The Curious Beekeeper

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- January 1, 2021 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

Sugar Syrup

After fielding beekeeper questions for eleven years, I have a decent idea of what confuses beginners. When it comes to puzzlement, nothing generates more than sugar syrup. On my website, questions such as “How do I make sugar syrup?” outnumber “How do I control varroa mites?” about 2:1. And there it is, one of syrup’s revered ratios, along with 1:1, 3:2, and 5:3.

Before I begin to dismantle the whole concept of sugar syrup ratios, let me say there is absolutely nothing wrong with them from a management point of view. Beekeepers have been using standard ratios of sugar to water since sugar was cheap enough to feed bees. Most beekeepers have fed sugar at some point in their careers. Some do it regularly, some do it only when needed. That’s fine. I do not intend to examine the moral implication of feeding syrup to honey bees.

Sugar syrup guidelines

The best thing about these ratios is the guidance they provide to beekeepers. A light syrup in spring enhances brood rearing as would an early nectar flow. A heavier syrup in autumn is easier for bees to process because less water needs to be removed. Conceptually, these guidelines work well and have enhanced the lives of countless colonies.

However, based on questions I’ve read, it’s obvious that new beekeepers do not understand the role sugar syrup plays in colony management, nor how precise the measurements must be to properly care for bees.

For example, a woman recently explained how she meticulously measured the ingredients for 1:1 syrup, but before she finished, her husband swept spilled sugar from the table and dumped it in the pot, “completely ruining the entire batch!” She wanted to know if I could calculate a fix, estimating he added an entire teaspoon to the gallon of syrup.

I can only imagine the firestorm this created and hope she didn’t deploy the rolling pin on husband number whatever. But this is a typical question, along with others about reading the meniscus, sufficient stirring, using sugar post pull date, chlorine in city water, and allowing syrup to sit on the counter overnight. The complexity arising from the simple act of mixing sugar into water is astounding.

Worse, the first question that usually follows these I-screwed-it-up stories, is “Will it kill my bees?” Now I’m the perplexed one. How, exactly, do they think it might kill them?

The origin of the ratios

I have no clue who first suggested the now-familiar sugar syrup ratios or when. Whoever did was on to something because the ratios are easy to remember and work well. But any recommendation to feed syrup at a specific ratio of sugar to water is a guideline, a rule of thumb, an estimation, and whoever suggested the idea was a human, not a bee. The notion of a specific sugar concentration is foreign to bees simply because it’s foreign to plants.

Every plant is different

All nectar-producing plants have their own recipe, a genetically-driven range of sweetness. Some nectars are low in sugar, such as that produced by pear flowers. Others are high in sugar, such as the nectar from certain blackberries. Most are somewhere in between, but I doubt any are exactly 1:1, 3:2, or 2:1.

Furthermore, the amount of sugar in the nectar of each species can vary with environmental conditions. It may change from morning to evening, in overcast weather vs. sunny, on hot days vs. cool ones. Add to that windy days vs. still ones, sun vs. shade, and humid vs. dry. Soil type can make a difference, too, as can soil fertility. Nectar concentration can even vary among the blooms on one plant. There is no immutable ratio of sugar to water in nectar, so why do we think sugar syrup must have a precise percentage of sugar?

The honey bees did not provide the specifications for syrup, and they don’t carry mini hydrometers to test its specific gravity. While the bees are ingesting infinite concentrations of sugar to water, we are home micromanaging their syrup, measuring and stirring and tweaking, hoping to arrive at some magical ratio that the bees don’t give a rip about. If they could roll their large compound eyes, they would.

Averages can be deceiving

Recommendations based on averages always remind me of the government. If you look at U.S. census statistics, you will find that in 1960, the typical American family (whatever that is) had 2.33 children. In 2019, the average family had 1.93 children. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met even one family with either 2.33 or 1.93 children.

The same goes for sugar syrup. Even though we swear by 1:1 or 2:1 syrup, and we go to great lengths to make accurate measurements, there’s likely not a flower in the world that produces an equivalent nectar. If natural nectar ranges from four to seventy percent sugar, how can tossing in that extra teaspoon (or cup or pound) make any difference to the bees?

Even though the guidelines are handy and work well, we must realize that they are not edicts etched in stone. Variations in measurement will not make any difference and will not affect bee health. You are not going to kill your bees with a concentration that is a little more or a little less than the guidelines suggest — or even a lot more or less.

If you still need convincing, consider this. Bees can drink pure water and it won’t hurt them. Bees can also consume hard sugar bricks and thrive. The only difference between the two is the sugar-to-water ratio. The first is 100% water, the second is 100% sugar, and all the nectar and sugar syrups on earth fall somewhere between those two.

Significant digits

The last time I wrote about syrup on my website, I explained that you can measure your ingredients by either weight or volume. Yes, the results are slightly different. But in this application, where you’re trying to replicate a moving target, you can only approximate the composition of nectar, no matter how carefully you measure.

Since 1 cup of refined sugar = 200 grams = 7.05 ounces = a little less than 0.5 pound, and 1 cup of water = 236 grams = 8.3 ounces = a little more than 0.5 pound, you can measure by weight or volume or a little of both.

Someone responded explaining how dangerously wrong I was. And to prove it, he had taken his wife’s measuring spoons and kitchen scale and ….