A number of beekeepers have said they feed their bees organic sugar (usually organic evaporated cane juice) and they firmly believe they are doing the best possible thing for their bees. 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 it that it is actually very good for bees. Bees that are forced to stay inside the hive for long periods risk getting honey bee dysentery—the more solids in their feed, the worse the problem. Dark 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. But 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—scary because that ash can lead directly to honey bee dysentery.
So while feeding bees any sugar is “unnatural,” bees can actually survive long periods of confinement eating nothing but refined white sugar and come out healthy in the spring. The same may not be true of evaporated cane juice–organic or not.
Plain refined sugar is best
My guess, based on the way the products are manufactured, it that 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, rather it is caused by improper diet and lack of “facilities.”
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 is not nearly as good for them as plain old refined white sugar.