Rebuttal: bees turn sugar into honey

I firmly believe that syrup made from refined sugar cannot be changed into honey, but not everyone agrees. Bees do indeed break down sugar (sucrose) into its component parts (fructose and glucose). But that enzymatic process does not make honey, just as adding invertase to sugar syrup does not make honey.

Although honey is mostly fructose and glucose, it is all the other stuff that gives honey its flavor, aroma, color and nutritional benefits. Honey bees thrive on honey in part because of the nutrients, antioxidants, amino acids, protein, flavonoids, minerals, and pollen that it contains. Yes, these are small in quantity, but they are vital, just as the vitamins and minerals in human food is vital to us.

At any rate, I thought I would let you read the rebuttal and decide for yourself. This comment arrived this week attached to a different post on the same subject, “What’s really in the bottle?” but it rebuts my most recent post “Is your honey cut with sugar syrup?” in the same way. I deleted references to other commenters for their privacy.


If sugar and corn syrup and HFCS does not come from a plant, where, pray tell, does it come from???

Rusty, while you may be attributed with having the patience of Job, your love of bees is more in question.

We highly discourage ANY supplemental sweetener other than PURE CANE sugar (not “pure sugar,” nor corn syrup in any form, because of the pesticides used on those plants, as well as genetic modifications to the plants (sugar beets and corn) used to produce other products.

We (as well as many beekeepers the world over) feed our bees sweetened water throughout the year, particularly during the early spring and autumn months, for the VERY simple reason that the BEES (not the beekeepers) need this sweetened water to LIVE.

The bees are well able to convert this PLANT sweetened water into HONEY, regardless the pedantic arguments, and the hive utilizes this honey throughout the winter months, to survive and live.

Now, in regards to the “clear color” of honey, or non-nectar honey – this is a prime example of people over-thinking nature.

Clear honey (or bee-product), is simply honey that has not aged. Like fine wines, honey ages, due to the bacteria and enzymes in the bees’ pre-digestion. Honey that is in uncapped honeycomb cells has not sufficiently dehydrated enough to be capped and age.

Once capped, the “bee-product” darkens over time. Our sugar-syrup fed bee colonies produce HONEY from early spring, as soon as the worker bees can get out and find some sweet liquids to bring back to the hive. They then make honey until the cold temperatures force them to ball up and keep the queen warm over the winter, when the cycle continues. During this period, the bees consume the honey stores they have produced since early spring.

Honeycomb that we have harvested in fall (we have top bar, not Langstroth hives) shows all shades of color, from pale and almost water clear, to deep amber, almost brown. This is not due to the chemical make up of the honey, be it nectar or sugar produced. This is due to the aging of the bee product itself, and uncapped honey cells that contain a higher water content. Please stop over-thinking the color situation. Pure nectar honey would display the same thing.

If sugar water (from plants), did not make honey, the BEES would not be able to survive winter. The fact that humans harvest the food that these insects produce for their personal survival is secondary, regardless the monetized commercialization of the product.

I, along with [deleted], would love to see the chemical breakdown of the supposed “bee product,” in comparison with “nectar honey,” as I suspect little to no difference, beyond the aforementioned minerals and protein content.

I would also love to see the survival rate of bees on the planet increase, not for the consumption of honey or “other bee product,” but for the survival of humans and plants. Any efforts that contribute to bee populations should be encouraged, not discouraged over the semantics and sources of the sweetened liquid bees consume to produce HONEY.

While I cannot speak for any large, commercial operations attempting to sell and profit from “non-plant sweeetner-fed bee product” (and while there is “sugar-free honey,” this discussion is not about that), I can, as a private, small-scale, beekeeper, speak for the bees, in that sugar water (and ONLY pure cane sugar water) is FAR from being a money maker. Thirsty bees can drink gallons a day, and at a 1:1 ratio, a 50# bag of sugar only makes a little over 6 gallons of sugar water.

That sugar water then has to dehydrate and be capped by the bees, and then age to become honey. Time is money, you know.

And not all of the honey produced can be harvested. Sufficient stores of the sugar-water produced honey must be left for the hive to consume over the winter.

Harvested honey then has to be processed, whether by centrifuge, as is the case for Langstroth hives, or by crushing the comb, for top bar hives. Labor is money. So, the snarky worry about profiteering from sugar-water fed bees is utterly needless.

Bottom line, folks, if you are beekeeping in any form, it should, first and foremost be for the bees. Wasting your energies over stupid semantics, instead of focusing on the bees is not helping the cause.

Evil profiteers will always be evil. But looking for evil in every little thing, and pedantically castigating sugar water feeding as not being honey, or somehow contributing to the evil men do in the name of money is truly missing the forest for a chipped piece of bark on a very small tree.

Love bees.

How to feed syrup in winter

The following method of feeding syrup in winter was sent to me by Wayne Davidson of St Charles, Idaho. Although his climate is cold and the winters long, Wayne has been using this method successfully for three years.

The reason it works, I believe, is that the syrup is kept in an insulated compartment right above the cluster. The syrup is surrounded by wood chip insulation on three sides and foam insulation above. We know from experimentation (and logic) that the warmest part of the hive (aside from the cluster itself) is the area just above the cluster. The insulation traps the heat from the cluster and keeps the syrup warm enough for the bees to drink.

Here is a description of Wayne’s set-up in his own words:

  • I tried to capitalize on everything I could since our winters are long. First, I moved the hives to the south side of the house and set them close to benefit from radiant heat when the sun shines. I got this idea from the dog; he always napped here even in the winter months.

  • Some years we can have nighttime temps in the teens clear until April 21, and nothing growing until late May. So I wanted to feed the bees without causing stress. That’s when I started putting the top feeder on in the fall at the last inspection. It serves as a nice lid with a ventilation opening. I added wood chips/shavings, the type you get at the feed store for livestock, for a little insulation, but also to catch whatever moisture might be in the box.

  • I filled the pan with syrup and put the inner cover on followed by the foam insulation, and then the outer cover.

  • I fully realize that I am leaving a pan of water on top of the hive. My reasoning is, “So what if it freezes?” it can’t break anything, and when it thaws out it’s still there. Second, the bees don’t have to mess with it until it’s warm enough to explore.

  • Moisture was a worry at first, but not any more. If water evaporates it has a way out though the hole in the foam, and out the outer cover. I went to the pitched roof for the telescoping cover just for this reason. It provides an attic space that is always venting, winter and summer. (When I tried this set up with flat tops, they didn’t vent as well and some mold formed on the underside of the inner cover. Still, if any water condensed it would be on the inner cover and right above the pan or the shavings, and any drips still won’t fall on the bees.)

The results

  • The syrup never appeared to freeze. I admit I only checked the feeders on sunny days when the ambient temperature could be 10-15 F, but next to the house considerably warmer. If the syrup froze in the night it was thawed when I checked. Still opening the lid had little effect on the bees since they never were exposed directly to the cold air.

  • Last year I fed every two or three weeks weather permitting. While some colonies ate everything I gave them, and were often begging for more when I opened the lid, some didn’t touch it until spring when they started laying again.

  • While there was some mold on the inner covers that didn’t vent well as I mentioned, I saw no evidence of mold, or dampness of any kind in the hive just below the feeder in the spring on the first inspection.

  • In the photos you will notice something different in the pan. This year I thought I would warm some honey that had crystallized and feed it in the feeder. Well this colony didn’t eat it very fast and now it is setting up again. When I took this picture the honey was soft enough I could easily scoop it with my finger, but it wouldn’t flow. I will go back to just syrup in the pans.

  • This is my third winter doing this and I still like the results. I have used a commercial top feeder, but I only fill half of it since they are so big and then fill the other half with shavings.

For years I’ve said you can’t feed syrup in winter, but now I see that is not entirely true. Wayne’s system takes advantage of a number of factors: he uses good in-hive insulation, he positions the hives in the sun with a wind break, and he sets the syrup directly above the bees.

Good job. Thank you, Wayne.


Wayne’s hives are on the sunny side of the house, which provides warmth and a wind break. © Wayne Davidson.
The feeder is in the purple box below the inner cover. © Wayne Davidson.
A thick layer of foam insulation is placed above the inner cover. © Wayne Davidson.
The gabled roof provided the best ventilation. I love that the vent closure is hinged. © Wayne Davidson.
The feeder tray is surrounded by wood chips which trap warm air and absorb excess moisture. In this photo, partially crystallized honey is in the tray. © Wayne Davidson.
The feeder can be refilled without chilling the bees: just pour in the syrup and replace the top pieces. © Wayne Davidson.

When the feed is too close

A beekeeper near San Francisco complained that her bees wouldn’t leave her hummingbird feeder alone, so she set up an open feeder containing sugar syrup directly in front of her hives to divert the bees from the hummingbirds. Much to her dismay, the bees continued to dine at the bird feeder and ignore the syrup she provided in her apiary.

She decided that her bees must prefer hummingbird nectar over plain sugar syrup, so she replaced the syrup in the bee feeder with hummingbird food mixed with water. Still the bees ignored their feeder and returned to join the hummingbirds. What is going on?

As we know, honey bees are brilliant at pointing their sisters to distant food sources. The waggle dance is used for food sources that are far from the hive, and the round dance—which contains less information—is used for sources that are less than about 50-70 meters from the hive.

But according to some observers, honey bees have a problem when the source is very close. Why is this?

Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz about Bees says this about the round dance:

A round dance contains only some information about the quality feeding site. An indication is merely given about what to look for, and that this source can be found close to the nest. A bee that returns from visiting a cherry flower will smell like cherries, and a cherry tree can be found easily enough after a few flight around the hive.

But a bee coming home with a sample of sugar syrup isn’t going to smell like a flower. So even though the sugar tastes sweet, it will be difficult for a bee to explain the location to her nest mates if the syrup is less than 50-70 meters away. If it doesn’t look like a flower, and it doesn’t smell like a flower, the bees really have no reason to check it out. Some will probably find it—more or less by accident—but when they return home to report their finding, they have the same problem: how to explain the location.

In this case, it was probably much easier for the bees to locate the hummingbird feeder (which was much further away and brightly colored) than the open bee feeder that was in tripping distance of the hives. It seems that the bees will eventually find these sources, but the process is more random and takes longer than you might expect.

I have found that a drop of flavoring oil—something like tea tree, spearmint, lemon grass, anise, or peppermint—solves the problem in no time. When the bee returns to the hive smelling delicious, and she explains that the source is nearby by using the round dance, her nest mates will search in the vicinity of the hive for the scent she has delivered and immediately find the source, even if it doesn’t look like a flower.


Let the hummingbirds eat in peace. © Rusty Burlew.
Let the hummingbirds eat in peace. © Rusty Burlew.

What’s really in the bottle?

I was called on the carpet last week by a beekeeper who insists that bees can turn sugar syrup into honey. Maybe the letter is a hoax. Maybe the writer is a troll just trying to stir up controversy. On the other hand—and this is much scarier—maybe he is serious:

Ughh! I really enjoy reading your website and in most cases I do not argue differences because I accept how many views are out there especially with beekeeping. That is why it pains me to refute this point because some things are false no matter what. I don’t expect to change someone’s view but hear me out.

The notion that bees cannot turn sugar or syrup into honey is false. Just plain and simple. Okay, perhaps not so simple. Let me explain.

Honey has an intrinsic characteristic aside from other natural sugars of being a predigested form of different monosaccharides such as sucrose/fructose in an invert state accomplished outside of the reaction under heat. It is rather, a manipulation of enzymes. This I know you agree with.

However, there are so many different types of nectar that no definition of honey can be derived from the word “nectar” alone. The molecular composition of some nectars far exceed the nutritional content of others. Some nectars are so basic in structure that they resemble little more than pure sucrose. Even given the fact that some minerals and nutrients exist in all nectar, these vary from one to the other. In truth, if humans were to mechanically extract nectar from flowers on a large scale similar to maple syrup, agave etc. they could not add the same enzymes, minerals, or processes to recreate what we call honey.

Also take into consideration what is occurring during the conversion process of honey in the beehive. Enzymes play only a minimal role, bacteria cultures are crucial in the way sugars ferment. Glucose oxidase is one byproduct of fermentation and has little to do with properties found in nectar.

In summary, it should be pointed out that bees are the primary factor in honey production and a study of syrup after it has been converted by a bee is fully functional in its characteristics of honey. Its mineral content may be less, but its ability to make mess as well as offer H2O2 as a diluting byproduct itself stands to suggest that what a be makes is honey no matter where the bee got it.

This is not a complete explanation but I hope it offered a little food for thought.

In spite of the fact that parts of this make no sense whatsoever, another reader, Nick from here in Washington, took the time to write a competent response in which he demonstrates that, by definition, honey must come from either nectar or honeydew.

As mentioned in an earlier thread concerning honey definitions, here in the States, that duty falls to the FDA apparently. The USDA has issued the grading standards, but successfully dodges the responsibility of the definition. The FDA was charged by the Senate Appropriations Committee to get the definition done promptly, a couple of years ago.

“ . . . Senate Committee on Appropriations has called on the FDA to address a standard of identity for honey in the reported agriculture appropriations bills for 2010 and 2011. In the Fiscal Year 2011 Senate Report, the FDA was directed to respond to the citizen petition from the American Beekeepers Association within six months and provide monthly status reports to the Senate Appropriations Committee on this effort until a response has been provided.” Source:

Here in Washington State, we do have a definition. Other states have ‘other’ definitions as does the World Health Organization.

WA state
“Honey” defined.
The term “honey” as used herein is the nectar of floral exudations of plants, gathered and stored in the comb by honey bees (apis mellifica). It is laevo-rotatory, contains not more than twenty-five percent of water, not more than twenty-five one-hundredths of one percent of ash, not more than eight percent of sucrose, its specific gravity is 1.412, its weight not less than eleven pounds twelve ounces per standard gallon of 231 cubic inches at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.
[1939 c 199 § 14; RRS § 6163-14. Formerly RCW 69.28.010, part.]

The WHO, as cited here:
World Health Organization (WHO) Codex Alimentarius (CA) for Honey, “Honey is the natural sweet substance, produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of there own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature.”

Merriam-Webster conscise encyclopedia:
“Sweet, viscous liquid food, golden in colour, produced in the honey sacs of various bees from the nectar of flowers. Honey has played an important role in human nutrition since ancient times; until about 250 years ago, it was almost the sole sweetening agent. Honey is often produced on a commercial scale from clover (Trifolium) or sweet clover (Melilotus) by the domestic honeybee. The nectar is ripened into honey by inversion of most of its sucrose into the sugars levulose (fructose) and dextrose (glucose) and the removal of excess moisture. Honey is stored in the beehive or nest in a honeycomb, a double layer of uniform hexagonal cells constructed of beeswax and propolis (a plant resin). The honey is used in winter as food for the bee larvae and other members of the colony. Honey extracted for human consumption is usually heated to destroy fermentation-causing yeasts and then strained. See also beekeeping.”

There is some variation in these definitions, and some points could be argued as being wrong, such as whether or not ‘honeydew’ should be allowed or not or what moisture percentage is allowable as ‘honey’. However, these are consistent in that bees harvest nectar from living plants . . .

Comb-stored sugar syrup fails this test and should not be referred to nor labelled as ‘honey’.

Kent, WA

I offer this to you because, as the commenter asserts, it is “a little food for thought.” I often advise people who want pure, unadulterated honey to find a local beekeeper. But after reading this, I wonder if that is always the best advice. I assume this person is an exception, but wow.


Put the syrup close to the bees

After I wrote “When a colony refuses to drink,” I decided to do a small and informal experiment to learn more about the drinkers vs the non-drinkers. I filled baggies with 2:1 syrup, laced them with Honey-B-Healthy, and added these to the top of eight strong hives. I surrounded each baggie with a three-inch eke (or feeder rim) and topped it with an inner cover and a lid.

After three days, during which the nighttime temperatures dipped into the 40-50°F range, I went back to check the bags. Six were totally empty and two were untouched. So I went digging . . .

In the six hives with empty bags, the cluster was very close to the baggie—within just a few inches. In the two with untouched baggies, there was an entire medium box of honey between the bees and the syrup.

Other people have noticed this phenomenon too, and it has prompted them to suppose that these bees “knew” they had enough stores and didn’t need more. But “knowing they had enough” doesn’t sound very bee-like. After all, honey bees are known to be hoarders and will fill a dozen honey supers if they can.

I believed they didn’t eat the syrup because it was too cold, and it was too cold because it was too far from the bees. So, in those two hives, I just reversed the position of the feeder and the medium of honey. In other words, above the two brood boxes I put the eke with the baggie, and on top of that I put the medium of honey.

In three days I went back to check, and in both cases, the syrup was gone.

Now, I still believe the difference is the temperature of the syrup—after all, syrup close to the cluster will be warmer than syrup further away—but I realize my theory may be wrong. Nevertheless, from a management point of view, if you think it is important to feed your colonies, getting the syrup as close to the cluster as possible may increase your success.