The sugar syrup diaries
My next blog will be called The Sugar Syrup Diaries. It will cover 1:1, 2:1, 1:2, 1:4. How to cook. Beet or cane. Essential oils. Organic or conventional. pH. White or brown. Vinegar or lemon juice. Feeders. Timing. Spilling. Saving. Molding. Burning. In fact, I’ve already addressed each of these multiple times—ironic from a person who avoids the stuff whenever possible.
But alas, the discussion is not over. Syrup season is upon us, or maybe it never left. Today’s question is simple: Must you feed a new package of bees light syrup or can you feed them honey?
Sugar syrup has its uses, and a person with a new package of bees hardly ever has a super of honey laying around. But if you do, then you can certainly feed those bees honey instead of syrup. What is really amazing it that a lot of beekeepers will tell you otherwise.
I think these legends or wives’ tales (husbands’ tales would make more sense) result from doing the same thing year after year without analyzing the reason. When we think of packages we think of syrup partly because they come packed with it, and partly because we don’t have extra supers of honey. But is it best for the bees? Probably not.
We are lucky that sugar syrup is palatable to bees. It gets us through nectar dearths; it is readily available; it is adequate when you want your bees to start building comb. But, contrary to popular belief, your colony cannot start raising brood on sugar syrup alone. They also need pollen, or pollen substitute at the very least.
Unlike sugar, honey is laced with all kinds of things bees need for good health, including vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, antioxidants, and even small amounts of pollen. So if you want a package to get off to a roaring good start, there is nothing better than their natural food. The caveat, of course, is that honey can also carry disease organisms, which is why it is necessary to know the source of the honey you give to your colonies.
Many people give light syrup to overwintering colonies in the spring. This so-called “stimulative feeding” supposedly gets them raising brood sooner, resulting in bigger colonies earlier in the year. But many highly-regarded bee gurus dispute this. In any case, it may not be the best thing to do. Early brood rearing before pollen is readily available—or before a severe freeze—may do more harm than good.
Many commercial beekeepers do stimulative feeding in order to get their bees ready for pollination contracts. They need certain populations to fulfill their agreements, and we can’t fault these businessmen for doing what they need to do to pay their bills. But that doesn’t mean it is the best thing for the bees or that hobby beekeepers should employ the same technique. I’ve never heard that commercial bees are healthier than others.
The idea that a new colony must have sugar syrup is kind of amusing. It makes you wonder what they did for the 125-million-or-so years before C&H. Equally curious is the notion that bees won’t start raising brood without a dose of light syrup to remind them it’s spring. I’ve never heard of bees getting so high on honey they forget to raise kids. “Dammit honey! We forgot to raise a family!”
Obviously, if you run low on honey you have to feed. If you have no honey, you have to feed. But if you have plenty of perfectly good honey of a known source, don’t let anyone talk you out of it.