Sugar Cakes for Bees

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One technique beekeepers use to give a bit of “food insurance” to their hives is to make sugar cakes for bees. In a food shortage emergency, this bit of extra sugar provides some needed carbohydrates. Ideally, these are put in place before cold arrives – they can be the difference between colony survival or death.

Sugar cake for bees being prepared in bowl.

In a perfect situation, honey bees work hard throughout the warm months storing honey before cold weather arrives. If they need a helping hand, feeding bees sugar water before cold weather arrives can help them get ready. Colonies that run out of food – will die.

Why Your Hive May Need Sugar Patties

We see the worker bees collecting the resources needed by the colony to sustain life. They visit flowers to gather pollen for a protein source – needed for raising young. It is stored as bee bread in honeycomb cells for later use.

Thousands of bees collect plant nectar that is used to make honey. This is stored in capped wax cells use by the bees as needed. It seems like honey bees have a good plan that works for them.

A healthy honey bee colony in a region with plenty of nectar sources should be able to sustain the cold months with their stores of food. But, this does not always happen. There are several reasons why your hive might benefit from sugar cakes:

  • colonies are not as healthy as in years past
  • weather extremes are more common
  • pests contribute to weaker- shorter lived foragers
  • a late season swarm might leave the home colony low in population
  • queen problems
  • bad hive management

With colony health on the decline, our bees just do not seem to be as hardy today as they were 40 years ago. Beekeepers have had to adjust.

Another issue is an abundance of strange weather patterns. This is certainly true for my region. We seem to experience wild swings in temperatures and rainfall.

Bees need optimal weather to promote good pollen and nectar sources. Days of rain during a major nectar flow prevents bees from foraging. Likewise, a drought or lack of rain may result in a late season nectar dearth.

Our colonies are under constant assault from various bee pests and viruses.  Fewer workers that do not live as long result in a struggle to collect needed resources.

Colonies that throw swarms late in the season may be slow to recover. Especially, if they experience trouble in requeening the mother hive.

And sometimes, sad to say, it is the fault of the beekeeper. Through greed or inexperience, a beekeeper may harvest too much honey – taking a share when the bees have none to spare.

Making Wet Sugar Cakes for Your Bees

Despite good fall feeding (if needed), I am always concerned that small clusters won’t be able to reach food. My method of feeding soft damp sugar cakes in the hive in cold weather combines ideas from several other feeding methods.

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This emergency feeding method has been used in my bee yard for years. I call it “emergency”, but it can be used any time during the cold months of the year.

And, it is best placed inside the hive before cold arrives. This prevents having to open the beehive in cold temperatures.

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Sugar, supplement and water to make emergency bee food image.
  1. Pour pure cane sugar in a large bowl or bucket (I never measure). Slowly add just enough warm water to make the sugar clump together. We are not trying to dissolve the sugar – just stick it together.

    Normally, I am using a 1:1 sugar water for the mixing but it really doesn’t matter. A large spoon is handy for rolling the sugar around to make sure it is all coated and damp.
  2. I also add in a bit of Honey B Healthy (or other feeding supplement). You can add just a bit of your honey if you wish-but I have found it not necessary. Do not use honey from unknown sources. This causes a risk of American Foul Brood being present.

    For the feeding supplement – I really don’t measure. Just a small spoon of Honey B Healthy (or your own essential oil recipe for bees) – don’t over do it!

Try to use pure cane sugar for making sugar cakes for bees. It is more digestible than white sugar made from beets. If the bag doesn’t say pure cane sugar – it ain’t.

Placing Sugar Cakes in the Hive

On a “somewhat” mild day in late Fall (right before cold weather) briefly open the hive. Do not remove any frames and try to minimize the time with the hive open.

Place a piece of newspaper on top of the clustered bees, spray it with a little sugar water. Spoon a large clump of the sugar cake or patty on the newspaper. Close the hive.

The mixture is pliable but not as firm as a DIY candy board for bees it molds between the frames as you reassemble the hive. It does not require a shim. (A shim is a simple rectangular frame that is the same width and length as a honey super -only 1 – 2 inches tall.)

Clumps of sugar mix on newspaper in hive image.

This practice helps some of my smaller colonies survive. The first time I tried this process, it was a true emergency feeding situation and I hoped it would help some of the smaller clusters survive the record cold.

Upon the next hive inspection, the bees had certainly made good use of my sugar cake emergency patty. It does no harm and may save a colony of bees that is in transition moving from one box to another during bitter cold.

Sugar cake on beehive as emergency food.

Small Colonies Benefit Most from Sugar Cakes

Honey bees have the remarkable ability to generate heat. The cluster of bees gather close together inside and vibrate wings to stay warm.

But, they must stay in constant contact with honey. This is how cold-blooded honey bees survive Winter. Those colonies with smaller clusters (fewer bees) might survive a mild cold season. 

But, bitter cold temperatures require a larger bee population to maintain proper temperatures. Yet, even large clusters will die (and quickly) if the cluster loses contact with food. 

Why Liquid Feed is Usually Not Best

Can you give your bees regular liquid feed? No, in most situations you should not feed bees sugar water in Winter. While it would provide food for the bees, it is not the same concentrated resource as honey.

And, feeding sugar water tends to introduce increased moisture into the hive. Beekeepers try to ensure good hive ventilation during the cold season. We do not want to add more moisture to the inside.

If you live in a region with very cold temperatures, your sugar water may freeze long before it helps the bees. Besides, cold bees huddled in a cluster can not leave to go to the bee feeder.

Beekeeper feeding sugar cakes to bees on newspaper in hive.

Preparation to Prevent Emergency Feeding

The best situation for your hives is to avoid having to feed bees in Winter or even worry about it. No beekeeper enjoys finding dead hives that didn’t have to die.

Develop a successful fall feeding plan for colonies in need. Check your beehive records from the last couple of years if you have them – and you should. Did your colonies fare well with the food stored?

But, even with good attention to preparing your beehives for the cold, they can still get into trouble without attention. Beekeepers must keep an eye on their colonies. I watch the food reserves of my hives closely as we move through January – February and March.

Without truly opening the hive, a quick peek under the inner cover can tell me a lot. Are a lot of hungry bees looking at you with no honey in sight? If so, it is time to take action.

Final Thoughts

In most cases, providing your hives with a small sugar cake does not harm and it might help some colonies make it through until Spring. A safer alternative than liquid feed, sugar cakes inside the hive can be placed right where the bees are – a definite advantage in cold weather.