Why feed sugar syrup at all?

The first thing I do in the morning is check my HBS e-mail for questions and comments. I love answering and often spend considerable time researching the details. But today my box was filled with “unanswerable” questions—questions (five of them!) where the answer depends on philosophy.

One of these read: “Why are we feeding bees at all? I have such a hard time hearing about this practice of interfering with the bees’ food source.”

I’m at a crossroads with this question. On one hand, I’m a proponent of organic agriculture and natural beekeeping. I have spent much of my academic life studying the adverse effects of pesticides, GMOs, and other “big ag” practices that are damaging life on earth. On the other hand, during my undergraduate study of agronomic crops, I developed a real empathy for those who must raise crops to feed the populous and make a living in the process. It’s tough stuff.

Honey bees are one of many species that have taken a hit because of modern agricultural practices. Anyone who forgets that bees are livestock—farm animals, if you will—is missing the big picture. Honey bees are needed for our system of industrial agriculture whether we like it or not. Personally, I don’t like the system, but my opinion has no bearing on its existence.

Of course, commercial beekeepers are not the only ones who feed syrup to bees. A beekeeper with one or a dozen hives may do it, and certainly those with thousands of hives do it. Let’s first look at the reasons without moral judgment:

  • A beekeeper may believe his hives are not well-stocked enough with honey to make it through the winter. This may be due to bad weather, robbing, predation, or over-harvesting. In any case, the beekeeper is trying to save his bees from starvation.
  • A beekeeper may have a pollination contract to fulfill and he needs a fast build up in the spring,. So he feeds syrup, perhaps laced with supplemental pollen or amino acids.
  • A beekeeper may have problems with a disease such as Nosema so he decides to treat his hives. Syrup is the only way to administer the medicine.
  • A beekeeper may be starting new colonies from splits or nucs. There is a good chance they won’t survive the first year unless they have a syrup supplement.

Now let’s look at the right-and-wrong of it. Many people think it is wrong to over-harvest the honey and feed the bees syrup instead. I agree with this, but I can understand the other side of the coin. If you are a commercial honey producer, which is “more” right: over-harvesting that valuable honey crop or making your kids go without medical care? Surely, that’s the extreme, the exception, but those situations can and do exist.

If you are an orchardist, are you going to run the risk of losing your crop because it’s wrong to feed syrup to the bees? If you are a commercial beekeeper are you going to default on a pollination contract because your bees didn’t build up fast enough? Growers and commercial beekeepers are business people, and they need to make competent business decisions.

As I stated in my earliest posts, I find the rift between commercial and hobby beekeepers disturbing. As hobbyists, we have lots of freedom. We can molly-coddle our bees, we can treat them like house pets and sing them to sleep–and it doesn’t cut into our bottom line, our personal finances, tomorrow’s meals. Meanwhile the commercial beekeeper is keeping a large segment of the agricultural industry rolling. He’s helping to put food on our tables, assuring us a steady supply of fresh produce and a healthful, varied diet. While we dine on this feast we criticize him for the sugar syrup thing. It hardly seems fair.

For me, the biggest question is one of moral responsibility. Do you find it more desirable to let your bees starve to death than feed them syrup? If you’ve had a hot, dry summer with little forage (as occurred in much of the U.S. this year) do you say, “Tough luck bees, you get to die a slow and painful death because it’s wrong for me to feed sugar syrup”? I find this philosophy repugnant. I believe that once you take an animal into your care you have a responsibility to give it the best life you can. Starving to death is not a good life.

One more point about the question: The writer referred to sugar syrup feeding as “interfering with the bees’ food source.” I disagree with that assessment completely. What interferes with the bees’ food source is not sugar syrup, but urbanization, industrialization, human population, agriculture, roads and freeways, pesticides, pollution, invasive species, global warming, deforestation, mountain top removal, and on and on. Without those things, there would be plenty of forage–and syrup would be a non-issue.

No doubt, honey is the single best food for honey bees and that is what they should be given whenever possible. But it’s not always possible in the environment we’ve created, and it’s not always the best answer given other circumstances. That old saying about walking a mile in another man’s moccasins before passing judgment applies. Nearly all beekeepers would love to avoid syrup, but sometimes they can’t. Who am I to judge?

Rusty

HoneyBeeSuite.com

Comments

Emily
Reply

Thanks for this article Rusty, I agree with you completely. We have just been feeding our bees syrup to help get them ready for winter. I harvested only six frames in total from two hives this year, so it’s not as if I’ve been taking every last drop of honey from them. We could do with more flowers and less concrete round here.

Stephen
Reply

Under perfect circumstances syrup wouldn’t be needed but, we don’t live in a perfect world, so . . .

A case in point is that I remove bees as a service to people who find their life interrupted by them, i.e. in walls, floors, ceilings of homes, or storage buildings. I have performed several removals right before winter when the homeowners will not agree to wait until spring. If I don’t get them, the local pest control will be called to do their thing. So, I go ahead remove the bees to hives, losing some honey in the process, at a time when the bees do not have time to build their supply back up. Therefore, I will feed them artificially with sugar syrup.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Stephen. That’s another good example of why someone might need to feed syrup. It is so much better to feed them than to let them die.

rachel
Reply

I read an article that suggested adding a small, tiny amount of organic apple cider vinegar to a fondant recipe to make the pH more similar to foraged stores. Hi, just ran into this site and like it so far. Top bar bee hive, first year, not very skilled.

Rusty
Reply

Rachel,
Yes, many folks like to add a little vinegar to fondant, hard candy, and sugar syrup. Honey is very acid and the addition of a little vinegar lowers the pH. The bees will be just fine with or without the vinegar, but the vinegar is very effective at reducing mold in liquid syrup.

Bill Castro
Reply

Hello all, I have been with bees, on and off, most of my life. I have kept bees conventionally and now completely treatment-free. I do, however, feed when necessary. I find it ridiculous for people to claim that feeding sugar syrup to bees makes them weak . . . WHAT????

Okay, let’s examine that rationale. Let’s say I have the most perfect strain of bee ever seen or worked. Hypothetically speaking now, the colony builds up great, produces a good brood nest, has little or no varroa because of a fantastic grooming ability, culls infested or damaged brood well, builds great comb, and is “gentle” or easy to work. Now, for the foraging . . . spring starts out lousy . . . cold and wet. The bees have trouble with early foraging for pollen and nectar. Weather loosens up and away things go after the colony battles with nosema. April and May come and go and the bees seem to be doing fairly good after a very slow start. Summer is here now . . . seems good during the first part of June. Now July and August, no rain in sight. The foraging is sparse at best. Bees have trouble finding abundant water. The colony is stressed due to lack of foraging, but still maintain a healthy hive. September comes and we pop in to take a look . . . VERY LITTLE STORES!!! Now we, as beekeepers, are at a very tough crossroads. Do we feed our “perfect” colony or not??? Will they make the long and cold winter on what they may or may not have stored???

It is my opinion that bees that are forced into small white boxes and made to live to human standards are indeed domesticated animal livestock. They are no longer a wild colony of bees that can decide for themselves whether they should stay in that area or swarm up and away to better foraging. Since we have already intervened and made them our pets or livestock, it is our responsibility to take care of that colony of bees. Feeding them sugar syrup is like giving a baby formula instead of human breast milk, IMO!!! Sure, they can live on sugar syrup and it may not be ideal, but it will allow that colony of bees to survive to see another season and perhaps find better foraging or be moved to a new area.

Mil
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Thanks for pointing out both sides of the argument on the feeding issue. I have to agree that it’s not a cut and dried matter. We didn’t feed our late swarms last year and they both didn’t make it over the winter. Sure, maybe “their genetics weren’t the strongest” and “they needed to be weeded out of the gene pool”, but considering that the hive losses from last winter were immense, what’s the harm is giving some help? We certainly help other species including our own.

As for me, when I feed, I buy organic sugar and use spring water that I have gathered.

really love
Reply

Terrific article! Why feed sugar syrup at all? « Honey Bee Suite really makes my life a bit nicer :D Keep on together with the fascinating articles! Best regards, really love

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website