I really don’t want to write another post about cooking with sugar, mostly because all my carefully honed and lovingly nurtured communication skills fall to ruin after I type the word “sugar.” For some reason, people don’t understand what I’m saying and there’s only one person to blame.
But after a bunch of recent requests for a recipe, I decided to try again. The problem begins with the idea of a recipe because a recipe implies a ratio of ingredients that will give you the proper results. But cooking with sugar is more of a process than a formula.
If I start by explaining that table sugar (or sucrose) is a disaccharide that you want to invert into a mixture of glucose and fructose by way of a hydrolysis reaction, you won’t remember. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter. Trust me on this.
Changing the format
Just think of it this way: when boiling sugar you are changing its format. Instead of little crystals you will get either a smooth and pliable dough (fondant) or a hard candy, something akin to a lollypop. These formats are easier for you to handle—and less likely to be discarded by your dinner guests—than tiny sugar crystals.
To make fondant or hard candy, you simply dissolve the sugar in the smallest amount of water possible and then cook it to drive the water back out. Really. You don’t need any other ingredients, but a little lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar helps to speed up the conversion of sucrose into glucose and fructose.
The amount of water doesn’t matter
Beekeepers argue about the amount of water needed to start, but it doesn’t matter. You can put ten pounds of sugar in three cups of water or in five gallons of water—you will get the same thing in the end. But the more water you use, the longer it will take to drive it all off again. The trick is to use as much water as necessary, but as little as possible.
The temperature you cook the solution to determines the consistency of the final product. Boiling until 234°F gives you fondant, boiling to 250°F will give you hard candy. For more on these temperatures, called stages, and for information about calibrating your thermometer, see my previous post, “Notes on cooking with sugar syrup.”
Also see How to make fondant from table sugar.
I’ve probably read every one of your candy posts six times over, and it’s just now occurring to me that I should make cake instead of fondant next time. My poor stand mixer is about to give up the ghost, and I wouldn’t have to use it! Only problem with the cake recipe for me is, I need paper plates instead, and my Mom raised me crazy/frugal so I don’t use them in my house. Do you think I could pour the stuff into a eke? How would you keep it from flowing out?
I’ve been mulling over this since yesterday. I don’t know how to do it unless you build something like a candy board to pour it in. Nan mentioned using pie plates, which is a good idea if you have a lot of them. She used aluminum ones, but you could use regular ones if you could get the candy out. One reason I don’t like candy boards is they are very heavy and also I’ve seen the candy break out of them and fall all over the place. I don’t know the answer . . . still thinking on it.
Now I know what you are talking about, lol. I made a batch about six weeks ago and now I know I put in way too much water. Thanks for helping us new beekeepers.
Even though I know what you are talking about in your blogs, I appreciate you taking the time and explaining things the way you do. Sometimes, some of us readers listen then can’t follow the simple steps in front of us. You are truly a great help to the BEEKEEPING Community!
What a nice compliment! Thank you.
Note to readers: Do use a candy thermometer! As kids, we made candy, so I tried guessing at the “hard ball” stage. Um – if your sugar cakes don’t harden, you can scrape it back into the pot and re-boil. But what a mess. Also, any syrup you spill on the stove or counter will harden to marine varnish.
I found 3/$1 aluminum pie plates work better than paper plates. While they’re cooling, I can lay cookie racks over them and more cakes on top, to clear counter space. And the cakes pop out easier. (Remember Rusty’s post of bees shredding a paper plate from under a sugar cake? That was mine ;-))
Rusty: all is not lost with the next generation! The young couple from our club who came to help me check hives quickly on a cold day asked how to make sugar cakes. When I described the process, the young man shrugged, “Oh, just like making candy.” Yessss! There is hope!
Last: if you are removing Varroa boards after a cold night, note the debris circle to locate the cluster so you can place the cake right over it, giving the bees quick access to it. It does seem to make a difference where you set it.
Thanks as always for the wealth of information.
Shady Grove Farm
Really good point about the location of the cluster.
I added raw sugar to my hives last year and the bees seemed to eat it up just as well as the hard candy. I plan to feed them raw sugar again this year as soon as I get a mild day to do it.
I understand how hard candy is easier to add to a hive on a cold day, but I don’t think the format of the sugar makes much difference to the bees, does it?
Personally, I now feed just plain old granulated sugar in a tray. To me, it is way too much work to cook sugar and I hate doing it. This is my second year of feeding sugar straight out of the bag and I can’t tell any difference in consumption or bee health.
I’m only going into my third winter, but ditto on all that. When I switched to the so-called Mountain Camp Method last winter, feeding the bees raw granulated sugar, I was in love.
I’m actually using a variation on Mountain Camp, using Amino-B Booster. That will be my next posted recipe.
With seven hives, I do like the solid cakes, because I can tip up the moisture quilt with one hand, slip the cake in with the other, and let it back down. With sugar I’d have to either set the tray on the bars, then pour, or fill it first and then set it in. Either way, it takes both hands and the lids & quilt all the way off, plus the risk of spilling.
And your recipe makes enough cakes for two feedings, a month apart. So it’s that not much trouble. Just something for others to consider.
Just yesterday I cooked my first batch of fondant and found your recipe and instructions perfect! Thanks for publishing your blogs.
I had a bit of a problem with my sugar candy plates this year; I must not have boiled it long enough because in the heat of the hive it melted on top and I had a handful of drowned bees in it. The rest of the bees avoided it after that. I scraped out the dead bees and put the whole plate into a mesh lingerie bag (for washing nylon stockings and such) this gave the bees an escape ladder and they cleaned the plate quite quickly after that. I have added a four-pack of dollar store lingerie bags to my beekeeping supplies. I’m leaning toward trying to make hard candy/syrup by adding as little water as possible to a plate of sugar. My bees this year are carnolian/italian cross, and they are kind of pissy compared to the italians I had before, so I want to be able to slip the plates in without too much fussing with the hive.
The mesh bag idea is clever; you never know what might come in handy for beekeeping. I long ago stopped boiling sugar, however, because it is too much work. I just put sugar in a paper plate, squirt it with water and anise oil, and let it dry into a hard crust. Then I just slip the whole plate in the hive. Works great.
I take 2 cups sugar to 3/8 cup water and microwave 2 minutes then stir. Cook 4 more minutes then let rest 3 minutes. Pour into molds. Bees love it. Keeps them alive. Microwave on high.
Good to know. Thank you.
This is my first year keeping bees. I bought pro pollen winter parties for them. Should I still feed them sugar candy?
Basically they serve different purposes. The candy is primarily for energy and the pollen patties provide the protein necessary to raise brood. What you feed your bees in winter should be based on what they need. If they have plenty of stored honey and pollen, they may not need more. If they are short on one or both, feed them accordingly.
Been beekeeping a couple of years; I’ve always purchased feed, so I thought I’d have a go at making my own bee food. I found using plastic take away tubs as moulds means that they are easy to store and all you need to do is remove the lid and upturn the the tub over the feed hole when you need it.
When is the best time to start feed candy board or fondant? Do you put it in before the cold weather hits or when food stores are just about empty? Thank you for all the good information.
You can do it either way. If the candy boards contain a pollen supplement, I would wait until later. But if not, anytime is okay to add them.
What essential oils do you recommend? Will lemongrass work?
When I use essential oils, it’s only as a feeding stimulant to help the bees find the food. I use anise oil for that purpose, but only a drop or two.
Do you also feed pollen patties along with fondant?
I feed pollen patties beginning after the winter solstice when brood rearing begins.
I have tried to make fondant twice now. Both times it has been grainy. It also stays in a semi-liquid state then hardens over night to a solid state. It never becomes pliable enough to knead. Help! What am I doing wrong?
Fondant is hard to make. Did you follow the directions in the other post, “How to make fondant from table sugar?” It usually turns out to be a problem with the thermometer. I used to use two, and they never read the same. It’s also hard to do on high humidity days because there is so much moisture in the air. I now skip the whole thing and make no-cook candy boards, which are better for the bees anyway because they have no HMF which forms when you cook sugar or add an acid.
Sadly, I must have used too much loose sugar on the screen board. The sugar absorbed moisture from outside and rained syrup down destroying the colony. What was a booming hive turned into a drowned mess.
Never ever will I put loose sugar inside a bee hive again.
I am cooking down to hard candy.
This sounds like a moisture problem, rather than a loose sugar problem. Put a brick of sugar in a normally functioning hive and it will be rock-hard in a few days. But too much moisture load in a hive can be very damaging. I think perhaps a moisture quilt is your best bet. If you have an overload of moisture in a hive, even hard candy will melt.
Rusty – I have three Warre NUC’s I am attempting to overwinter. They came from queen rearing successes this summer. Two have filled single brood boxes, queens healthy and strong, lots of bees. I’ve squeezed in one frame of honey in each. A frame of honey is about 4.4 pounds in my hives. I fed each hive 3L of 2:1 sugar syrup. Because they had insufficient time to build large colonies they did not store capped honey.
To get them through winter I plan feeding them hard candy sugar. Hard sugar – because I have two are being stacked for winter. For feeding I’ve build in – feeder frames – 2″ high that have “doors” that open so the candy bricks can be simply slid on to the top of the frames without lifting any boxes. The set-up is new – so testing just now how well the bees go for the sugar (this is mid-September – in Southwest BC). Bees wasted no time to getting at the sugar. Large clusters of bees surround the bricks. Here’s my question?
On my mite boards I’m getting deposits of sugar – very granular that is without question coming from the hard candy. The candy bricks are simply sitting on top of the frames. This allows “crumbs” to fall away and down to the lower mite board. Is this a normal outcome of using hardened candy when placed directly on top of frames? Or rather – could it be that the sugar could be made harder by trying to get the stuff to a higher temperature? As it is I’m pretty sure I got to 250 degrees – but could not reach 260 without crazy stuff happening like all the water evaporating and the mass turning almost like cotton candy. At around 250 the sugar was easy to pour into molds and hardened like bricks once cooled. I like the idea of the candy bricks sitting directly on top of the frames. You can’t get bee food closer to a cluster. What I’m worried about is how much of the sugar will be lost to this process – falling out of reach. Right now the piles are small but if the bricks are left until finished there might be quite a lot of sugar falling to below the hive.
In my experience, bees will dispose of sugar crystals like trash when it’s warm enough to fly. To them, it’s not honey but something hard and unfamiliar.
Once it gets cold outside and the bees cluster, the warmth of their breath causes condensation to form on the surface of the hard candy. This moisture dissolves the sugar on the surface into a thin syrup-like texture that they treat like syrup or honey. Eventually they eat the whole thing.
I always feed my bees hard candy in the winter, but I don’t give it to them until they are clustering, otherwise they will dump it.
So that’s what I think is happening. I like your idea, by the way, of the stacked boxes and feeder in between. Very cool.
Rusty – thanks greatly. Your reply is very helpful. I’ll for sure hold off until things are winter-like. This step was actually more a “test” given the feeder idea is something I needed to work out before winter arrives fully and it being the first time using hard candy. This means back to 2:1 for the next short while. Dislike thinking they hauled the sugar away and did not stash it somewhere in the hive for safe keeping. Learning bees is a slow process.
Just curious: What is the bottom of the upper hive made of? Does it have a screened bottom? I might like to do something like that and am wondering about the setup.
Rusty, boxes are stacked using a snell board. I built two of them a few years ago and use them from time to time. You know them. Originally mine had a single – 3.5″ hole cut in the board that was screened on top. I modified it a bit to improve air movement between the two colonies by drilling out another 4-holes and similarly screening off those to keep bees from the lower box having direct contact. The snell board has several openings but for this application only one opening used. Above the snell board I have a slatted base.
The entire stack looks like this:
1. Base with mite board slot
2. Screened bottom board that sits on top of the base and above the mite board slot
3. Slatted base
4. Box 1 – a single brood box containing entire lower colony (a summer NUC)
5. Feeder rack – this sits on top of Box 1 and is in place to enable sugar bricks (cakes) being inserted without lifting hive boxes. Feeder rack has a 3/4″ hole drilled for an upper entrance
6. Snell board as described above it (separates Box 1 and it’s feeder rack from the above colony)
7. Slatted rack – on top of snell board. This is the second such rack in place
8 Box 2 – single brood box containing another entire colony from a summer NUC
9. Feeder rack – same one below
11. Roof with a thin inside layer of blue closed cell foam insulation for winter. Lots of vents for ventilation.
All this for trying to successfully overwinter NUC’s I created this past summer when playing with grafting. All the NUC’ did very well so was extremely reluctant to combine them into larger wintering colonies. If I knew how to attach an image I’d provide a photo.
I would love to see a photo (and maybe do a short post on this?). You can email a photo to me: email@example.com
I’m excited to see it.
We are going to try the microwave method as I do not have a candy thermometer. I will pour the mixture into strips on either side of a moisture pillow on the top box.
Should we put the candy onto a paper plate or paper?
It is supposed to be 37 degrees today so will get this candy into the hive this afternoon. Please advise and thanks,
You will need something to support it until it hardens. A paper plate would work.
I just stumbled on your site while lazily searching the net for anything bee related to assuage my depression over it NOT being bee keeping season.
Great articles I must say and the winter feeding discussions are always interesting. I am a queen and nuc producer in northern Ontario where the winters are long and emergency spring feeding is always on the mind. I agree with your thoughts on feeding sugar; that it is only for emergencies and granulated is as good as anything so why bother with making fondant etc. I generally start checking in late February and feed granulated sugar on top of the inner cover. I don’t pop any inner covers until temps get above 10’C so I’m going by weight of the hive. Mid march I add a pollen patty or two. The only thing I would add, and I learned this for a friend who’s forgotten more about beekeeping than I’ll know, is that it it his opinion that if there isn’t a water source available to the bees, dry sugar can be more difficult for them to convert which is why a soft fondant, having at least some moisture might be easier for them to convert. I know of no studies that prove this but it makes sense to me.
Enjoy your day!
You are correct. It has been proven that water is necessary for the bees to digest solid sugar. However, I find that enough water condenses on the hard sugar from the bees’ respiration to dissolve it. It condenses on the surface and dissolves the outer layers, which the bees lick off. Then more condenses until they can lick off the next layer, and so on. That said, moisture conditions (humidity, rainfall, etc) will vary with climate, so there may be cases when respiration alone isn’t enough. It’s a good thing to consider.
I SWEAR you used to have a recipe on here for the hard candy for winter feeding bees. I understand your update and all about people calling into question your methods, but I loved that recipe and now I can’t find it. I just can’t quite recall the steps of stirring and not stirring. I have a candy thermometer and understand how it all works…. is it here and I just can’t find it? Thanks in advance if you can provide me with the link. I found the candy on a paper plate was so easy and quick to deal with…
Could it be one of these?
Rusty – the recipe couldn’t be more simple as you know. I make “your” sugar bricks. I just dump granulated sugar into a large stainless bowl and add just enough water to get it “damp”. Sort of like spring-snow. I made a wooden frame that I fill with the damp sugar. The frame is about 1.25″ in height and designed to make 2-bricks. I line the frame with parchment paper for ease of getting the sugar out once it has hardened. I place the filled frame in our furnace room. Within a few days the sugar is hard – not as a rock – but hard enough to be handled. When I “cooked” sugar the bricks came out like rocks and there was a risk of over-heating the sugar. But – simply wetting the sugar is all I’ve found necessary along with the furnace room. Yes, last thought – I cut a dowel that fits the inside dimensions of the frame. This allows me to pack the sugar down so as to get a nice compact flat lump of sugar that can be easily handled.
Thank you, Vince. Once I started using damp sugar instead of cooked sugar, I never looked back!