dedicated bee breeders who are working toward treatment-free bees. But what they are doing is hard, expensive, exacting, and time-consuming work based on sound scientific principles and lots of experience. Ordering bees from a large producers and letting them die every year from Varroasis is not treatment-free beekeeping. In fact, it’s not beekeeping at all—it’s the negligent and unconscionable act of a neophyte.

Furthermore, those who practice the “live-and-let-die” method are hurting those that are trying to breed true treatment-free stock. That is because a Varroa infested colony that collapses is a “mite bomb” or a ”mite factory” that releases scores of Varroa into the environment for other beekeepers to deal with. The mites are transmitted by robbers or absconding bees and can infect other colonies for miles around. Even the carefully-bred treatment-free bees can fail in the face of a massive influx of mites from a careless beekeeper.

If you want to segue into treatment-free beekeeping, you can. But you need knowledge, resources, and a plan. You can’t just install a package from California and watch it die.


Opening a hive without a plan: Each time you open a hive you are committing a home invasion; you are going in there and screwing things up. Granted, beekeepers need to manage, and to manage you need to know what’s going on. But excessive muddling through the hive is counterproductive. Temperature readings in hives skyrocket after beekeeper intrusion, and much energy is spent trying to get their lives back in order.

My rule of thumb is simple: have a plan. Know exactly why you are opening the hive and what you hope to learn. Once you have discovered what you need to know, get out.

The most frequent objection to this advice is, “But new beekeepers have to open the hive to learn. If they never open it, they never learn.” So? Why can’t learning be a plan?

If your new beekeeper plan is “to learn to distinguish worker brood from drone brood” then go for it. Find what you’re looking for, take photos if you want, but once you’ve accomplished your goal, get out. Is that so hard to understand?


Assuming where the queen won’t be: This is an extension of Murphy’s law. If you assume you know where the queen won’t be, you will be wrong. I can tell you from personal experience that I have assumed the queen wouldn’t be in burr comb before I scraped it away. Wrong. I assumed the queen wouldn’t be in the empty super I threw in the grass. Wrong. I assumed the queen wouldn’t be on the outside of the end frame. Wrong. I assumed the queen wouldn’t be on the inside of the telescoping cover. Wrong. And most impressively, I assumed the queen wouldn’t be strolling across my bee-suited stomach. Wrong.

Please, please do not ever assume you know where the queen won’t be.


Following advice that doesn’t come with a reason: If a friend or mentor tells you to do something and they can’t give you a reason, don’t do it. Why anyone would do something to a beehive without a reason is beyond comprehension. Now, maybe it turns out to be perfectly good advice, but if there is no reason behind it, how will you learn anything? How will you know why you are doing it or if you should ever do it again? Or when? “Why?” should always be your first question.

Remember, too, that not all mentors are created equal. Some are a wealth of knowledge, some not so much. If your mentor tells you he does it that way because his father did it that way, you need a new mentor.


Cutting all queen cells: Nothing perplexes me more than the idea that if you see a queen cell anywhere, anytime, any season, you should dispatch it with vigor and malice aforethought. Why?

Queen cells are not virulent, they don’t cause death and destruction, they are not dangerous, dirty, lethal, poisonous, pathogenic or vulgar. And where are all the right-to-lifers hiding during this discussion?

How many times have I heard a new beekeeper say he destroyed all the queen cells, but can’t understand why his colony failed to raise a new queen? Really? Or “I killed all the queen cells then realized the hive already swarmed.”

This goes back to ignoring the basics and following advice without a reason. There are times to cut queen cells and times to cherish them. The beekeeper’s job is to know the difference.


Failing to recognize a nectar dearth: If you fail to recognize a nectar dearth, bad things can happen. Your colony may starve. Your colony may be robbed by bees from your own apiary or one miles away. Your hive may be invaded by wasps. Your bees may decide to up and leave.

These outcomes can be avoided by good management. You can protect your surplus honey by removing it from the hive; you can protect your bees by reducing their entrances or closing extra entrances, you can feed your bees, you can trap and kill wasps. The list of options goes on and on, but if you fail to recognize the dearth in the first place, you can lose your honey, your colony, or both in a matter of days.


Harvesting honey too soon: Of all the beekeeping crimes, this is probably the most common and it comes from beekeeper impatience. You’ve gone your whole life without homegrown honey, but now you need it immediately.

Remember, depending on how you started your hive (full hive, nuc, package) you may or may not get a harvestable crop the first year. Don’t rush it. If you do things properly and learn as much as you can, you will soon be drowning in honey. If you take honey too soon, your bees may starve and you will be starting over again.

In the meantime, I advise people who absolutely cannot wait to taste their own honey to go ahead and carve a small chunk from one of the frames. You don’t need to harvest gallons in order to have a taste. If you cut a few square inches from a frame, you can have that long awaited treat without compromising the health of the colony. Besides, nothing compares to a spoonful of honey still warm from the heat of the hive. Taste it and wait.


Attempting too much too soon: Mastering the art of beekeeping is a process. Don’t try to go treatment free, raise queens, try out six kinds of hives, sell nucs, harvest pollen, extract honey, capture propolis, and expand to fifty colonies all in your first year. There will be time enough to do those things and more, but take it slowly. There is an incredible amount to learn and you will never know it all. If you learn how to do one thing well before you add another, all of it will come out better in the end.

Honey Bee Suite

Two honey bees crawl out from behind the robbing screen. © Rusty Burlew.

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A checklist for wintertime hive prep

My wintertime checklist keeps evolving, and this year’s list is no exception. Based on the weird weather we’ve had all spring and summer, I expect we may have some strange weather through the winter as well. Here are some things to consider for wintertime preparation. Please note that many of the suggestions are alternatives—you may not be able to use all of the ideas.


Because I believe Varroa mites should be managed by the end of August, I don’t consider mite control as part of my winter preparations. Still, if you haven’t done anything, at least do a sugar roll test and see where you are. If you have a heavy mite load, it is my opinion that tending to them is the most important thing you can do for the coming winter.


Check each hive for a laying queen. Brood nests are smaller in the fall, but you should still see some brood in your colonies. If not, order a queen while there is still time.

Colony Size

  • If you have colonies that are extremely small, consider combining the smaller ones into one larger one.
  • If you want to keep colonies separate, consider stacking small colonies on top of larger ones with a double-screen board.

Honey Stores

  • I like to have around 80 pounds of honey in each double deep hive. We don’t have very cold winters here, but they are long. Rain can keep the bees from foraging right into April. Figure out how much honey you will need for your area, and if your hives are light, feed them.
  • Make sure the honey frames are in the right place. In a Langstroth, honey should be on both sides of the brood nest and above it. In a top-bar hive, the honey should be on one side of the cluster or the other, not both.
  • If honey stores remain questionable, consider making candyboards or candy cakes for winter.

Opportunistic Predators

  • Reduce hive entrances to keep out mice and other small creatures that might be looking for a warm place to spend the winter.
  • Remove weedy vegetation near the hives that small creatures can use as a ladder.
  • All ventilation ports should be screened, and all extra openings should be closed. Remember, the bees won’t leave their cluster to defend hive openings.
  • A mouse guard can be made from #4 hardware cloth.
  • A shrew guard can also be made from #4 hardware cloth. (Only use #4 when pollen is not being collected.)

Too Much Empty Space

Too much space in the hive increases draftiness and makes it harder for the bees to patrol for pests.

  • Consolidate frames into fewer boxes, if possible.
  • Remove extra boxes, especially those that are nearly empty.
  • Consider using follower boards to reduce empty space and increase insulation.


If moisture is coming in from the outside:

  • Make sure your lids fit well enough to keep out the rain.
  • Tip the hive slightly forward, so the water runs out the front, especially if you are using solid bottom boards.
  • In very rainy areas, consider a rain shelter.

If moisture from condensation is collecting inside your hives:

  • Consider using a moisture board in the lid.
  • Consider using a moisture quilt with ventilation ports. (Ports can be drilled at an angle so water drains out.)
  • Consider using a ventilated inner cover and/or a ventilated gabled roof.
  • Consider using a screened bottom board without a varroa tray all winter long.

Cold Temperatures

  • Consider using an inner cover for greater insulation
  • Consider using a slatted rack to add space between the bottom of the cluster and the drafty opening.
  • Consider wrapping your hives with insulation or tar paper, but don’t forget ventilation.
  • Consider using a skirt if your hives are off the ground.

High winds

  • Using a skirt can reduce drafts.
  • Secure lids with tie-downs or heavy objects
  • Shield upper ventilation ports from side winds.
  • Consider using a windbreak, such as bales of straw.


If flooding is a problem, don’t wait: move your hives now.


What’s wrong with this picture?

While cleaning out my shed, I discovered several hard sugar cakes which I had removed from my overwintered hives back in February. I had thrown them in a bucket and completely forgotten about them. Since we are into a nectar dearth—and my honey supers are off—I decided to put the sugar cakes out in the yard for the bees to finish.

In just a few minutes the cakes disappeared beneath a teeming mass of honey bees, but no one seemed to be fighting. The bees were just gorging themselves on the windfall, so I took a couple of photos.

While looking through the camera, however, I realized they weren’t all honey bees. Right in the center were two bumble bees of two different species.

I watched these bees throughout the afternoon. The honey bees and the two bumbles crawled over each other eating, grooming, flying off, coming back, and eating some more. They had no animosity toward each other at all. When I finally went in for the night, they were still out there and the sugar was almost gone. Bees never fail to surprise me.


Now that we’re in a nectar dearth, the honey bees are eager for something sweet. © Rusty Burlew.
It seems that honey bees are not the only ones willing to take a hand-out. © Rusty Burlew.

Sea glass bee waterer

Here’s another take on a honey bee water bar. Andrew, from North Andover, Massachusetts, filled a two-tiered plant stand with bowls of sea glass. He adds plain fresh water daily and he says his bees adore it. I love the colors. The blues and greens look icy, almost begging you to take a sip. Thanks, Andrew!

Andrew Graham Sea Glass Water Dish
Sea glass water dish. © Andrew G.