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.
Honey Bee Suite