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.


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.

A marble bar for bees

I watered the shrubbery in front of my house and got the concrete driveway wet in the process. Within a few minutes, dozens and dozens of honey bees congregated on the concrete to lick up the cooling drops.

Recalling that honey bees love salt water pools, I made a wading pool for them from a flower pot saucer and a few handfuls of marbles. Then I added water and some table salt—nothing intense, just enough to give it a slightly brackish taste. I set the saucer on an industrial-size wooden spool in dappled shade and soon forgot about it.

They didn’t pay much attention the first day, but the following day I was amazed to see them climbing all over the marbles. Once they found the saucer, it became hard to keep it full. In the photo, the water is just about gone and so are most of the bees. Since then, I added more marbles so the water is deeper and I can fill it less often.

The bees around here have plenty to drink, so this isn’t a necessity but more of a “conversation piece.” They have streams, creeks, wetlands, and water seeping out of the hillsides. Still, it’s fun to be able to watch them up close. With so many hot days ahead, I think I will have lots to watch.


The honey bees finishing their first bowl of water. © Rusty Burlew.


How to feed bees in freezing weather

My husband came home yesterday and said the local postmaster was looking for me. It seems that one of his customers just lost seven out of nine hives and wants someone to explain why. Apparently he is a new beekeeper who took over the colonies from an elderly man and neither of them know why the bees are dying.

If we ever catch up with each other I will take a look, but seven out of nine is not a happy number. Without seeing a thing, my first guess would be starvation. Without a doubt, this was one of the worst years I’ve ever seen for lack of food stores.

Too cold and too hot

Last winter’s cold was interrupted by an unseasonably warm stretch that caused the maples to bloom early. This was immediately followed by drenching rains that kept the bees inside until the bloom was over. Then, just after the fruit trees began to blossom, a deep freeze shattered the flowers.

At that point, everyone was counting on the blackberry bloom to tide them over. But soon after the berries began to open, an extended heat wave dried them up. The arid summer and brown autumn that followed produced little nectar. Robbing bees were everywhere, gathering every drop of untended sweet. A sticky frame I had left on the picnic table soon disappeared under a pulsing mass of wings.

By September I had large, vivacious colonies with virtually no stores. Although I harvested not a single drop of honey, the hives were so light I could pick up the back end of most. I knew it would be a long, hard winter.

Making up for bad weather

I started by giving the colonies syrup while the weather was still warm, something I haven’t done in years. Then I fed them the frames of reserve honey I kept just in case. After that was gone, I started feeding sugar cakes. In spite of all the feeding, I lost one in December due to a clear case of starvation.

As I said, I haven’t yet inspected the seven dead colonies, but since the owner is close by and suffered the same weather patterns, I wouldn’t be surprised if they starved. And since many places in North America had sere summers, I wanted to remind you to check on food stores the first chance you get.

Too cold to feed bees?

Beekeepers often say they want to check for stores but it is too cold to open the hive. In my opinion, if you believe they might be low and the weather is cold, there is no point in waiting for a warm day to go through the frames. Instead, go ahead and give them reserved honey if you have it or at least a sugar supplement—and do it now.

Candy boards are extremely helpful and, this year, my plan was to make candy boards for each hive. I purchased the materials I needed to make the boards, but never got to it.

But the system I use allows me to feed the bees on cold days, even down in the 20s F. This is what I do:

  1. I make no-cook candy cakes by mixing a little water into a lot of sugar. I put the wet sugar in paper plates and let it dry rock hard. (If I’m in a hurry, I dry it in the oven.)
  2. When the cakes are hard I sprinkle each one with a drop or two of essential oil, such as anise. The scent helps the bees find the sugar, if nothing else.
  3. I pop the cakes out of the plate and stack them in a bucket along with my hive tool.
  4. At the hive, I take off the lid. The bees stay warm because the quilt box holds most of the heat in, even with the lid off.
  5. With the hive tool, I crack the quilt from the feeder rim below it, but I don’t remove the quilt.
  6. I take a candy cake in one hand, lift the corner of the quilt with the other, and slide the candy cake into the feeder rim, placing it directly over the cluster.
  7. If you are ready, this takes about one or two seconds. The hive loses very little heat because you never remove the quilt. It’s like opening and closing a window on a cold day: they get a little gush of cold air, then the temperature returns to normal.
  8. Replace the lid and go to the next hive.

The idea that you shouldn’t feed your (possibly) starving bees because they might get cold in the process doesn’t make any sense to me. If they are out of food, they will die whether they are cold or not. So if you think they might be short of food, prepare in advance, and do it as fast as you can. You don’t have to go through every frame and then decide.

Nature isn’t always nice

Naturally, the best possible food for bees is the honey they stored for themselves. But it doesn’t always work out that way even if you didn’t harvest. If you think your bees may be hungry, go ahead and give them some help. Warm weather may come too late.

Remember, too, that the rate of consumption increases as spring approaches. Just when stores are lowest, they use them the fastest. Every year, thousands of colonies die in the last weeks before the first nectar flows. Remember that, and check on your bees early.


A candy board is a good alternative to sugar cakes. © Herb Lester.