Have beekeepers gone bananas?
Every few years we raise a new crop of beekeepers who want to feed bananas to their bees as a winter supplement. The forums are filled with anecdotal stories of bees thriving on ripe bananas while overcoming every imaginable pathogen and parasite.
A recent Instagram posting explained that the potassium in bananas will help the bees flex their wings, and the gases released from ripe bananas will kill pathogenic spores. A similar posting on Facebook claims bananas will kill Nosema, varroa, and chalkbrood, and a link on Twitter claims your bees will live up to nine times longer on a winter diet of bananas. Of course, no studies are cited.
Bananas and bees
In my wildest imagination I cannot fathom why someone would toss a banana in a bee hive. First of all, if it were that easy to control all the pathogens and parasites, we wouldn’t be having a problem. But putting bananas in a bee hive—especially a winter hive—is worse than doing nothing at all.
If you read beyond the wild claims, you will find other beekeepers who didn’t have such good results. Some found rotten banana drippings raining down on their colonies. Others found that bananas attracted every opportunist you can imagine, including beetles, ants, armies of unidentified larvae, mice, and voles. Outside the hive, the scent of bananas attracted raccoons, opossums, and skunks. Can bears be far behind?
The ash content of bananas
But to my mind, the worse thing about about bananas is their fiber and ash content. The fiber content depends on the type and age of the banana, and riper bananas have less fiber than green ones. But the ash content remains constant and can rank up there with dark honeys, the kind that many beekeepers remove from the winter colony.
Ash is the indigestible part of food that accumulates in the honey bee gut. It is composed of a variety of substances, including calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, iodine, zinc, and sulfur. When bees are flying, this does not create a problem because the bees can defecate whenever they want. But in the winter months when flying days may be weeks or even months apart, the ash continues to accumulate. At a certain point, if the bees can no longer contain it all, they are forced to defecate inside their hive. We call this honey bee dysentery.
Honey bee dysentery
Although not caused by a pathogen, honey bee dysentery creates unsanitary conditions that can spread any diseases carried by individual bees. In addition, the foul smell caused by dysentery can mask normal hive odors, such as pheromones, that are used for honey bee communication.
Beekeepers who must face long and cold winters with a limited number of flying days try to restrict the bees’ exposure to foods with high ash content, including dark honey or pollen supplements with high ash content. The last thing they would do is add food—such as bananas—which are known to have high ash.
Bees are not mammals
Naturally, beekeepers want the best for their bees. But it is too easy to equate a good human diet with a good bee diet. They do not correspond. For adult bees, the primary food resource is sucrose, the main ingredient in most nectar. The bees immediately break this down into the simple sugars glucose and fructuse, which they store as honey. Since refined white sugar is also sucrose, there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeding it to bees. They simply break the sucrose down into simple sugars and consume it or share it. And refined white sugar has an added benefit for winter bees: it is almost totally free of ash.
While sucrose will not kill Nosema, varroa, or chalkbrood, neither will bananas. All of us can learn lots about honey bees by observing how wild colonies survive without intervention. Even though the juice of raw fruit sometimes attracts honey bees in a dearth, fruit is not a substantial part of any honey bee diet. And as far as I know, it is never a part of the crucial winter diet.
In my opinion, you should save the bananas for your breakfast cereal and keep all fruits out of your bee hive. Both you and your bees will be healthier for it.
Honey Bee Suite