Fife’s fondant mountain

A little later in the year than usual due to work commitments …

In late August 2014 I described how I feed my bees fondant in the autumn. It’s a simple, quick, clean and efficient way to feed colonies. Additionally, I’m reasonably convinced that there are advantages for the bees as well as the beekeeper. The advantages (over syrup, either homemade or Ambrosia for example) are numerous:

  1. Readily available, pre-packed and very easy to store.
  2. Ready to use … just unbox it, slice it open and add to the hive.
  3. Addition takes only a minute or two per hive.
  4. Compatible with many Varroa treatments (Apiguard and sublimation are two I’ve used at the same time as feeding fondant).
  5. No spillages (during preparation or delivery) so far less risk of attracting wasps or getting into trouble in the kitchen.
  6. No need for specialised equipment such as Miller or Ashworth feeders that need to be stored for the remaining 11 months of the year.
  7. It’s taken down and stored better in cold weather (than syrup) as evaporation of excess water isn’t needed.
  8. You can get later brood rearing as the brood nest isn’t packed out with syrup (possibly, see below).

Point 8 is perhaps debatable. This is my impression having used it for several years, though I’ll admit to never conducting a proper side-by-side comparison. Fondant is certainly taken down more slowly than syrup. A full block (12.5 kg) might take 4-5 weeks, though it can disappear much faster. Since the water content of fondant is not wildly different from honey it takes about the same amount of storage space. In contrast, even thick syrup (2:1 sugar to water by weight) needs to be concentrated by the bees, requiring more temporary storage (where the queen might be laying or you might want her to lay to raise those all-important winter bees), reasonable temperatures and more energy.

Don’t take my word for it …

Peter Edwards of Stratford BKA used to have a posting on feeding fondant but I’m reliably informed it’s disappeared in a website revamp. He was a strong a advocate of the ease and benefits of using fondant … so don’t think that this is just my crackpot idea. Actually, it’s not his crackpot idea either … it’s not crackpot at all. And there are very few new ideas in beekeeping.

I’ve used nothing but fondant for winter feeding for at least 5 years. I’m not aware of any problems doing this. My overwintering colony losses are satisfactorily low and almost always attributable to issues other than feeding. Like a Mac, “It just works.

How to feed fondant

Open the box and slice the block of fondant in half. There are two easy ways to do this:

  1. Use a strong breadknife in the kitchen. Cover the opposing faces with clingfilm. The idea here is to stop the fondant ‘fusing’ back together as you transport it to the apiary.
  2. Use a nice sharp spade in the apiary … forget the finesse, just stomp down hard and cut the block in two. Don’t worry about the few bits of mud and grass that get included.
Neater but harder ...

Neater but harder …

In both cases leave the plastic wrapping on and don’t cut right through it … the idea is to open the block out like a book and place it face down onto the top of the frames. I used to leave the queen excluder in place but generally only do this if there’s a reason I might need to inspect the colony again (with care you can lift the QE and fondant off together). The plastic wrapping on 5 sides of each half block stops the fondant drying out.

Finesse ... nul points ...

Finesse … nul points …

A block of fondant is about 20 x 20 x 32 cm. You’ll therefore need to work out a way of providing sufficient ‘headroom’ under the crownboard. The easiest way is to use an empty super. Alternatively, where I’ve got insulated perspex crownboards, I invert them over a simple eke allowing me to see how fast the fondant is used and top it up as necessary. If, like me, you consider hive insulation important leave this in place under the roof. If I’m using a super to enclose the fondant I try and use a polystyrene one for the same reason.

Poly super and fondant ...

Poly super and fondant …

I usually remove the empty  bag when I do the midwinter Varroa treatment, or before if they’ve finished it (in which case I might add another half block or so if ”hefting the hive’ indicates it’s still a bit light). The bees usually build some brace comb on the top of the frames extending into the bag. Just gently smoke them down and scrape it off, or leave it there until the Spring.

The end is nigh

Feeding the colony up for winter marks the end of the practical beekeeping season for me. I usually experience a mixture of sadness that it’s over again for the year, together with anticipation of what’s to come the following season. With the exception of a few nucs and some colonies in the bee shed, inspections and any sort of regular checks on the colonies are over. The summer honey harvest has been taken – hopeless this season unfortunately – and Varroa levels have been monitored and minimised.

Nevertheless, winter preparations such as feeding the colony up, uniting weak colonies which are unlikely to overwinter well, protecting the colony from mice or woodpeckers and hammering down the Varroa levels are some of the most important activities of the year. If done successfully there’s every reason to look forward to having strong, healthy colonies to start the following season.

You can purchase fondant from bakers and wholesale bakery suppliers such as Fleming Howden. The price I paid – thanks to a friend in the East of Scotland Beekeepers Association – was  £10.55 for 12.5 kg. Ordering in bulk – for example via a co-operative purchasing scheme through your local association – makes a lot of sense and will reduce (or remove altogether) the delivery costs. Single blocks purchased from your local baker might cost 50% more than the price I’ve quoted. Sugar prices vary on the commodities markets … in 2013 I paid about the same as this year, but in 2014 paid only about £9 a box.

BFP wholesale used to sell fondant and had regional outlets (Tamworth in the Midlands and Livingstone in Scotland) from which collection was possible. However, although they have gone into administration, I saw one of their lorries on the way to the office this morning and it appears that the Leeds and Livingstone branches may have been bought and remain operational.

 If you have the storage space it makes sense to buy in bulk. Keep it dry and away from wasps, rodents (and other beekeepers) and it has a shelf life of at least three years. You’ll also find it useful for a mid-winter boost, for feeding mini-nucs when queen rearing, for blocking queen cages and for Chelsea buns 😉

17 thoughts on “Fife’s fondant mountain

  1. Andy

    I just wanted to say keep posting, I know some times when you are blogging it’s difficult to know whether you are talking to yourself, or not. It’s interesting stuff


    1. David Post author

      Thanks Andy
      Don’t worry I will.
      I look at the access stats periodically … I know I’m talking to myself.

  2. David

    Coincidentally, I finally got myself in order last week and this morning at about 5:30am the icing fairy dropped off a quarter of a tonne of fondant! About to try it for autumn feeding for the first time. I have used syrup in the past, and I’m looking forward to the lack of feeders etc.

    I’d nearly got to the end of another bulk order from a couple of years ago. As you say, it’ll keep and keep.

    Now I just need to get it on the hives…

    1. David Post author

      Have fun lugging that lot down to the apiary! I had to transport mine over a rather precarious plank bridge on my hivebarrow.
      I split most of my blocks with a spade but also tried a couple with a simple 2″ wide strip of plastic removed from one face of the block. It will be interesting to see if there’s much difference in the rate the fondant disappears. It should be even less likely to dry out when prepared like this.
      I’m off to the apiaries to top up the nucs tomorrow as they seem to be getting through it at a good rate.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Emily
      I don’t know but I think that’s a very good question. I also think there are likely to be a variety of answers, including:

      • Because that’s what my mentor told me to do and/or that’s what was taught on the Beeginners Course
      • Because I’ve never thought about other options
      • Because I’ve got lots of time (and I like standing over the stove stirring litres and litres of hot syrup until the sugar dissolves)
      • Because I don’t factor in my time and/or petrol costs when comparing the prices
      • Because I have only 1-2 hives and the time saved is inconsequential

      Cost. I think you’re correct that syrup is (much) cheaper … to get about 15kg of stores per colony you probably need to feed about 25 litres of thick syrup, containing about 10kg of sugar (see the maths here) i.e. about £5-6 of sugar at retail prices. If you assume that fondant is at least 80% sugar (and I think the figure is higher – if anyone knows please add a further comment) then a single 12.5kg block at a tenner or so works out as up to twice as expensive.
      But … no preparation time, no spillage, no plastic jerrycans to fill, no feeders to buy and store. I think it’s a no-brainer for even the relatively modest number of colonies I run. For just a couple of colonies things might well be different.
      Easier to make. I don’t suggest anyone tries to make fondant at home … it’s simply not worth the effort and doing so negates most of the advantages of buying the pre-packed stuff.
      Finally, I think there’s a huge amount of conservatism in beekeeping … why does anyone use Porter escapes in their clear boards? I’ve got a half-written draft on this in preparation for the winter.

      1. calum

        hi David,
        I give 8-12kg liquid feed for a colony on 20 frames – thats fine to get them through the winter.
        14kg tops. I think its important to have an idea whats more work for the bees to convert the feed in whatever form to stores. Do they need to haul water to convert fondant to stores? I expect flying is taking more out of them than evaporating.

        1. David Post author

          Hello again!
          I think there’s probably sufficient condensation in the side walls and crownboard for the bees … no matchsticks here! It’s notable that at temperatures when the colonies no longer touch liquid stores – presumably because it’s either too distant to get to without chilling, or because it’s too cold to process and store – they continue to nibble away at the fondant, presumably using condensation if it’s too cold for water carriers.
          However, you make a good point and no doubt someone somewhere knows how to do the maths … as far as I’m concerned the primary reason I use fondant is convenience (for me). Even if it’s a little bit less convenient for the bees it still seems to work just fine. All the other reasons I list are secondary but, all together, I think they make a compelling case.

  3. calum

    nice idea, I will keep to my liquid feed for now.
    I paid 0,69€/kg this year. Bought 1500kg.
    My concern with fondant is that it could feasibly run (had this problem with queen raising cassettes that have the fondant above the frame. – If the temperature in the hive is high enough.
    Here we still have 20-24°C add a bit of sunshine and I’d be very worried to put the fondant face down on the frames. Maybe face up with a piece of pipe between the sacks so the bees can climb up.
    Calum Bavaria

    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum
      That’s a good price – is that Apisuc (or whatever) invert? The only time I’ve had problems with fondant running is when the colony isn’t taking it down properly e.g. nosemic perhaps. Under these conditions the fondant can run down between the frames. In North East Scotland we can only dream of temperatures above the low 20’s once the feed goes on. However, I’ve also used fondant on colonies in the bee shed where temperatures often go higher than this, so it’ll be interesting to see if this is a problem.

  4. calum

    Api Fortune HF 1575 Sirup from wheat
    Dry substance 75%
    Brix(20 Grad C) 75
    Fructose 15%
    Glucose 22%
    Maltose 42%
    Maltotriose 8%
    Other Sugars 15%
    PH 3,5 – 5
    Dextroseäquivalent 66%

  5. Tony

    I only have one colony they are currently on 1 x 8 Frame Langstroth Brood, 1 shallow and 1 deep super.
    As a first time beekeeper and my first season. I want to leave them enough to get through winter. I will be away for a couple of months Mid Dec to Feb so will not be able to get to them or have someone check.
    My plan is to let them fill the shallow completely and remove the top Super frames and use the top Super to feed them the bees are currently taking down the stores from the top super and putting stores in the brood box and shallow. I popped on a MAQS strip to reduce my Varroa and can start feeding again after the 7 day treatment. My Question is if I put a large bag of fondant in the top super will this be enough to get them through. The colony looks very strong and lots of bees.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Tony
      I guess it all depends upon your definition of ‘large’ when describing the bag of fondant 😉
      I don’t have any experience with MAQS so can’t comment on it’s use and/or feeding at the same time. It’s not clear whether you’re intending to feed syrup or fondant. Whichever, a full super of stores should get them through to the Spring. It’s worth remembering that the critical time for running out of stores is not midwinter (when you’re away) but in late Feb/early March when brood rearing is starting in earnest. Beekeepers often add a boost of fondant then if the colony is a bit light. You can do this by rolling it out and laying it directly over the tops of the frames.
      Good luck overwintering your colony.

      1. Tony

        Thank you for the Reply and help David. I use syrup when home and intend to leave them some Fondant while away. I hope to have a full Shallow Super of Honey stores for the Bees come winter and will rely on this to get them through. You have cleared something up in my mind for me now with regard to running out of food more likely to happen on the spring build up I will easily be back for that and can feed them up to give a good start. Have ordered a block of Fondant from my local baker Thanks again


    1. David Post author

      Thanks Eric … there’s almost nothing beekeeping related that isn’t on Dave Cushman’s site.

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