bees in the news

More red honey: this time from candy canes

Some beekeepers use crushed candy canes as bee feed. Predictably, it makes something that looks like red honey. Pixabay

Every time I read that honey bees are forced to eat refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, I cringe. Not because I think they should eat it, but because there is no “force” required. Bees just love the sweet stuff.

A report about bees eating the wrong thing came from Utah earlier this month. A commercial beekeeper, in an effort to keep down costs, purchased crushed candy canes in bulk and open-fed them to his bees. Now, open feeding is not force-feeding. The beekeeper put the stuff outside his hives and let the bees decide if they wanted to eat it or not.

Unfortunately, the bees loved it. Not only his bees but bees from a four-county area gorged on the mixture of water and candy canes, producing bright red honey all across northern Utah, aka “The Beehive State.”

The beekeeper should have known better because this kind of incident happens all the time. In recent years, red honey appeared in Brooklyn, NY when bees got into the effluent of a maraschino cherry factory. Later, blue and green honey surfaced in France when bees got into waste products from an M&M factory. And we’ve all heard stories of bees making red honey from hummingbird feeders.

Back in Utah, the affected beekeepers are hopping mad—and they have a right to be. The tainted honey cannot be sold as honey because, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture, honey must come from a floral source. Beekeepers are reporting thousands of dollars in lost sales.

The upside of all this is that the beekeeper responsible for the mess has set up a honey exchange. Beekeepers can bring in their red honey and exchange it for a comparable amount of “regular” honey. The exchange is being coordinated by the Wasatch Beekeepers Association.

Honey Bee Suite


  • Rusty:

    You’re talking about feeding the hives during the nectar runs, correct? Is what you’re saying different than mixing the 2:1 or 1:1 water/sugar syrup that I feed my bees in the late winter/early spring BEFORE or AFTER I have harvest the honey? Just a bit confused, here.


    • Rich,

      Right. This beekeeper had purchased nucs which arrived late from California. He was using the feed to boost the nuc populations and, of course, no honey supers were in place on those hives. The problem was he hadn’t counted on bees coming from all over the place to get to the feed. The bees from other places took the candy cane syrup home and tainted the honey in those locations.

  • I understand how for-profit beekeepers in the surrounding area might be miffed about something like this happening, but the fact is all this does is bring to light the fact that bees get into all sorts of non-floral stuff, none the least are things in the garbage like the drops of soda still in cans. The fact that some non-floral stuff has dye proving its presence doesn’t change the fact that non-floral sugar sources are almost always in there…although perhaps not in the same concentrations.

    Add to that, how is feeding them HFCS or sugar water (without dye) any different as it relates to the law? Those aren’t from floral sources, but you can bet they are making honey with it too. If they are making honey from Hummingbird feeder water, candy canes, cherry syrup, & M&M waste, you can bet they are also making honey from the sugar you feed them. The biggest difference being they are only getting sugar with what you give them. They aren’t getting artificial flavorings in the honey.

    For all those unsellable batches of honey that are tainted, is there any chance they could be sold as “Bee Syrup” instead of as “Honey?” If so, you might even get more money for it as a novelty. What’s that saying, when life gives you candy cane honey, make bee syrup? Or was it something to do with lemons?

    • Cgrey8,

      Yes, that is exactly what I was saying: if it’s sweet, bees get into it.

      And yes, bees store sugar syrup like honey. Here’s how it relates to the law: You can feed your bees anything you want as long as it doesn’t get into the honey. But when honey supers are in place, a responsible beekeeper never feeds sugar or syrup. This is because honey comes from floral sources, not from sugar. Sugar and corn syrup can be detected by chemical analysis of the “honey”, but more to the point, the flavor of tainted honey is just not there.

      I’m often asked, “Can bees make sugar syrup into honey?” The answer is an unequivocal, “no!” It might look like honey, have the consistency of honey, extract like honey, but it’s not honey.

      If you followed recent news articles about the components of honey, one of the major ones is pollen. According to many, if it doesn’t contain pollen it’s not honey. And certainly if it contains sugar syrup or HFCS, it’s not honey. To sell something labeled “honey” that contains other things, or is missing certain things, is fraud.

      As to your last question, if someone wants to feed the red “honey” to their bees, they can do that. The point is to keep that syrup—and all syrup—away from bees that are filling honey supers.

      • Ahh, that’s a detail I wasn’t aware of. I didn’t realize you couldn’t feed the bees once honey supers were on. Good to know. Makes sense, just not something I’ve come across since I don’t sell honey (or whatever is in supers that should be honey, but may not be 100%).

        So from a legal standpoint, lets take this same scenario. What is the liability of neighboring bees owned by honey-selling keepers getting into non-floral sugar sources on your property?

        • I don’t think there is any. The beekeeper can’t control where his bees go and the neighbor can’t keep them out. And it’s not against the law to have candy cane juice on your own land. Let’s just say it’s a sticky situation.

  • My two cents worth . . . If I started packages or nucs, I would want to feed them until they have most of the second brood box drawn out. By feeding, they will draw out the comb quicker and get a better, quicker start. But the day honey supers go on, the feed stops. I want, and I assume everyone wants the same, everything brought back to fill the honey supers to be floral sourced.

    If you are starting 250 (plus or minus) nucs or packages, it is a lot of work and a lot of expense and very time consuming to do inside hive feeders. So the quick easy is to do an open feeder in the bee yard. This activity should be going on during April and May. When his honey supers went on I would hope the feeding quit.

    My bees all overwintered this year, and I did zero feeding this spring. They still had 30 to 40 pounds of honey when I inspected in March. And by the first week or so of May, they refilled a portion of their brood chamber, that which they were not using for brood, and at least one honey super, some two honey supers.

    So if a neighboring beekeeper is open feeding through April and May to get his packages started, and my bees find his bucket, I have no control on what is going in my honey supers, and I might even think it is all floral sourced, and don’t know it. Because bees fly an open range there is no control. He is doing what is best for his bees, but adversely affecting mine and others in the process. And the reason is, the two bee yards are on different schedules.

    The only fix to this problem would be to require all beekeepers to do in-hive feeding, and outlaw open barrel feeding, unless your bee yard is 5 miles from the nearest apiary.

    This is the next BIG IF: If they are feeding throughout the summer in an attempt to increase their honey yield, that is an other can of worms. I hope they are not thinking “what the consumer doesn’t know . . .” The bees will convert sugar water into “sugar water honey be it red green or blue.” It is not floral honey. But when mixed I don’t know if I could tell the difference, unless it looked like a rainbow, could you?

    • Boyd,

      You are exactly right, especially when you say, “. . . the two bee yards are on different schedules.” I do not believe this beekeeper had any malicious intent. He saw an inexpensive way to build up his late-arriving nucs and took it. The problem was he didn’t take neighboring bee colonies into consideration. Unfortunately, he should have known better because he runs an established and large commercial operation.

      If a honey sample was only partially contaminated, I don’t think I could tell by either taste or color (which is what unscrupulous beekeepers count on). But as the percentage increased, I think I could tell. I’ve read various reports on this particular incident, and some say the honey had a horrible metallic taste. Who knows? I’m sure it depended on how far your bees were from the source.

  • At our Weber bee meeting last Thursday, it was mentioned that those who brew mead are buying the red honey for $20.00 per pound. This in an effort to try something new. So there is a green lining in every frame of red honey!!

  • I would sell them something worth making mead from. 20 dollars per pound…is that typo? lol I wouldn’t buy it for two cents per pound. Thank you Fraziers for Red Honey; I can sell for 20 dollars per pound.

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