Breaking a promise: revisiting the sugar syrup recipe
What is it about the sugar syrup recipe? What makes sugar syrup so hard to comprehend? Based on the questions I see, making a simple solution of sugar dissolved in water seems to be the hardest, most mysterious, most whisker-pulling task a beekeeper ever confronts.
Several times I’ve promised myself that I would never again write about sugar or syrup because, at last count, there were about sixty such posts already. Do we really need another?
I have absolutely nothing new to say on the topic, but based on the amount of mail, I think I need to try again. Perhaps I’m not using the right words. Perhaps I haven’t been crystal clear. In any case, here goes one more time.
Sugar syrup ratios are guidelines
When you see a recommendation to feed syrup mixed at a specific ratio of sugar to water, it is a guideline. These ratios have worked as nectar substitutes for thousands of beekeepers over many years. You will often hear of feeding 2:1 in the fall and 1:1 in the spring. There is nothing wrong with these guidelines. They work.
However, they were not etched on tablets and handed down by honey bees. Instead, they were devised by mankind. They are estimates. In fact, I doubt you could find any source of nectar anywhere on the planet that is exactly 1:1 or 2:1 or 1.5:1. These ratios are approximations.
All nectar-producing plants have their own recipe. Each species of plant produces nectar with varying amounts of sugar. Some nectars are low in sugar, such as that produced by pear flowers. Others are high in sugar, such as the nectar from some blackberries. Most are somewhere in the middle, and I doubt that any are exactly the same as homemade sugar syrup.
Even more compelling is the fact that the ratio of sugar to water in a given flower may change according to climatic conditions, rainfall, humidity, and time of day. The honey bees take what they can get—and what they get are nectars that encompass a wide distribution of ever-changing sugar concentrations.
Bad measurements won’t kill your bees
The point is that honey bees can handle any ratio of sugar to water, so you are not going to kill your bees with a concentration that is a little more or a little less than the guidelines suggest—or even a lot more or less.
In previous articles I have explained that you can measure your ingredients—sugar and water—by volume or weight. In fact, they are close enough that you can measure one by volume and one by weight. These statements always elicit a barrage of explanations of why I’m wrong. A recent letter gave me the weight of a cup of ingredients to the fourth decimal place! What ever happened to significant digits? Another warned me to use the same brand of measuring cup for all ingredients. Another compared the sea level weights to weights at his elevation. While these may sometimes be important considerations, they are irrelevant to bee syrup.
I’ve seen people run a straight edge across their measuring cups, and clean a few grains out of the bowl so they wouldn’t screw up the ratios. All of this is ludicrous once you stop to realize the ratios are guidelines, approximations, estimates, guesses. They are not any kind of exact science.
I’m not sure why people don’t understand, but I’ve had panic-stricken beekeepers write to say they may have added an extra tablespoon of sugar or worried they used too much water. “Will it kill my bees?” is a common follow-up question. I always read those messages over and over, trying to figure out how to communicate and wondering why I can’t get through. What about the word “approximate” is so hard to understand?
My own backlash recipe
Since I began to encounter these worries, I’ve stopped measuring anything at all. If I need to make 1:1 syrup, I put some water in a bucket, and then pour in what looks to be about the same amount of sugar. Mix. Done. Or, if the result looks a little bit too thick or too thin for my mood, I add some more water or sugar.
My bees haven’t said a word about the change in strategy. In fact, they continue to thrive. For me, making syrup is now less of a hassle and there’s not much to clean up afterward.
The HBS main mission
Since I’m repeating myself today, I will reiterate that the main mission of Honey Bee Suite is to get people to think rationally about bees and beekeeping, and to apply logic rather than emotion or scuttlebutt.
If you stop to think about what bees consume normally (nectars of various sugar content) and the purpose of syrup (a nectar supplement), you can see that there is no law of ratios. Beekeepers have established guidelines based on observations of what has worked well in the past, so by all means use them if they make you comfortable. But remember they are not magic, they are not immutable, and they certainly aren’t precise. I’m not advocating the excessive use of syrup, but if you need to feed, just pour some sugar in some water and relax.
Honey Bee Suite