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.

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Sheryl L Simmons says:

    a very interesting and enjoyable article. I never realized that bees were such a needed species. I have a new respect for them. Thank you for your part in the preservation of them.

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Thank you Sheryl, Bees are one piece of a pretty big pie! I hope you will share my post with your friends.

  3. Lynn Sipe says:

    Thanks Charlotte. I will definitely give this a go.

  4. Hello, thank you for posting this very helpful information. I lost one of five last winter to starvation and definitely don’t want that to happen again! Thanks to you no more winter starvation. John

  5. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    You are welcome. It doesnt work everytime but I think it helps.

  6. robert miller says:

    I have a question i’m looking to move 3 hives to under a over hang of a old barn to get them out of the summer heat last year my wife had me put patio unbrellas over the hives because they were on the outside of the hives by mid morning. i’m just wanting to know if you think this would be a good or bad ideal

  7. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Do you live in an area with intense heat? If not, the bees are capable of handling things on their own pretty well. If you have not, you could add screened bottoms boards to increase ventilation, slatted racks between the bottom board and 1st hive body and/or popicle sticks under the top to increase air flow. I dont see a problem with putting them under a shed as long as you still have plenty of room to work them and the ground is dry. (This is for those who live in an area with small hive beetles.)

  8. Hi Charlotte! I’m very concerned about my struggling hives and this cold snap coming in. Tomorrow is supposed to be 60 degrees around 2. Should I “emergency feed” my hives to get through the next couple days? I thought about bringing my hive bodies down to 1 box as well, except for the hives that have brood and higher population of course. I really need some guidance.

  9. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Well, that is not easy to say. BUT, if you colonies are small and you are concerned that they do not have enough honey near the cluster.. then yes, I would.

  10. Beekeeper Charlotte,

    I really enjoyed reading your article. What is harsh weather? I am from California and now live in Georgia where I plan to raise honey bees. Georgia is harsh considering Northern California weather. What do you consider harsh and in what temperatures can honey bees fend for themselves without concern from their beekeeper?

    ~Matthew

  11. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Hi Matthew, Healthy well prepared honey bee colonies usually do quite well by themselves. However, it’s those marginal colonies that I worry about. For myself, I worry a bit when temps dip into the teens.

  12. I have been feeding wild bees in my yard to keep my humming birds feeders free for the birds. Now that they have left to migrate I still have the bees. When should I stop feeding the bees?

  13. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Sure, I would stop.

  14. robert du Rivage says:

    How do bees get their water requirement if they’re eating sugar instead of honey?

  15. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    The heat of the cluster gives off moisture that is absorbed by the dry sugar. And, of course – on warm winter days the bees would gather water if needed.

  16. Heather Tanner says:

    This is my first winter and I already lost a hive this season and trying to keep my other hive healthy and alive! Especially following my beetle battle. Thank you for this information!!

  17. Ron Linderman says:

    I live in central Florida.. will my bees do ok in our mild weather without feeding them? We seldom even get a frost.

  18. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Most likely since you dont have cold weather – but I would still monitor their food occasionally.

  19. Charlotte, I have always been told to make sure your bees have adequate food for winter. I am in middle west Georgia (south of Atlanta) so that generally means at least a shallow super with all fames full going into winter. I have also heard that once bees form the winter cluster, they won’t break it to access the food. How do the bees reach the food stored for them in the shallow super and not strave?

  20. Charlotte Anderson says:

    That’s a good question Mark. We want the cluster (at least the edge of it) to always be in contact with food. The cluster itself will move slowly following the sections of honey. In most cases – bees in the bottom box worth their way up to the top box by the end of Winter. And, bees will break cluster on any warm(ish) day and move some food, do orientation flights etc.