Feeding honeybees is critical in mid- to late-winter since bees need plenty of fuel to raise the brood chamber to 95 degrees for optimal brood rearing. Proper colony management requires that we leave adequate honey reserves on the hives for winter; however, if there is a shortage, we must feed the bees until the spring nectar flow kicks in.
When temperatures start dropping, bees have a difficult time processing heavy 2:1 sugar syrup. Many people use sugar bricks instead, but I prefer to use homemade fondant. The difference between fondant and sugar bricks is that the heat used to produce fondant inverts the sugar, breaking down sucrose molecules into smaller glucose and fructose molecules. Glucose and fructose are absorbed directly from the digestive tract without requiring the bees to expend additional energy.
Honey, which consists of glucose and fructose, provides bees with carbohydrates to generate warmth for the cluster. When bees convert nectar or sugar syrup into honey, they add an enzyme that breaks down complex sugars into simple glucose and fructose. These simple sugars are stored until they are needed. If a hive is in distress and needs added food, I want to provide something more readily usable for energy than complex sugar (sucrose).
One caveat: If a hive is starving, any form of sugar is better than none!
Making fondant requires sugar, water, a pinch of sea salt, and an acid. Heating water and sugar to the point where it breaks down naturally creates inverted sugar. You must use a candy thermometer or one that can tolerate over 234 degrees (digital works best!), because you cook the mixture to the soft ball stage. In addition to sugar, I add a few other ingredients to give the bees more nutrition. I add Honey B Healthy to the slightly cooled syrup plus some powdered pollen substitute (the latter only in late winter).
The fondant recipe below is for late-winter emergency feeding. Heavy syrup should not be fed at this time of year since bees cannot metabolize moisture during cold weather. Once brood rearing begins, change the candy to one containing pollen/protein to feed the developing brood. Do not spur brood rearing too early, because that might threaten the sustainability of the hive.
If you search online for bee fondant, you will find many recipes and videos. You can also buy fondant from most bee supply companies. Commercial fondant and online recipes often use corn syrup to make it more pliable and prevent it from crystallizing too soon. If you use corn syrup, use a standing mixer to beat the syrup to avoid creating a mess. I prefer not to use corn syrup — my bees have no problem with the crystallized form of fondant.
To feed fondant to your bees, place a shim between the top hive body and the inner cover. Lay two small pieces of wood on the top bars of the frames and gently place fondant pieces onto these so that they can be accessed all the way around. Fondant is thin enough to fit on the top bars of the hive with just a 1.5- or 2-inch shim. I put down a piece of waxed paper with slits first and then put the fondant patty on top of that. If I don’t want to disturb the cluster in the middle of winter, I slide the fondant onto the inner cover, partially covering the oval opening, and the bees come up to eat the sugary food. You can freeze extra fondant for later use. The bees usually make short work of it!
Fondant or Bee Candy Recipe
Ingredients: 8 cups (4 pounds) white cane sugar
2 cups water
Dash of sea salt
1 tsp apple cider vinegar (1/4 tsp per lb of sugar)
2 tsp Honey B Healthy (1/2 tsp per lb of sugar)
3 disposable 9-inch pie pans
1. Dissolve sugar in water in a heavy-bottomed, wide-mouth pot over medium heat, then bring the mixture to a boil. The mixture swells during the boiling phase, so use a large pot.
2. Continue to boil without stirring, until the temperature reaches 234 degrees. Use a candy thermometer for maximum accuracy.
3. Remove from heat. Let the mixture cool to 200 degrees without stirring.
4. Add 2 teaspoons of Honey B Healthy and 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. This shifts the pH to be better suited for the bees.
5. Use a hand mixer to beat the syrup until it turns a bit cloudy, which indicates that candy crystals are beginning to form.
6. Immediately pour the thickening liquid into shallow aluminum pie pans lightly greased with olive oil.
7. Leave pans to cool completely.
Disposable pie pans stack easily for transporting, and the fondant pops right out. Fondant can be used as soon as it cools or it can be stored in plastic bags in the freezer. The sugar cakes are harder and more brittle when cold, but they soften in the warmth of the hive. Don't put fully frozen fondant directly into a hive!