feeding bees

Is organic sugar better for honey bees?

Organic sugar is not the best sugar for honey bees. Pixabay photo of sugar in a pile.

Because of the way organic sugar is processed, it is not the best sugar for honey bees.

Inside: Many beekeepers feed their bees organic sugar believing they are doing the best possible thing. But is organic sugar better for bees?

Organic sugar is unrefined cane juice

A number of beekeepers say they feed their bees organic sugar (usually organic evaporated cane juice). They firmly believe they are doing the best possible thing for their bees. But other folks are horrified at the idea because these products are not pure white and, therefore, contain impurities that may cause honey bee dysentery. So which side is right?

The odd thing about refined white sugar is that it’s actually very good for honey bees. Bees that stay inside the hive for long periods risk getting honey bee dysentery—the more solids in their feed, the worse the problem. Dark-colored honeys, which contain high amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, are harder on the bees than light-colored honeys. And brown sugar, which also contains many solids, is nearly a death sentence.

Total ash is the problem

One of the telling numbers is “total ash”—ash being the stuff left over after you burn away a sample. A typical sample of honey may contain about 0.17% ash, whereas refined table sugar contains only about 0.07% ash. So that’s roughly 2.5 times as much ash in the honey as in the sugar.

Worse, a typical sample of evaporated cane juice may run as high as 2.15% ash, depending on the manufacturer. This is about 12.5 times as much ash as in a typical sample of honey. This is scary because that ash can lead directly to honey bee dysentery.

While feeding bees any sugar is “unnatural,” bees can actually survive long periods of confinement eating nothing but refined white sugar. Since they depend on sugars for energy alone, they come out healthy in the spring. The same may not be true of evaporated cane juice—organic or not.

Plain refined sugar is best

Based on the way the products are manufactured, organic sugar is better for bees than brown sugar but not as good as standard refined white sugar.

  • Brown sugar is bad for bees because it is made by taking refined white sugar and adding molasses back into it. And it’s the molasses part that contains all the solids. The ash content of brown sugar will vary depending on how much molasses is added, but molasses runs from 5 to 9% ash. While not all brown sugar is made this way, the bulk of it is. In any case, dark sugar is like dark honey—the darker the product, the higher the solids.

  • Much of the tan color left in organic sugar is the result of not using bleach—which is a good thing. However, more nutrients remain in evaporated cane juice than remain in refined white sugar. And some of these nutrients can definitely contribute to honey bee dysentery. Remember that, unlike human dysentery, honey bee dysentery is not caused by a pathogen. Honey bee dysentery is caused by an improper diet and lack of “facilities” during the winter months.

Of course, in warmer seasons when honey bees freely fly and relieve themselves as necessary, the extra ash won’t cause honey bee dysentery. But in those months, the bees should be collecting nectar, not eating sugar.

Organic sugar is expensive with no clear benefit to bees

Other issues surround organic sugar, of course. I use it in my kitchen because it is raised from non-GMO plants without pesticides . . . and because it’s not bleached. Since I don’t cook with much sugar, the price premium is a minor issue. But I would never feed it to bees. Not only do I not want to pay the exorbitant price, but it’s not as good for them as plain refined white sugar.

Honey Bee Suite


  • Dadant has a winter feed product with pollen substitute and aromatic oils and “3% protein”. Their site doesn’t list the types of sugar used to mix up the paddies. I wonder if there is literature supporting this type of product for winter and spring feeding. I worry that I am going to cause my bees to develop dysentery. If there is no supporting literature, then I’ll just experiment, maybe on only 1 hive, and put fondant down for my other two hives.

    • Sheila,

      I haven’t used the Dadant product and I don’t know exactly what is in it. If I need to supplement the winter feed, I use only sugar patties with aromatic oils (usually anise) until just before spring build-up. At that time (late February/early March in this area) I begin adding protein supplement to the sugar patties. I’ve had good results with this method and will continue to do it that way. I find that the hives usually have a pretty good supply of pollen going into the winter. If they had no pollen in fall, I would probably start the pollen supplement earlier.

  • Thank you for the excellent science behind the white sugar feeding. I have observed the negative impact on my bees using unrefined organic ingredients: sugar, shortening, even organic French grey salt. After putting two and two together I stopped the organic approach. The bees made a successful comeback on white sugar with Honey-B-Healthy. It was a lesson learned but I never really knew what happened until now. Thank you. Bring on more science!

  • I have been using organic sugar. It is light brown, but I also do not make a practice of feeding the bees. Only in certain circumstances if I feel not feeding (like before winter) would harm the bees, then do I feed. Otherwise, I would rather they forage.

    They did not seem to suffer any ill effects due to the feeding.

    • You can quickly learn a lot about this by going to trade association websites or directly to manufacturer websites. You can also easily find articles about ash content in honey and its affect on bee health. Evaporated cane juice is not refined, so it retains more vitamins and minerals, but also more fiber. It’s the fiber that is hard on bees in confinement, because it acts like a laxative.

  • Your site has become one of my favs since I started beekeeping this spring. I keep hearing we should only feed cane sugar, no beet sugar to bees. Do you have a preference?

    • Sandra,

      People oppose beet sugar because it comes from genetically-modified beet plants. I understand the concern, but I’ve read a number of research papers over the last five or six years, and this hasn’t been proven to cause a problem. Once the sugar is refined, it is pretty much identical whether it comes from beets or cane. There are a few differences, since cane is a C4 plant and beets are a C3. But the type of carbon fixation (C3 or C4) is a characteristic of the plant and doesn’t have anything to do with genetic modification.

      When it comes to buying sugar for bees, I buy what is cheapest.

  • I was wondering, what I should feed my bees, after a bear destroyed the beehive twice and ate the winter reservoir of honey It looks like the queen is still there?

    • Dagmar,

      Feed them either honey from a source that you know to be free of AFB (like from a friend or bee club member) or white refined sugar, either fondant, candy boards, or syrup (if it is warm enough).

  • Rusty,
    I’m all for cheaper means of feeding my bee’s providing it’s what’s best for them. What I have a problem with is entrusting my bee’s to the corporations and their recommendations when they will do anything to increase the bottom line. What you talk about makes some sense to me, but I also know that there is not a refined white organic sugar available. I can not feed my bee’s GMO’s because of the health issues that accompany them. Any suggestions?

    • Scott,

      You can still find white refined cane sugar that is not GMO, at least for now. That will soon be changing. Beet sugar is a lost cause.

  • Rusty,
    I bought a 4 lb bag of very light colored non-gmo cane sugar but not organic. When I mixed it with warm water to feed the ‘girls’ I noticed it turned a medium brown color instead of the clear liquid which I am used to with refined cane/beet sugar. Do you think this is safe to feed the bees?

    Thank you for your blog. It is my favorite one to read.

    • Linda,

      The brown is usually the result of particulate matter (or ash) left behind in the sugar. If fed too much of it, bees can get honey bee dysentery, which is basically diarrhea due to too much bulk in their digestive system. However, four pounds isn’t much and they are probably getting plenty of flying days now, so I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s basically only a problem when bees cannot get out to relieve themselves. I just wouldn’t give them 15 pounds of it before winter sets in.

  • When I started bee keeping in 2012 I used beet sugar to feed and make fondent and it killed all my bees ! So I got more bees and used only cane sugar and have not had any bees die from my feeding them cane sugar sents!

  • Rusty,
    I am a newbie beekeeper with two top bar hives and am a bit confused by some of what you have said here. I want to do what is right for my bees, so please help me get on the right path.

    1. Assuming we are talking about raw cane sugar and not raw beet sugar, (I get the problems between those differences.)
    Ash from honey averages .17
    Ash from white sugar avg. .07 (less ash)
    Ash from evap. cane sugar 2.15 (lots more ash)

    – If white sugar is best for the bees, yet it appears that it is deficient in something(s) that the bees then need to add to it so as to bring it up to the .17 ash level of the honey. If this weren’t the case, then by your original logic, honey would be a worse food for them than just plain white sugar. Am I off track here?

    If evaporated cane sugar is bad for them simply because of the ash level, how does that correlate with whatever other natural sugar sources the bees are coming across when out foraging? My thought would be that generally, the closer to a raw/natural composition would be the better, and maybe it has to do more with the type of solids and/or the water content. How many solids are in nectar or pollen, which they process as a normative. My leaning is towards “what are the solids” rather than strictly how much. Am I off on my thinking here?

    If the premise is that the white sugar is better because it is “purer,” (being less solids) then wouldn’t similar thinking be that it is better to feed syrup made from distilled or reverse osmosis water, rather than a puddle or stream or spring water that is closer to what the bees will find out in a wooded plot? Thus the “purer” direction of logic seems contradictory to me. Again, where am I off on my thinking?

    If strickly darker (more solids/more ash) sugars are bad for the bees, then why do they typically chose to produce a darker honey to overwinter on?

    My thought is that there is probably quite a bit more to the honey bee’s dysentery than just the quantity of solids in their diet. I say this simply because out in the natural flora they are probably going to have to deal with a lot more complex soluble solids in what they are taking in. And if that is true, then it might be that if we are feeding only the purest of sugars and waters as our feed, then we might well be setting our bees up for failure through a dependency of sorts.

    Again, I may very well be talking way out of my league on this, so please help me to understand where my logic is faulty.

    Thank you much for the assist.

    • Luke,

      1. I wish someone could explain the difference between beet and cane sugar to me. Sucrose is C12H22O11 no matter where it comes from.

      2.”that the bees then need to add to it so as to bring it up to the .17 ash level of the honey” Huh? I never heard of bees doing this.

      3. Plain sucrose is better for bees during winter no-fly periods.

      4. Bees are not out foraging in winter. That’s the whole point. You wouldn’t worry about dysentery if they were flying.

      5. You keep comparing nectar and pollen sources to sugar. In winter, they have no natural nectar and pollen sources. You are confusing foraging months with non-foraging months.

      6. Yes, you are off on your thinking. In foraging season, their opportunities for relieving themselves is endless. Dysentery during flight times in a non-issue.

      7. Bees don’t “typically chose to produce a darker honey to overwinter on.” They take what is available, which in often darker in fall due to the composites. It’s not choice, it’s necessity. Beekeepers often remove the dark stuff if their bees will be confined for long periods.

      8. “My thought is that there is probably quite a bit more to the honey bee’s dysentery than just the quantity of solids in their diet.” Yes, precisely. It’s called winter.

      9. “out in the natural flora” In winter they have no natural flora.

      10. Your faulty logic comes from not understanding the overwintering process.

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