Is your honey cut with sugar syrup?

Adulteration of honey with sugar syrup and corn syrup has been a problem for a long time. An unscrupulous beekeeper can feed his colonies these products and extract them like honey, or he can add them later, after extraction. The financial incentive is obvious because syrup is cheap and readily available.

Naturally, importers of honey and large-scale purchasers of honey for manufacturing purposes have always been interested in knowing if the liquid they are paying for is pure, or if it has been “cut” with syrups from non-floral sources.

Cane and corn are C4 plants

It turns out that most plants can be identified as either C3 or C4 plants. Roughly 90% of all plants are C3 and about 5% are C4. The names C3 and C4 come from the first compound produced by the plants during the CO2 fixation stage of photosynthesis.

In a C3 plant, the first compound produced has three carbons, and in a C4 plant, the first compound produced has four carbons. A third type of photosynthesis called CAM is found in about 5% of plants, mostly succulents. Since many of these can switch between CAM and C3, they are sometimes included with the C3 species.

The C4 cycle is an adaptation of plants that evolved in very hot and dry climates. They are able to use CO2 more efficiently and they lose much less water due to transpiration, so they can thrive in sere conditions. Most C4 plants are grasses, including sugar cane, maize, and sorghum, and most are wind-pollinated.

Honey is made from the nectar of flowers

By definition, honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Nectar is secreted by nectaries, which are glands located in flowers, and the secretions are especially designed to attract pollinating insects. Some definitions also include secretions from extra-floral nectaries and the excretions of plant-sucking insects (honeydew) as honey sources.

However, the C4 plants maize (corn) and sugar cane do not have nectaries and are not known for producing honeydew. Sweet liquids pressed from the leaves, stems, or other herbaceous parts of a plant are not considered nectar for the purposes of honey, especially after they are refined by industry.

Isotope profiles can identify C4 syrup

C3 and C4 plants contain different ratios of the stable isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13. Isotopes are different forms of an element. Each isotope of an element has the same number of protons but differing numbers of neutrons in the nucleus. Since extra neutrons affect the weight, they are easily detected

A carbon-12 atom has 6 neutrons and a carbon-13 atom has 7 neutrons, but they both act like carbon. These isotopes do not decay and are not radioactive, hence they are “stable” as opposed to the unstable type that decay and are radioactive. A carbon isotope we have all heard of is carbon-14, which is a radioactive isotope with a very long half-life of 5730 years. By measuring how much of this isotope remains in a very old object, we can determine its age.

In any case, since these heavy carbon atoms are measurable, it is easy to discover if a sample of honey is adulterated with syrups derived from sugar cane or corn by measuring the ratio of the stable isotopes, 13C/12C.

Sugar beets are C3 plants

However, a problem occurs when syrup is derived from beet sugar. Beets are C3 plants and have the normal ratio of stable isotopes found in most nectar-producing plants. So honey contaminated with sugar beet syrup is not detectable with this method.

As you can see, contamination with syrup is an unresolved problem. Isotope analysis is not readily available to the average consumer, and beet sugar adulteration cannot be found in any case. If you are concerned about the content of your honey, it is best to know your beekeeper. . .and know him well.


Honey in a clear jar. Is this honey cut with sugar syrup?

Honey cut with sugar syrup is often hard to detect. Pixabay public domain photo.


  • Honestly, I am not surprised. When feeding syrup to bees and accidentally tasting the stored “honey” I am often puzzled at how much honey-like it tastes. Really hard to tell it apart even to a “trained” tester. I guess there is a certain amount of honest hope one has when removing feed a week before adding supers that they supplemental feed is used up before new nectar is stored.

    Is there any actual research pointing to how bees use their resources. Logically it is last source in is the first source out due to up and down storage methodology on the comb, but there could be other factors at play.

    • Aram,

      I kind of thought it was opposite. In the spring and summer, bees store honey ever higher overhead, but in the winter, the cluster starts low and works up: last in, last out. Except for areas that are backfilled, which would be last in, first out. It’s probably more complicated that that, though.

  • I don’t feed till the honey supers are off for exactly this reason. It is such a shame that most people don’t know what real honey tastes like! The first time we tasted our backyard honey, we were astonished at the incredible complexity of the flavours. It’s like grape kool-aid compared to a luscious red wine…

  • Thanks for your information on this subject. As a first year beekeeper I had wondered if it would be possible to stimulate honey production with sugar syrup. After reading your previous explanation, I realized that it wasn’t possible to do so. This article gives additional scientific information about the different kinds of sugars and nectars. I’m now looking forward to giving my girls a half-acre of clover next spring. Now THERE’S some nectar for ya!

  • Thanks for posting this information! I know there are laws controlling the labeling of honey – but I’m not sure what provisions for inspection are actually set in place in the US. During a recent trip to Nevada, we had breakfast in a restaurant – and I noticed honey packets on the table among the other condiments. The packets were produced by a major (recognizable world wide) food manufacturer – and were labeled “Pure Honey”. Everyone at the table that tasted the contents of several packets agreed that the sticky stuff inside looked and tasted like dark corn syrup – with no honey character at all. I have tasted hundreds of varieties of honey over the past 60 years. None of them tasted so much like “Karo”.

    • Militoy,

      I think the honey distributed by large corporations is only as good as the products they buy. And who is monitoring them for purity? It would be interesting to test the honey in those packets. I too have been suspicious of their contents.

  • I’ve been keeping bees for 52 years and selling at farmer’s markets for 18. We’re asked all the time by non-native customers regarding adulteration. I am very diligent about segregating brood and honey supers. Recently while browsing the honey section at WalMart I noticed a squeeze bear container containing what looked like honey but was labelled something like “Honey-Like Topping” and it was, of course, high fructose corn syrup. If we consider the addictive characteristics of high fructose corn syrup in sodas (you just never get over-sweetened enough to stop) it’s possible that people actually eat more fructose adulterated honey than they would real honey; bad for them and good for the unscrupulous beekeeper/packager.

    • John,

      That is fascinating. I recently saw a foil package that a friend told me came with some biscuits. The front said “HONEY” in big letters, and underneath it said “sauce” in little letters. But the first ingredient was HFCS, then water, then honey. Wow.

  • So Rusty, what do we know about bees moving “honey” around in the hive? Does it ever happen? Under what circumstances?

    The reason I ask and the reason I put honey in parentheses are the same. With some hives, when feeding in the spring or during a dearth, my bees have stored and converted every drop of sugar syrup into “honey” within a week. While other hives use what sugar syrup they need as they go, converting and storing none.

    This obviously creates a situation within the hive later in the summer where both “honey” and honey are stored in the hive. Of course the “honey” is stored lower in the brood chamber and before supers are put on and everyone assumes that neither the twain shall meet but assumption induces swearing.

    Do the bees ever have cause to move stored “honey”/honey? Expansion of the brood chamber? Destruction of sections of comb? Robbing?

    If they do then there would be no way to absolutely guarantee the absence of C4 derived “honey” in any hive where either the beekeeper or a neighboring beekeeper fed sugar syrup.

    Great article, food for thought.

    • Micah,

      We hear a lot about bees moving honey, and I’m sure it happens, but I don’t know how often. If I put frames of honey above an inner cover, the bees will definitely open the cells and move it down. But in the normal course of things? I don’t really know.

      I don’t think they move much of it around during a honey flow simply because they are too busy storing the harvest. So if a keeper puts supers on just before a flow and takes them off just after, I think the honey stays pure. But if they were also being fed during that time, I think it would get mixed. It’s a good question and I wish I knew more about it.

      • Have you ever taken the opportunity to look at raw natural honey under a microscope and sugar syrup honey under a microscope and see if there is a difference? I have thought about doing this.

        • Wayne,

          I’ve looked at lots of honey under the microscope. What you see is pollen…lots of it in beautiful and surprising shapes and colors. I never saw anything in syrup, except a few crystals.

  • Hello Rusty,
    Is there any way of knowing if the product which is stored in your hives combs is sugar or honey? Especially is you fed your bees during winter.
    Greetings from The Netherlands!


  • Interesting. You don’t mention the possibility of pollen analysis, something that can be done at home or sent away to a lab to do? A honey without any pollen spores would be very suspicious.

    I think the U.S. beekeeping industry should campaign for tighter honey labelling regulations, so that only actual honey can legally be labelled as such.

  • My honey bought from a bee farmer tastes and smells exactly like golden syrup. The bee farmer insists it’s pure. Is this possible?

    • Cecelia,

      Anything is possible. I don’t know what golden syrup tastes like, but the flavor of honey varies considerably based on the flowers where the bees collected nectar. Some is strongly flavored, some is not. If you purchased the honey directly from the beekeeper, I suspect it is pure. If you want a strongly flavored honey, try one that is darker in color. Also, try buying honey in the comb rather than extracted honey.

  • I have been keeping bees for about 18 months now. I got my first colony from a hollowed out tree on my brother in laws property. It was in the fall that I gathered my colony so getting them established before winter required feeding them sugar water syrup. My brother in law wanted them gone and would have exterminated them before spring so I took my chances. They survived just fine but they capped off several frames of the sugar water. In the spring I added a honey super. The queen went nuts on laying and within a matter of a few weeks those frames that used to be filled with the capped off sugar water were filled with brood and it was very obvious to me even as a VERY beginner bee keeper that the bees had moved the honey out of the comb it was originally capped off in, up into the honey super I had added when there was a nectar flow.

    I am confident that the honey I got that spring was mixed with whatever you want to call what the bees made out of the 50/50 sugar/water syrup that I fed them through the winter. It was not intentional to contaminate my honey but I know it happened. While I agree that by definition the substance that bees create out of sugar water should not be considered true “honey.” My own experience has proven to me at least that it is virtually impossible to control how “pure” your honey is if you EVER feed your bees. Bees store what they see as food for themselves and it is never in their plans to give it to us, so they don’t bother keeping it all separated for us.

    While I love what I learn from this site and will continue to come here, I have seen nothing in any of these arguments that even comes close to convincing me that bees don’t make “honey” out of the sugar water we feed them and that it WILL get mixed with real honey derived from plant nectar. If we feed them, it will end up in the hive and they’ll put it wherever they want and move it around however they want to put brood there instead or for whatever other reason they come up with. I’ve seen it. There is absolutely NO way that the capped frames my bees put up during the winter did not come from the sugar syrup I fed them.

    • Jacob,

      1. “I have seen nothing in any of these arguments that even comes close to convincing me that bees don’t make “honey” out of the sugar water we feed them.”

      It’s not honey by definition. Honey is defined as being made from the nectar of flowers. If the sweet stuff didn’t come from the nectar of flowers, it’s not honey. Don’t make it more complex than it has to be. The source determines the product.

      2. “the bees had moved the honey out of the comb it was originally capped off in, up into the honey super.”

      Bees do not move honey. When they want an area cleared out, they consume the honey from those areas first, and any new nectar coming in is stored in a different area. You frequently hear people talk about bees “moving honey” but they don’t. You can see this for yourself by dying the sugar syrup.

      • “You can see this for yourself by dying the sugar syrup.”

        Wait, really? Food coloring, I suppose, but how much is enough to see through the caps and not enough to bother the bees.

        Also, why would I try this? Umm…I’m a nosy butt?

        • Roberta,

          Yes, food coloring. Make it dark, or hold the frames up to the light. I’ve heard of people doing this who feed syrup and want to pull the syrup-filled frames out during honey season.

          I’ve tried it to see if my bees ever moved capped syrup up into the supers. None did.

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