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Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor – September 2020

- September 1, 2020 - (excerpt)

Sugar Syrup and Bees — A Follow-UP

I’m grateful that Randy Oliver responded to my question of honey vs. sugar syrup (July Letters). He urges constantly “Don’t make assumptions” and so I followed up on the assertion that “There have been plenty of studies … that indicate that honey bee colonies can thrive on ‘clean’ sugar syrup.”

Ironically the first sources I found all had cautions on the use of syrup. They were, in my opinion, reliable sources (e.g., Diana Yates reporting on the work of Drs. May Berenbaum and Gene Robinson, James Zitting writing in Mother Earth News, and a New Zealand based beekeepers’ site, Kiwimana).

One three-year study showed that bees fed with honey lived an average of 27 days, with sugar syrup 21 days, and with acid invert syrup only 12 days. And the New Zealand report cites Dr. Michelle Taylor from Plant and Food Research who concurred that honey bees fed on sugar syrup did not live as long as those feeding off their own honey. She argues that the minerals and proteins in honey are vital supplements to the proteins derived from the pollen and are crucial to healthy larval development. By contrast, white sugar may retain a residue of chemicals from the processing of cane or beet sugar to a granular form.

A third study concluded that different food sources have differing influences on the digestive tract of bees, especially in the midgut epithelial layer — honey has no harmful effect while adding yeast or malt to sugar syrup had the worst impact.

A fourth study headed by Gene Robinson focused on gene activity in response to feeding with honey, sucrose and HFCS. Hundreds of genes showed differences in activity in bees consuming honey compared to sucrose or HFCS, and in particular activities linked to protein metabolism, brain-signaling and immune defense. “Our results parallel suggestive findings in humans,” Robinson said. “It seems that in both bees and humans sugar is not sugar — different carbohydrate sources can act differently on the body.”

In 2013 May Berenbaum reported that some substances in honey increase the activity of genes that help break down potentially toxic substances such as pesticides.

Finally sugar has a different pH to honey and lacks the enzymes of the latter. “When you change the pH in a bee hive,” James Zitting wrote, “it affects the finely balanced world of the little bugs and weakens the colony. When they track pesticides and fungicides into the hive, the life within the bee bread is affected.”

Randy, I understand the argument that in different parts of the country, weather and foraging opportunities can make supplemental feeding essential for colony survival; I’m hoping you can reference some of the studies that counter the above negativity towards white sugar.

Jeremy Barnes
Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania


Randy responds:

You are absolutely correct Jeremy — for bees being fed for cage trials in incubators, where it may be their sole nutritional source, a high-quality honey may be better than sugar syrup. In my own cage trials, however, the longevity of bees on sugar syrup is quite long. This may be due to my using bees that had fed upon pollen before caging, rather than the newly-emerged (and pollen-starved) bees typically used in cage trials.

On the other hand, most beekeepers are not interested in keeping diet-restricted caged bees alive in an incubator, but instead are feeding sugar syrup to full-sized, free-flying colonies in the field, as an energy source in order to increase colony health, buildup, or for winter stores. Decades of practical experience by beekeepers around the world indicates that honey bee colonies can benefit greatly from the feeding of sugar syrup during nectar dearth, or for winter stores. In my own dearth-prone operation, we find that our colonies respond quite well to the feeding of sugar syrup when called for. Sugar is certainly not a complete or perfect diet, but honey bees (similar to hummingbirds) are physiologically well-adapted for utilizing sugar syrup for their nutritional needs.

Randy Oliver


Prison Beekeeping Amid the CoronaVirus

Last year was a difficult one for the fledgling beekeeping program here at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution (EOCI). On paper it looked simple enough; set up two hives, purchase nucs, split the class of eight into two groups and we would be.up to our elbows in honey by the end of the season.

What actually happened was a vastly different picture. We lost a queen to a swarming event and then stepped on her replacement during a routine hive inspection.

We combined the two remaining hives, bought a new queen late in the season and then over wintered — dazed but not defeated.

Flash forward to March 2020. The four aspiring Journeymen hold our first meeting to discuss what we learned in the previous year and how to approach the next season. As the plan unfolds, all of the failures from the previous year are addressed.

Instead of scraping those pesky swarm cells off the frames we decide to split the hives to multiply our apiary and provide room for crowded colonies to grow. We decide to limit our hive inspections and rely more on deciphering peripheral cues as signs to treat or invasively inspect. We also decide to use smoke properly; closing the lid after smoking and waiting a few moments will allow the bees to begin their gorging and keep calm. Being more cognizant of where we step is also a concern that is brought up. No more stepping on queens this year! We will treat early in the season during the first brood cycles with Hopguard II followed by Formic Pro treatments during the summer honey flows and at the end of the season with an oxalic acid drip before tucking the bees in for the winter. After just a few hours of discussion, all the angles are covered.

On March 13th, in response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Oregon Department of Corrections issued a modified lockdown order for all prisons in the state. This means no visitation, no education and no programming or group meetings for at least 90 days.

Since the EOCI Beekeeping Program falls into the programming category, we faced a major roadblock. But we did what beekeepers do in times of adversity; we adapted.

This year we have a new brood cycle of beginning beekeepers; 12 new students are now engaged in the Washington State Beekeepers Association (WSBA) educational curriculum. In order to continue with certification on schedule we are working with the EOCI multimedia program to record classroom lectures to be aired on the institution channel. Now the class participants can view video lectures, study their manuals and take quizzes and tests via correspondence with the program facilitators.

As for field work experiences — class participants will be called out to our apiary in teams of three to do routine hive inspections, varroa treatments and behavior studies while maintaining social distancing requirements. Here on my housing unit, I’m lucky to have a few beginning beekeepers whom I can mentor and a bunch of free time to write and submit articles to newsletters and magazines, earning points toward my Journeyman certification.

This is a hard time for all of us. EOCI currently has zero confirmed cases of Coronavirus, but our thoughts go out to everyone outside who has been affected. I know that we will come out of this as a stronger, more united country. Thank you to Patrick Gazeley-Romney and the other Beekeeping Program facilitators, and Mr. Peters, the institution work program coordinator, for keeping the program running during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Pendleton, Oregon

Bees Needed in North Dakota Prisons

Hello fellow beekeepers,

In the past we have seen articles about beekeeping and beekeeping education as a form of skills training in correctional facilities. States that have beekeeping programs in them have been shown to reduce prison crime and lower recidivism. Once released it helps to prepare trainees for job opportunities.

One bit of information I find quite alarming is that a place commercial beekeepers like to go during the long summer months for the lush fields of canola, sunflowers and clover does not have such a program. The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has three men’s, one women’s, and also a youth facility. At all the adult facilities there are vegetable gardens, flower gardens and even service dog training programs. Where are the bees?

There are men and women here willing to learn and eager about honey bees. North Dakota is the highest volume honey producer in the U.S., and migratory operations as well as…