feeding bees

Have beekeepers gone bananas?

Bananas are not good for bees. Save them for your breakfast cereal.

Bananas are not good for bees, especially in winter. Save them for your breakfast cereal.

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 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 honey, 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 fructose, 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.

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  • Thank you Rusty! I might have been duped into trying that if I would have seen any of those forums. Trying to keep the mites under control is a full time job, so it would have been tempting.

  • Hello Rusty,

    Bananas? Really? This has to be the craziest thing I have heard in beekeeping so far. I have read that the scent of banana can trigger the bees to attack you so I make sure I don’t have any banana scent on me or my breath. The last thing I would want to do is toss a banana in the hive and get them all riled up.

  • You didn’t even mention the alarm pheromone.

    Okay maybe the bees do better than me at telling banana smell from alarm pheromone, but I just picture the poor bees constantly thinking, “What is that smell? Am I supposed to be alarmed or WHAT?

  • I think you have a typo here:
    “with a limited number of no-fly days try to limit”
    I think should be something like:
    “with a limited number of flying days try to limit the”

    Thanks for article Rusty!

  • The attack smell is very acid if you are working bees and they go on attack (such as Killer bees) you will notice it and you will not forget it

    What I am interested in was the reference to potassium allowing bees to flex the wing better. Do you have a good reference?

    • Harold,

      I do not have a reference, and I don’t even know if it’s true. I was just paraphrasing what some of the social media sites were saying about bananas in the bee hive. If I had to guess, I would say someone got that from the fact that, in humans, muscle contraction is dependent on potassium. Whether it’s the same in bees, I don’t know.

  • Bananas really!! It is why I like your website. Any time I have a question I go to your index and look up the subject. Being a new beekeeper in my second year I learned quickly fortunately to find the professionals who have really great easy to understand blogs. Thanks for what you do so well

  • I had a colony with bad chalkbrood and some told me about putting banana peels in the hive, perpendicular to the frames between brood boxes. It was springtime and I figured I’d give it a try. I did not expect it to work and, no surprise, nothing happened to the chalkbrood situation and the banana peel just became desiccated over the next few weeks until I removed it.

    • Karen,

      Thanks for sharing your story. I hadn’t heard about hanging the peels between the frames. That’s an interesting twist on the banana thing.

  • Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!

    Our State Apiarist has gone on record that she does not want to find either whole bananas or peels when she does inspections.

    Again, Thank You!

  • The primary sugars in honey are fructose and glucose. Sucrose is present in much smaller amounts.

    • Jonathan,

      That is correct. However, don’t confuse honey with nectar. As I explain in the post, bees collect nectar (which is mostly sucrose) and immediately convert it to glucose and fructose to make honey. “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.”

  • Rusty, at this time of year do you leave your screened bottom boards open, or do you close them completely or partially such as with thin political campaign board type material. Thanks

    • Gordon,

      We don’t have super-cold winters here, so I leave mine open all year. Sometimes, if it gets down in the 20s F for an extended period (more than two or three days) I slide the trays in. Later, I take them out again. I use either the wooden ones or the corrugated plastic.

      • I’m very interested in ventilation as a topic.
        I built a long hive and also have 8-frame deep boxes stacked (norm).

  • Allelujah! Common sense at last, I’ve read the pro-banana dribble for months now, it’s great to read your wise treatise to put this issue to bed Rusty (although I suspect it will dribble on for a while yet……………)

  • I always thought the banana remedies were a joke by experienced beekeepers trolling the new beekeepers. I really didn’t think anyone seriously believed bananas were good for hives.

  • However . . . . Bananas or rather banana peels when used in a wax moth trap are very effective. 😉

  • I didn’t see that bananas are a possible winter food. I live in the tropics and just threw bits of overripe banana on the landing platform of my six hives……… and they LOVE it.

  • Bananas in summer are great, especially during a dearth, and they can do cleansing flights, and you can clean out the mess in a day or so – fructose is fructose – and generally speaking bananas – I’ve found have very little pesticides – Dn’t feed ‘stone’ fruits – like peaches – those have the most pesticides ( been there, done that, lots of dead bees). With regards to ash, and other components. I have heard that the smell of banana peels encourages hive-cleaning behaviors, but have never tried that. It would be nice to see some lab tests out of the Beltsville labs or elsewhere. Bananas vs sugar w/essential oils, etc. – what does it do to the bees. likely that banana bees are grumpier. – and whether its essential mint oils or mushrooms – there is a lot of leading evidence that p-courmeric acid seems to benefit the immune system. But no hard evidence yet – unless the ‘mushroom guy’ has it handy. 🙂

  • You surprised me with not joking about the slipperiness of adding banana peels to the hive. Perhaps you and your readers have more intelligence and maturity than I do!

  • If bees are able to fly out (and defecate out as needed), seems to be an OK urgent feeding.

  • I have been working on the banana thing for over 1.5 years now and pulled a lot of research material. I was kind of surprised when I first head of it, and asked if there is research supporting this. I completed part of my research with the University of Montana, where I surprised my professors Dr. Bromenschenk and Dr. Hill with my findings. Dr. Bromenschenk first rejected my proposal for pretty much the reason you have in your article. Dr. Hill wanted to see what I had and he convinced Dr. Bromenschenk to allow my research. My point was any finding is good, even if it is a negative finding. I’m currently running a rear up study on Cavendish bananas. This is the type we commonly find in our local stores in the US. There is research material available from Africa and Asia utilizing different types of banana.

    • Katharina,

      Destruction of the rainforests imperils more plants and animals, including pollinators, than almost any other thing happening on the planet. In turn, that destruction accelerates CO2 in the atmosphere because it destroys the vegetation that uses it. One of the biggest drivers of rainforest destruction is banana plantations. To use bananas to feed livestock is nothing short of insane.

  • Well I live in French Polynesia and we have loads of bananas in the garden. When we can’t eat them all I drop a few over-ripe sections on the landing area and my bees love the stuff. Surely if they didn’t like/want to eat it they wouldn’t.

  • Thank you for posting this. I have seen “banana posts” in a few of my favorite groups; and it seems people are so ready to jump on this bandwagon. I will share your link; hopefully people will think about your excellent points.