This Almond Roca candy factory leftover will go to hungry bees

It takes a lot of sugar to make the sweet Tacoma treat called Almond Roca — 4 million pounds a year, according to maker Brown & Haley.

Now, honey bees can get in on the sweet tradition.

On Tuesday, a crew cleaned out a 3-story-tall sugar silo at the Tacoma candy factory, producing 1,120 gallons of sticky sugar syrup.

After honey, a bee likes nothing more than to stick her proboscis into a tall glass of sugar water.

Beekeepers usually make and feed sugar water to their bees during the long, flower-deficient Pacific Northwest winter. It’s often the only thing that keeps the insects alive.

Bees — and their struggle to survive — have been in the news the last several years. The pollinators are a vital link in the food-production chain. But their numbers have been dwindling. The causes of their demise are many and poorly understood: loss of habitat, pesticide use and mites are some of the suspects.

Almond Roca

Brown & Haley produces 3 million Almond Rocas every day, said marketing director Kathi Rennaker. In preparation for the Christmas and Chinese New Year seasons, the Dome District factory operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Sugar, trucked in from Idaho, is stored in two 3-story tall silos that stand outside the factory.

Recently, managers realized one of them needed cleaning out. A crust of sugar had built up on the inside. Brown & Haley knew the process would create a lot of waste water, nothing more than food-grade sugar and water.

When a Brown & Haley manager contacted the city to discuss disposing of the sugary water, an employee at the wastewater plant, who is also an amateur beekeeper, had another idea, said city spokeswoman Christina Lorella.

“He said, wait a minute, this could be beneficial to the bees, instead of throwing it down the waste stream,” Lorella said Tuesday.

Fast forward a few weeks and — with the approval of the Pierce County Beekeepers Association — the city’s first candy factory bee feed is underway.

“People from as far as Texas have expressed interest in the sugar water,” Lorella said.

Deidre Nelson of Fox Island is one of the beekeepers who will be bellying up to the bar for a few gallons in November. She stopped by the factory on Tuesday to eyeball the operation.

“It’ll save me time and money,” Nelson said of the free sugar water.

Brown & Haley employees Margaret Castro, left, and Peggy Bruce check for misshapen toffee logs prior to getting a coating of chocolate and almonds. The venerable Tacoma candy maker was offering tours of its new state-of-the-art Almond Roca production line on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

Nelson will put the solution in quart jars that attach to the tops of her two hives. The bees slurp as needed through the winter.

“It’s beneficial for everybody,” Nelson said. “It’s beneficial for the factory. It’s beneficial for the city. It’s beneficial for the beekeepers and the bees.”

A crew specialized in high pressure cleaning spent the morning blasting the sugar rime from inside the tank. It was a switch from their usual work with oil tanks.

“It smelled like sugar,” Cowlitz Clean Sweep employee Larry Thein Jr. said. “I saw (a co-worker) licking his lips.”

Thein and his crew took the liquid to the Tagro yard at Tacoma’s wastewater plant to be offloaded and stored in 300-gallon containers.

The thousand gallons of sugar syrup will be dispensed to local beekeepers in containers they provide.

First, the sugar water will be tested for sugar content and pH levels, Lorella said.

“We want to make sure that what we’re distributing is safe,” she said.

The syrup water should be available in mid-November, Lorella said.

Beekeepers can pick up the water from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday-Friday at the Central Treatment Plant, Gate 6, 2301 Cleveland Way, Tacoma. Information: 253-502-2150.

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.