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The Classroom

The Classroom – February 2022

- February 1, 2022 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

The Classroom - ABJ - Jamie Ellis
pH of liquid feed

I feed my bees a 50:50 solution of sugar water. Some sources recommend adjusting the pH of one’s feed to match that of natural nectar. Do you know of any scientific evidence that shows any health benefit to the bees from adjusting the pH?

Steve Wall


Steve, thanks for helping me start this month’s article with a question I had to research. ☺ In all seriousness, I have heard comments about this issue many times. I am aware of beekeepers who work to change the pH of the sugar/corn syrup to make it “better” for the bees.

I did a Google Scholar search for research on this topic. Guess what? I did not find anything. Much of what I tell you at this point will be supposition. That said, I do have some reliable pieces of information that inform my non-committal answer that follows. First, I looked up the pH of sugar water. I found that sugar does not change the pH of the substance into which it is added. Pure water has a pH of 7. Adding sugar to it keeps the pH at 7. Nothing happens.

Second, I did a search for information on the pH of nectar. Honestly, it was surprising how little I found. Most folks look at the chemical composition of nectar rather than its pH. Nevertheless, and as you might guess, there were quite a few beekeeper discussion boards on this topic. In one of the discussions I read, someone referenced this manuscript:

Baker, H.G. 1977. Non-sugar chemical constituents of nectar. Apidologie, 8(4): 349-356.

In that paper, Mr. Baker says “…the pH values of nectars may range, at least, from pH 4.2 to pH 8.5 …”. This simply means that nectar’s pH is possibly all over the place. The National Honey Board states that the pH of honey ranges from 3.4 – 6.1. It is acidic. So this begs the question: If nectar can have a pH over 7, is the pH lowered during the conversion to honey [answer: yes]? Also, should I help start this process with the sugar/corn syrup I feed them [answer: likely not]?

Now here is how humans work. When we see the pH of honey trends to acidic, it is our tendency to try to “help the bees” and put all sorts of things into sugar/corn syrup to get the pH low. Perhaps we use acetic acid (vinegar), or ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to lower the pH. The problem, though, is that none of this is tested. Furthermore, the bees get the pH of nectar down entirely without our help. Without any research on the topic, we are only guessing that lowering the pH is good for the bees. That does not mean it is actually good for the bees.

To layer anecdote upon anecdote, my guess is that it is not necessary to lower the pH of sugar water at all. Also, I currently do not have any reason to believe it will benefit the bees. The bees are good at lowering the pH themselves and likely do not need my help to do it. As a scientist, I want to be clear that I am more than willing to believe research that suggests manually lowering the pH of sugar/corn syrup for bees is good. I just have not found any research suggesting this.

All that said, there are possible (though untested) benefits of lowering the pH in sugar/corn syrup. The one I think has the most logical support would be the inhibition of the growth of that scuzzy film that shows up in aging sugar/corn syrup. Again, I have not seen any research on this. However, I know folks lower the pH to help their sugar water last longer in feeders. My strategy for that is simply mixing what I need now and feeding the bees what they will take quickly.

Q  Different bee varieties

There are apple varieties for nearly everything, a different variety for pies, ciders, and eating raw. This is the same for corn, tomatoes, and almonds when it comes to harvest timing or fruit variety. A different variety for a different need. Why do we not have that for honey bees? Why is it that the variety of bees used for blueberry pollination is the same as the variety for honey production? Not just that, why do different varieties not exist? Why are people not trying to create them? Could we be breeding a better bee that can hold up to all that we throw at them, especially if they are bred to that environment?

Patrick Harrison
New Jersey, December


Patrick, I love this question. I have never thought about it this way. I also love your examples. I am not a huge fan of apple pies, but I do like apple juice and eating apples raw!

You can breed bees for lots of characteristics. You can breed them for color, hygienic behavior, propolis use, pollen foraging, gentleness, swarming tendency, etc. So in some ways, breeding is already happening, and the industry is better because of it.

However, you are asking about a very specific subset breeding, i.e., breeding a honey bee that is especially good at pollinating blueberries, another that is a great forager on clover, etc. I guess the reason that it is not happening is that there is no demand for this level of breeding. The tendency for a colony to be a good honey producer makes it generally good across a number of plant species. Likewise, the tendency for one to be a good pollen gatherer makes it generally good across a number of plant species. I get your point. However, I just think that level of specificity has not been needed to date, or the demand is not quite there.

There are some neat examples in the literature of breeding bees for unique traits. I know that you can breed bees to get longer-tongued workers. These workers, then, have the ability to collect nectar from deeper flowers. This idea, and other similar ideas, strongly suggest that breeding the way you suggest might be possible.

At the end of the day, humans are very opportunistic. If there is a need for a honey bee that is the world’s best pollinator of almonds, honey producer on buckwheat, etc., you can rest assured that someone will create it through breeding. It is important to remember, though, that the demand has to be there to match the supply. Right now, I would guess most beekeepers do not use the special breeds of honey bees available now (Russian bees, hygienic stock, Pol-line, etc.). Thus, I am not sure there will ever be a demand for the level of specificity you note. These are great comments nevertheless. You got my wheels turning!

Q  Winter colony losses and spring wax moth damage

I enjoy year-round hive activity due to the mild winter climate of central Arizona. My bees produce mesquite and alfalfa honey. My colony numbers oscillate from the 90s to 60s as hives dwindle from January through May and increase June through October as I make divides and capture occasional swarms. In early December, hives are at their peak, three deeps with lots of bees, honey and pollen still being collected.

Problem number one is that while I expect the quantity of brood to reduce for a few months, some hives let it stop altogether. Drones have been evicted with the cooler weather and I see no effort to raise a new queen. These are the hives that frequently fail. Queens are very expensive at this time of year, particularly in the small quantities I need. Many times, such hives have not benefited from my attempt to requeen them.

Problem number two is caring for the boxes from the failed hives and the boxes emptied of honey by the strong ones. Crystals work pretty well in cooler months, but during April and May, the moths become a problem while I make splits and put boxes back into service. I now have access to a refrigeration trailer where I can store the drawn comb and can drop the temperature below freezing. To prevent moth damage, I would like to know how cold I need to go, for how many hours and how frequently to repeat.

Dwight Allen
Arizona, December


Thanks for these questions. From your statements, I am not quite sure if your colonies are failing because of queenlessness (you mention needing to requeen them) or if the queen is shutting down too early (in which case you are still wanting to requeen them). Either way, you are ending up in a situation where you need to requeen a hive but do not have access to one to solve the problem. I think I have a solution for you.

If you have read this column in the past, read my articles, watched my videos, or listened to my lab’s podcast (Two Bees in a Podcast), you will have heard me mention the value of using nucs a million times. I am a huge fan of having spare nucs on hand in your apiaries. Where I live, you can keep nucs alive all year. I realize it is a little trickier to keep nucs alive in colder locations, given the nucs do not accommodate strong colonies or lots of honey stores. However, with a little management, you can overwinter nucs in most locations. They likely would do just fine in Arizona.

Why do I like nucs for queen issues? Well, having nucs on hand means that you always have queens on hand to solve your queen problems, even during winter! Everything you describe above would be solved if you had a few spare 5-frame nucs. I have a whole process I recommend for requeening full-size colonies with nucs. You can find more information about it by Googling “EDIS honey bee nuc.” However, I will summarize the process here.

Assuming your colony is queenless, remove five frames (broodless frames if in December) from the lowermost brood box. These frames can be stored the remainder of winter or provided to another colony if needed. Next, push the remaining five frames against one wall of the brood box. Third, take all five nuc frames (bees, brood, queen, and all) and place in the empty space left in the brood box. Fourth, knock all the bees from the nuc into the brood box. Finally, close up your full-size hive. That is it. There is nothing much to it. Requeening this way gives the colony a queen instantly. It also provides an instant shot of brood, honey, pollen and bees.

I always get questions about queen acceptance (i.e., will the bees in the full-size hive kill the new queen?). I never have a problem with this. If you are worried about it, you can simply cage the queen from the nuc when you move her to the full-size hive. Then, you can go back 3-4 days later and manually release her. Folks also ask me if the bees will fight. I never have a problem with this. Check out the document I suggest above and see if you think it might work for you.

Next, you asked about storing combs in a freezer. I much prefer to store combs this way. I realize that not everyone has access to a freezer. It is not an option for everyone. However, we have a large walk-in freezer at the University of Florida bee lab and that is where my team and I store our combs when they are not in use. The freezer is large enough that we simply put the combs in and leave them there until we need them.

By your question, it seems that you may not have this option. It sounds like you may have more combs than you have freezer space. If this is the case, you can freeze a group of combs for a week, store them under an “open” shed when not in the freezer (a shed with a roof, but no walls — like a pole barn), and then cycle them back into the freezer every 3-4 weeks. Your machine needs to be below freezing for this to work.

Also, inspect the combs not in the freezer weekly to catch any early signs of moth damage. If you find it, get the combs into the freezer sooner than every 3-4 weeks. I like to freeze my combs for 3-4 days before I feel comfortable believing all the moths are dead. It probably does not take that much time, but I tend to over worry about these things. As an aside, I do not have much personal freezer space either. I would simply store my supers of combs on top of strong hives. The bees seem to do a good job keeping the moths out as long as the colonies are sufficiently strong to patrol the combs with regularity.

Q  Honey moisture

I just read “Bubbly Honey” in the November 2021 Classroom. I had a customer bring in some honey that he said had been fully capped and he had just extracted it. It tested at 20% moisture. My honey, which usually tests in the low 18%, tested in the high 18% this year. I extracted my  …