Table of contents
The question usually goes like this: “How long does it take for the bees to turn syrup into honey?”
Honey bees cannot transform syrup into honey
The answer is “they can’t.” Bees can never turn sugar water into honey. Harry Potter himself couldn’t do it. Beekeepers make syrup from granulated sugar (sucrose) dissolved in water. After the bees finish finagling with it, enzyming it, fanning it, and storing it you still have sugar dissolved in water. The honey bee enzyme invertase changes the form of the sugar from sucrose to glucose and fructose. But it is still sugar—nothing more.
The idea that bees can change syrup into honey comes from the mistaken belief that enzymes in the bee’s honey stomach are responsible for creating honey. But it’s the chemical compounds in nectar—an astounding array of different substances—that gives honey its flavor and aroma. By definition, honey is made from the nectar of flowers, so if the substance didn’t come from nectar, it’s not honey.
Honey bees store syrup and nectar the same way
In spite of the difference between syrup and honey, bees treat sugar syrup as if it were honey. They take it into their honey stomachs, pass it around, store it in cells, and dry it to the proper moisture level. This is why honey producers never feed syrup while honey supers are in place. If sugar syrup is readily available to bees, the real honey soon becomes diluted with syrup.
I knew a beekeeper who fed sugar to her bees all spring and summer with honey supers in place. At the end of the season, she labeled her product as “pure honey.” When I asked her about it, she explained that the bees ate the syrup which gave them lots of energy to collect nectar and make honey.
She saw nothing wrong with the practice because she thought the bees treated the substances differently: she thought they ate the syrup and stored the nectar. No amount of explanation on my part made an impression on her and, as far as I know, she still does it . . . and teaches a beekeeping class as well.
Time feeding so it doesn’t contaminate the honey
The important point here is that although syrup cannot be made into honey, bees treat syrup no differently than nectar. If we interfere with the bees’ life processes (by feeding sugar syrup) we must understand the consequences of our actions and take steps to avoid problems.
Feeding sugar in any form is fine as long as the honey bees are not actively collecting nectar and making honey. If you feed syrup while the bees are making honey, the honey will be become diluted with the syrup.
Honey Bee Suite