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: http://www.agri-pulse.com/Honey_Gillibrand_8042011.asp

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: http://www.honeytraveler.com/types-of-honey/honey-standards/
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: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/honey?show=0&t=1391486925
“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.


How long does it take bees to change sugar syrup to honey?

A really, really long time. In fact, it ain’t gonna happen. Not ever. Sugar syrup is made from table sugar, sucrose, which is a disaccharide of fructose and glucose. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Bees are clever, but not clever enough to make honey from plain old sucrose.

Honey has many things in it—all derived from the plants which produced the nectar. These components include other sugars as well as trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and flavorful compounds. It is all these optional extras that give honey its flavor, aroma, and color.

Bees will collect sugar syrup, dehydrate it, and store it as if it were nectar. What they end up with, however, is dehydrated and capped sugar syrup—not honey.

When a colony refuses to drink

“Why are three of my colonies drinking their syrup, but not the fourth?”

Honey bees will not drink syrup that is too cold. Once the temperature of the syrup drops to a certain point—somewhere in the low 50s°F—the bees would become chilled if they were to drink it. Imagine how you would feel downing an icy beverage when you are nearly immobile with cold. Not a pleasant thought.

Assuming you are using an internal feeder, the temperature of the syrup is influenced by the outside air temperature and the size of the colony. A large colony will keep the syrup warmer—and therefore drink longer—than a small colony.

So in the autumn when I see a colony not taking syrup while the rest of them are, the first thing I suspect is a small colony. At that point, it is wise to inspect that colony and assess whether it is large enough for winter survival. If not, consider combining it with another.

Of course, it could be a false alarm. Perhaps the feed is too far from the cluster, poorly positioned, or just too voluminous for them to keep warm. You will have to make a decisions based on what you find.

But from a management point of view, if only one of a number of colonies refuses to take its syrup, it is a helpful signal that something may be amiss. That said, if none of the hives are drinking syrup, it is too cold for syrup feeding and you should move to solid sugar if feeding is still necessary.