feeding bees honey bee nutrition

Snacking on sugar cakes: it’s a bee thing

Last week a reader wrote in to ask why her bees weren’t more logical. She said her hive is full of honey and a lot of it is right next to the bees. But regardless of the vast supply of honey, her bees scarfed down sugar cakes as if there were no tomorrow. Is this normal?

It is normal. Time and again I’ve watched bees eat sugar and ignore the honey. It seems as if they prefer it, although I have no idea why. Maybe it’s like a child’s preference for sweets over dinner, except that honey is sweeter than table sugar. Maybe it’s easier to eat. Maybe it melts in your mouth and not on your feet. Who knows?

The good news is that table sugar is extremely low in ash—ash being the stuff left over after you burn away a sample. In honey, the ash is made up mostly of minerals and oxides of metals.

A typical sample of honey may contain about 0.17% ash, whereas refined table sugar contains only about 0.07% ash. So that’s roughly 2.5 times as much ash in the honey as in the sugar. And of course if the honey is dark, it will contain an even greater amount of ash.

A diet high in ash is more likely to cause dysentery in bees that are not free to take cleansing flights. So while it seems like refined sugar might be an unnatural food that is not good for bees, in truth it can help them overwinter.

On the downside, refined sugar provides only energy and none of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients commonly found in honey. Just like our mothers told us, sugar is indeed full of “empty calories.” So for the long term health of a colony, the bees definitely need honey. But for those few short weeks between the end of winter and the first nectar flow when honey is scarce or difficult for the cluster to find, a few candy cakes will hold them in good stead.



  • I am in Thailand and now I am about to the point where I will set up my first bee boxes. I am in the middle of acres and acres of fruit orchards which has normally 2 crops a year. That should provide enough so that candy cakes etc won’t be necessary?

  • I wonder if survivor bees are genetically predisposed to early spring/late winter consumption of low ash (low solids) calories so as to decrease risk of disease. Generally fall honey would be on the dark side thus higher in ash. Eating that is more likely to cause dysentery than spring nectar (usually light) or white sugar. Fascinating site—so much food for thought. Thank you.

  • Are “candy cakes” the same as fondant?
    Thanks – A newbee planning on getting through our winter in MD!

  • Hi Rusty,
    I’m preparing to make my girls some hard candy this week. In one of your articles you mentioned that you add anise. How much do you add to the 10 lb sugar recipe? Also, are “candy cakes” the same as “hard candy” ?
    Thanks in advance!

    • Barbara,

      You won’t like my answer, but my bottle of anise oil has a plastic top that allows you to shake out drops. I shake it onto the sugar until I think it’s right. Very scientific. I’m guessing it’s about 1/8 tsp. It’s the smell that attracts them to the sugar, so as long as they can smell it, I’m happy.

      I call hard candy that was molded in paper plates “cakes” because of the shape but, yes, it is the same.

  • Thank you. That was helpful… I also have the small bottle that shakes out drops so I’m good to go…………. Happy New Year!

  • The cakes turned out perfect. I put them out in the garage to harden overnight and plan to share with the bees this afternoon. My final question about the cakes is regarding storage. I know you said “somewhere moisture free”, so I’m assuming the freezer would not be a good idea. I don’t think inside the house is the best place either as I noticed that one of them was getting a bit soft while sitting on the counter. I’m thinking I’ll just keep them in the garage (it’s very cold out there), in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Good idea?
    TIA !

    • Barbara,

      I wrap them up and keep them in my garden shed, which is a lot like a garage. Just make sure the mice can’t get them.

  • New beekeeper here and I’m not sure if this information is somewhere else on this site, but I can’t find it. I know winter patties and fondant are supposed to be emergency feed for the winter and the bees will eat it directly and liquid syrup is no good in the winter because they can’t dry it out enough. But my question is can you feed winter patties and fondant in the fall? Would they be able to mix it with moisture and store it or will they they just eat it directly and not be able to build up winter stores? It seems to be easier to manage the patties and they seem less inclined to robbing. Thanks for your help and advice!

    • Rob,

      The main problem with liquid feed in winter is that it gets too cold. If the bees drink syrup when it’s too cold, it lowers their internal body temperature and makes them lethargic. It’s like us drinking ice-cold beverages on a freezing winter day: it just makes everything worse. Honey bees don’t need to dry out their feed in order to get nourishment from it. They can just drink it in liquid form if it isn’t too cold.

      You can feed winter patties and fondant in the fall, although if you feed winter patties (which are mostly sugar) you don’t need the fondant. Whatever you feed in fall and winter will mostly be eaten directly. Bees don’t make many additions to their winter stores when it’s cold outside because it’s hard for them to drive off enough water. That’s okay, though. As long as you keep them fed, they can get by without stored food, just be sure they don’t run out.

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