feeding bees

Sugar syrup or honey: which is best for bees?

Picture of a handwritten diary. Sugar syrup or honey, which is better for bees?

Do we feed sugar syrup to our bees because it’s best for them? Or do we feed syrup because eveyone else does?

My next website will be called The Sugar Syrup Diaries and it will answer the syrup-or-honey question in detail. It will cover 1:1, 2:1, 1:2, and 1:4. How to cook. Beet or cane. Essential oils. Organic or conventional. pH. White or brown. Vinegar or lemon juice. Feeders. Timing. Spilling. Saving. Molding. Burning.

Although I’ve already addressed each of these multiple times—ironic from a beekeeper who avoids the stuff whenever possible—the discussion is not over.

But for now, syrup season is upon us, so the diaries will have to wait. Today’s question is simple: Must you feed a new package of bees light syrup or can you feed them honey?

Sugar syrup has many uses, but honey works better

Sugar syrup has its uses, and a person with a new package of bees hardly ever has a super of honey laying around. But if you do, then you can certainly feed those bees honey instead of syrup. What is really amazing is that a lot of beekeepers will tell you otherwise.

I think these legends or wives’ tales (husbands’ tales would make more sense) result from doing the same thing year after year without analyzing the reason. When we think of packages we think of syrup partly because they come packed with it, and partly because we don’t have extra supers of honey. But is it best for the bees? Probably not.

Sugar syrup is cheaper than honey

We are lucky that sugar syrup is palatable to bees. It gets us through nectar dearths; it is readily available; it is adequate when you want your bees to start building comb. Mostly, it’s cheaper than honey.

But, contrary to popular belief, your colony cannot start raising brood on sugar syrup alone. They also need pollen or pollen substitutes at the very least.

Honey is loaded with nutrients

Unlike sugar, honey is laced with all kinds of things bees need for good health, including vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, antioxidants, and even small amounts of pollen. So if you want a package to get off to a roaring good start, there is nothing better than their natural food.

The caveat, of course, is that honey can also carry disease organisms, which is why it is necessary to know the source of the honey you give to your colonies.

Be careful of stimulant feeding before pollen flow

Many people give light syrup to overwintering colonies in the spring. This so-called “stimulative feeding” supposedly gets them to raise brood sooner, resulting in bigger colonies earlier in the year. But many highly-regarded bee gurus dispute this. In any case, it may not be the best thing to do. Early brood rearing before pollen is readily available—or before a severe freeze—may do more harm than good.

Many commercial beekeepers do stimulative feeding in order to get their bees ready for pollination contracts. They need certain populations to fulfill their agreements, and we can’t fault these businessmen for doing what they need to do to pay their bills. But that doesn’t mean it is the best thing for the bees or that hobby beekeepers should employ the same technique. I’ve never heard that commercial bees are healthier than others.

Honey is always better than syrup, but we don’t always have it

The idea that a new colony must have sugar syrup is kind of amusing. It makes you wonder what they did for the 125-million-or-so years before C&H. Equally curious is the notion that bees won’t start raising brood without a dose of light syrup to remind them it’s spring. I’ve never heard of bees getting so high on honey they forget to raise kids. “Dammit, honey! We forgot to raise a family!”

Obviously, if you run low on honey you have to feed. If you have no honey, you have to feed. But if you have plenty of perfectly good honey from a known source, don’t let anyone talk you out of it.

Honey Bee Suite


  • Always a good topic to cover. I would rather feed than allow a colony to starve…I wouldn’t allow my pets or fish tank to starve either. But in fall beekeepers must make a choice…feed a colony for $25 or buy what is likely to be a sub-standard package of bees for $100 or more in spring to replace colonies that have been allowed to starve to death.

    Sure, sugar syrup is basically junk food for bees as it lacks vital nutrients that regular nectar contains in abundance, but given the choices, CANE sugar syrup, not GMO beet sugar, is far better than HFCS. I have always used 2:1 syrup. I have found that the bees take it down just as fast as 1:1. I also use a EO formula similar to Gunther Hauk, organic peppermint tea bags, organic chamomile, organic thyme, and organic lemongrass. This has always seemed to greatly reduce spring dysentery problems.

    Good colony managing to all!!!

  • Well said, Rusty. Locally, I often feel like I’m a lone voice for feeding honey rather than sugar or hfcs. Thanks for your great article – including the references to pollen feeding. I teach about ‘purpose and scale’ to help new beekeepers frame the methods they hear about from their fellow beekeepers that might not be the best options for them or their bees.

    You refer to the purpose of why a beekeeper selling pollination services would be motivated to feed pollen – so now ‘all’ beekeepers feed pollen for build up and are not quite sure why (esp. when they have swarming issues later!).

    Framing methods around ‘purpose’ or ‘scale’ helps us determine why another beekeeper’s methods may be an option for them – but not a good (and even a harmful) option for us.

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