Last week a reader wrote in to ask why her bees weren’t more logical. She said her hive is full of honey and a lot of it is right next to the bees. But regardless of the vast supply of honey, her bees scarfed down sugar cakes as if there were no tomorrow. Is this normal?
It is normal. Time and again I’ve watched bees eat sugar and ignore the honey. It seems as if they prefer it, although I have no idea why. Maybe it’s like a child’s preference for sweets over dinner, except that honey is sweeter than table sugar. Maybe it’s easier to eat. Maybe it melts in your mouth and not on your feet. Who knows?
The good news is that table sugar is extremely low in ash—ash being the stuff left over after you burn away a sample. In honey, the ash is made up mostly of minerals and oxides of metals.
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. And of course if the honey is dark, it will contain an even greater amount of ash.
A diet high in ash is more likely to cause dysentery in bees that are not free to take cleansing flights. So while it seems like refined sugar might be an unnatural food that is not good for bees, in truth it can help them overwinter.
On the downside, refined sugar provides only energy and none of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients commonly found in honey. Just like our mothers told us, sugar is indeed full of “empty calories.” So for the long term health of a colony, the bees definitely need honey. But for those few short weeks between the end of winter and the first nectar flow when honey is scarce or difficult for the cluster to find, a few candy cakes will hold them in good stead.