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Turning syrup into honey?

The question usually goes something like this: “How long does it take for the bees to turn syrup into honey?”

The answer is “they can’t.” Bees can never turn sugar syrup into honey. Harry Potter himself couldn’t do it. Syrup is made from granulated sugar (sucrose) dissolved in water. After the bees get done 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 syrup—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.

Bees store syrup and nectar the same way

In spite of its lack of substance, 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 syrup is readily available to bees, the real honey soon becomes contaminated with syrup.

I knew a beekeeper who fed sugar syrup to her bees all spring and summer with honey supers in place and then marketed her product as “pure honey.” When I asked her about it, she explained to me that the bees ate the sugar 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. 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.

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Honey is made from the nectar of flowers. You cannot turn syrup into honey. Pixabay public domain photo.
Honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Pixabay public domain photo.

Comments

ScoobyDoBee
Reply

As always, I love reading your blog! But this one left me with questions. I’m still a newbie but I’ve been around long enough to know that syrup fed to bees does not honey make. I have not, however, been around long enough to understand the “consequences of my actions” nor the “steps to avoid problems.” Please expound. What consequences? What steps? What problems? I’m thirsty!

Rusty
Reply

Okay, I see I’ll have to expand this in another post. But basically, the consequences of feeding bees sugar syrup when honey supers are in place is that the honey becomes contaminated. It is both unethical and illegal to “extend” honey with syrup, and whether you just pour it in the bottle or you let the bees do it, it amounts to the same thing. Tests have been developed to detect sugar syrup in honey. Unfortunately, it is easier to detect sugar from cane than sugar from beets, but the analyses are getting more sophisticated all the time.

Certain countries have a reputation for “extending” honey and we try to keep it out of our imports. Then, when we find beekeepers at home doing it, that is really sad. Remember the woman I mentioned, who feeds her bees during honey flow? Imagine someone tasting her honey and deciding honey isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s just sweet and syrupy, nothing else. Isn’t that sad? Isn’t it sad for the entire honey industry? Plus the consumer paid for something that she didn’t get. She paid for honey; she got granulated sugar mixed with honey. Misrepresenting the ingredients in a product is a serious crime and it casts a shadow over all beekeepers.

The major step to avoiding these problems is to be meticulous about removing all syrup before adding supers and realizing that syrup feeding is just a stop-gap measure for saving a hive from starving. It is not something that should be done routinely.

I hope this helps you for now. I made a note to expand on this in the future.

ALFTN
Reply

From my understanding nectar is a mixture of fructose and “sucrose” and thus honey by nature is a mixture of the two . . . When and how quickly honey crystallize is due to the ratio of the 2 sugars . . . I think feeding your honeybees all the time is not for me . . . I want a clean natural product for my own consumption . . . With that said, SUCROSE is sucrose weather from white refined sugar or from plant nectar . . . ALF

ALFTN
Reply

Sometimes I am not too quick with my thoughts, sucrose is the 3rd sugar . . . fructose and glucose are in nectar right . . . DUMB DUMB DUMB, I am . . . ALF

Rusty
Reply

Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s complicated stuff.

Rusty
Reply

Honey is a mixture of glucose and fructose and, yes, it’s the ratio between the two the controls the rate of crystallization. Sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose.

Joe Allawos
Reply

Sucrose is not a polysaccharide. It is a disaccharide. Perhaps you are thinking of starch?

Rusty
Reply

Joe,

Good catch. Thank you.

Anna
Reply

“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.”

Disturbing, disturbing, and disturbing. Some people . . . never mind, I’ll bite my tongue.

ScoobyDoBee
Reply

Thanks, Rusty, for clarifying that part. What scares me more than feeding with supers on is how do these same people handle medications. I have often had that thought pop into my mind – perish the thought!

Rusty
Reply

Yes, it’s exactly the same problem. Many bee medications are not to be used with honey supers in place. But how many beekeepers follow these instructions is anybody’s guess.

Honey tainted with antibiotics has been discovered in imports, but domestic honey is seldom tested.

Phillip
Reply

I goofed a few weeks ago and left out some syrup in a mixing bucket. When I came back a week later, the bucket was empty and I said, “Damn!” I made some cut comb today from two frames, each frame from a different hive. Check out the difference:

http://goo.gl/P6sKQ

The comb on the bottom is virtually colourless. The flavour is somewhat bland. I suspect it was made from sugar syrup. I can’t taste the anise that we use in our sugar syrup, but I got a feeling it’s capped syrup, not honey. If it’s real honey, it’s the lightest honey I’ve ever seen.

Is virtually white honey produced from any natural sources?

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

Wow, that is light. Still, some honey is said to look like (clean) water, including black locust. See “Honey bee forage: black locust“. I had some really light honey at the end of last year, but it was more like your top sample. Since my honey is usually dark amber, it seemed really light to me. I think fireweed is also supposed to be water white.

It would take a lot of syrup to fill a comb. How much syrup did you lose?

Phillip
Reply

I think I left out about 6 litres of syrup (about 1.5 gallons). I’m not sure exactly. Probably enough fill a few medium frames.

I’m not sure about the black locust, but I’ve noticed the bees all over the fireweed. The fireweed is everywhere. Interesting.

Jennifer
Reply

In the mountains of the southeast, white clover, locust, sourwood also make really light honey, ESP locust 🙂 It worried me a bit, as I am a newbie – all my mentors said to feed my girls sugar syrup to my new packages UNTIL they got the comb drawn out on the 10 frame deeps, and then take it away. I have done that, and just harvested my first honey, which is very light, but not clear like water. I am told it is locust and white clover. I hope I get good enough at this to determine to some degree what I have 🙂 Sourwood is not far away, nor locust 🙂

The Alpine Beekeeper
Reply

Ughh! I really enjoy reading your website and in most cases I do not argue differences because I accept how many views are out there especially with beekeeping. That is why it pains me to refute this point because some things are false no matter what. I don’t expect to change someone’s view but hear me out.

The notion that bees cannot turn sugar or syrup into honey is false. Just plain and simple. Okay, perhaps not so simple. Let me explain.

Honey has an intrinsic characteristic aside from other natural sugars of being a predigested form of different monosaccharides such as sucrose/fructose in an invert state accomplished outside of the reaction under heat. It is rather, a manipulation of enzymes. This I know you agree with.

However, there are so many different types of nectar that no definition of honey can be derived from the word “nectar” alone. The molecular composition of some nectars far exceed the nutritional content of others. Some nectars are so basic in structure that they resemble little more than pure sucrose. Even given the fact that some minerals and nutrients exist in all nectar, these vary from one to the other. In truth, if humans were to mechanically extract nectar from flowers on a large scale similar to maple syrup, agave etc. they could not add the same enzymes, minerals, or processes to recreate what we call honey.

Also take into consideration what is occurring during the conversion process of honey in the beehive. Enzymes play only a minimal role, bacteria cultures are crucial in the way sugars ferment. Glucose oxidase is one byproduct of fermentation and has little to do with properties found in nectar.

In summary, it should be pointed out that bees are the primary factor in honey production and a study of syrup after it has been converted by a bee is fully functional in its characteristics of honey. Its mineral content may be less, but its ability to make mess as well as offer H2O2 as a diluting byproduct itself stands to suggest that what a be makes is honey no mater where the bee got it.

This is not a complete explanation but I hope it offered a little food for thought.

Rusty
Reply

By definition, if isn’t made of nectar it isn’t honey. Glucose oxidase is not a by-product of fermentation, it is an enzyme secreted by the hypopharyngeal gland of the honey bee and added to nectar.

Nick
Reply

As mentioned in an earlier thread concerning honey definitions, here in the States, that duty falls to the FDA apparently. The USDA has issued the grading standards, but successfully dodges the responsibility of the definition. The FDA was charged by the Senate Appropriations Committee to get the definition done promptly, a couple of years ago.

“…Senate Committee on Appropriations has called on the FDA to address a standard of identity for honey in the reported agriculture appropriations bills for 2010 and 2011. In the Fiscal Year 2011 Senate Report, the FDA was directed to respond to the citizen petition from the American Beekeepers Association within six months and provide monthly status reports to the Senate Appropriations Committee on this effort until a response has been provided.” Source: http://www.agri-pulse.com/Honey_Gillibrand_8042011.asp

Here in Washington State, we do have a definition. Other states have ‘other’ definitions as does the World Health Organization.

WA state
69.28.310
“Honey” defined.
The term “honey” as used herein is the nectar of floral exudations of plants, gathered and stored in the comb by honey bees (apis mellifica). It is laevo-rotatory, contains not more than twenty-five percent of water, not more than twenty-five one-hundredths of one percent of ash, not more than eight percent of sucrose, its specific gravity is 1.412, its weight not less than eleven pounds twelve ounces per standard gallon of 231 cubic inches at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.
[1939 c 199 § 14; RRS § 6163-14. Formerly RCW 69.28.010, part.]

The WHO, as cited here: http://www.honeytraveler.com/types-of-honey/honey-standards/
World Health Organization (WHO) Codex Alimentarius (CA) for Honey, “Honey is the natural sweet substance, produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of there own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature.”

Merriam-Webster conscise encyclopedia: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/honey?show=0&t=1391486925
“Sweet, viscous liquid food, golden in colour, produced in the honey sacs of various bees from the nectar of flowers. Honey has played an important role in human nutrition since ancient times; until about 250 years ago, it was almost the sole sweetening agent. Honey is often produced on a commercial scale from clover (Trifolium) or sweet clover (Melilotus) by the domestic honeybee. The nectar is ripened into honey by inversion of most of its sucrose into the sugars levulose (fructose) and dextrose (glucose) and the removal of excess moisture. Honey is stored in the beehive or nest in a honeycomb, a double layer of uniform hexagonal cells constructed of beeswax and propolis (a plant resin). The honey is used in winter as food for the bee larvae and other members of the colony. Honey extracted for human consumption is usually heated to destroy fermentation-causing yeasts and then strained. See also beekeeping.”

There is some variation in these definitions, and some points could be argued as being wrong, such as whether or not ‘honeydew’ should be allowed or not or what moisture percentage is allowable as ‘honey’. However, these are consistent in that bees harvest nectar from living plants…

Comb stored sugar syrup fails this test and should not be referred to nor labelled as ‘honey’.

Nick
Kent WA

Rusty
Reply

Thanks for putting this together, Nick. Good work.

Gilgamesh
Reply

I realize this is an old post, but it seems to have a few new comments. Very interesting, too. Nice debate.

Here’s a tangential question: there was a comment in Bee Culture magazine a couple of years ago that grossed me out … The insinuation was that urban beekeepers (and maybe the rest of us) make a lot of honey from dumpster-diving bees. Sweet sticky syrupy goo in and around dumpsters attracts bees, they store it, and what do we call that? Is it honey if the sucrose sugar-water gets in there from some other source?

By the way, my bees absolutely love chicken mash. Mmm.

Rusty
Reply

Gilgamesh,

Bees will collect syrupy sweets and have been known to store liquified candy canes, maraschino cherry syrup, the coating from M&Ms, etc. However, it is not honey because, by definition, honey is made from plant nectar. Usually beekeepers can spot it by its garish colors and cut it out of the comb or use it for winter feed.

Chicken mash and similar products with high protein content are often collected by bees and fed to the larvae in place of pollen. Sometimes things like wet coffee grounds are used as a water source and are not being collected at all.

Rosalind
Reply

As a novice beekeeper of 2 months, I glean every scrap of info I can to make sure I am doing the best for my hive.
My instructor advised that when acquiring a new colony or a swarm, it is best to feed a sugar solution until they have built up their reserves. Plus, the bees will only take what sugar solution they require.

I have a thriving colony now with lots of frames with honey. Following guidance, I do not intend to take any honey away this first year.

But what about next year? The advise is to feed in early spring when the weather is warmer. Also possibly in June when there is a blossom lull.

Will all the angst against bees taking too much sugar syrup, I am concerned next year I may get it all wrong.
I have been somewhat surprised at how much sugar syrup they are taking each week. But going with my former advice, I was happily adding it because they were taking it.

Am I training them to rely on the sugar syrup rather than foraging for themselves?

Rusty
Reply

Rosalind,

You bring up several issues. In my opinion, sugar syrup is a supplement to get your bees through times of shortage; it can also be used to get a new colony started in the spring. Refined sugar is not part of the natural honey bee diet, so the less you feed the better. Remember, refined sugar has no nutrients, no vitamins, and no minerals the way honey does. It is merely empty calories.

You say your bees have put up lots of honey, but if they’ve taken that much syrup, what you have is a combination of honey and sugar syrup in your combs–not pure honey. That means their winter food supply is not as nutritious as it could be. The best food for bees is pure honey, made from the nectar of flowers.

You are not training them, you have just made it easy for them. Remove the sugar and they will remember how to forage perfectly well. Just remember that sugar syrup is a tool that can be used when food supplies are low, but it certainly shouldn’t replace nectar in the honey bee diet.

BJ
Reply

My husband and I are new to beekeeping. We bought a hive in April and have caught 2 in swarm catchers. We have been feeding them Pro-Sweet liquid feed from Mann lake until recently. We are now feeding them sugar syrup to help them prepare for the winter. We were told to do that with our new hives. When should we stop? We have not tried to harvest any honey so does it really matter?

Rusty
Reply

BJ,

Your bees will stop taking liquid feed when the temperature of the feed (not the air) drops to 50 degrees F (about 10 degrees C). You can feed them until they stop taking it. If all the syrup is being used for winter feed, it makes no difference as far as honey purity is concerned.

BJ Tannery
Reply

Thank you for the reply. Happy Beekeeping to you.

Dave
Reply

Rusty,

So the 2:1 mix I just fed, about 1 gallon per colony, will be consumed this winter? And will a spring feed, if needed, contaminate their honey with syrup?
I fed all summer, 1:1, because there was a dearth here, then did the 2:1 for a final feeding last week with a two week break in-between. The stores they have seem adequate…two full mediums on one, almost two full mediums on the other. My guess is about 60 to 70 pounds each colony.

Thanks
Dave

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

The key is to never have extracting supers (or comb honey supers) on while you are feeding. If the boxes you have on the hive are for the bees and not for humans, then the bees can’t store the syrup in the “wrong” place. And yes, what you are feeding them now they will consume during the winter. Pretty much all of it will be gone by spring. In the spring, the same thing applies. You can feed them syrup, but once the honey supers go on, the feed needs to stop.

James Marshall
Reply

I was going to correct ALFTN about sucrose, but saq they self corrected.

But will now add to wha ALFTN said about sucrose.

White sugar, if you study human nurtrition, is a top 5 cause of cancer. People must also keep this in mind. Cancer in people is caused by acidifying the body. Taking the human body from a alkaline state, to an acid state. Cancer cells cannot survive in an alkaline body PH.

Sucrose contributes to acidity in the human body causing sore muscles and joints, as well as other ailments.

Sucrose in relationship to bees, is very capable of acidifying body PH. This can contribute to weakening the bee’s immune system. Nobody in my opinion should feed sucrose willy nilly! But should keep in mind what happens to bee health, when they are fed white sugar.

In my opinion sucrose should only be fed as a last resort. The Natural, nature made way is best for bee health, as well as human health.

Nectar is best! Honey is immensely healing, nutritious, and tasty! For people and for bees.

Rusty
Reply

James,

Certainly honey is the best bee food, but it is extremely acidic.

BJ Tannery
Reply

What do beekeepers do when there is no nectar? We live in the hottest city in the nation, (Lake Havasu City, AZ) we don’t have any flowers within miles of us. Will they live off their stores if they cannot get any food? Just curious. What about the HFCS? Can you feed them that? Beekeepers in California with 1,000’s of hives feed that to them by the tanker load. I appreciate the info.

Rusty
Reply

BJ,

Honey bees will feed on their stores as long as they last. Yes, you can feed HFCS if you wish, or sugar syrup.

jimia
Reply

“Honey is a mixture of glucose and fructose and, yes, it’s the ratio between the two the controls the rate of crystallization.” It is nice to know that it is the ratio that determines the rate of crystallization…while finding ways to differentiate between fake and pure honey [http://durablehealth.net/?p=59] I found out that pure honey crystallizes….that high-fructose honey types crystallize faster…At least I now know that it is not just fructose but the ratio.

chris
Reply

I will save everyone a long drawn out story about myself and my experiences in life as well as with my beekeeping experiences, but will leave you all with something to ponder. The last beekeper’s meeting I ever attended welcomed the governments top apiarist for our province. Who proceeded to tell a room full of people that new research has determined what has been killing all the bees. It wasn’t pesticides,herbicides, fungicides, g.m.o. foods or neonicatinoids or any other man-made ssues. Nope! Are ya all ready? It was ‘dust’! Yep, dust. Are you frickin serious? Everyone there just sat there eating this cap up too! Again, are you serious? But then he proceeded to tell everyone not to worry because they have an answer! They have a new chemical agent to supress the dust! So being me, I proceeded to ask who funded this research. As suspected of course it was by all the major chemical, agriculture corps. So when I asked him how big was the envelope he received to sit there and plain faced lie to everyone, I was told to remove myself. How convenient their meetings were held in a police station! So when the government or any other affiliate agency of government tells you something….IT DOES NOT MAKE IT SO!!!! WAKE UP PEOPLE!!!

chris
Reply

My apologies, but now I am on a bit of a rant. If memory serves me correctly, the meeting before this one also seen me as an outsider in the meeting, due again to asking the unpopular question(s). It was told to us that a member of the bee association did a removal of a honey bee hive from someone’s house (outer wall) and that it was a particularly large and healthy colony. Then they proceeded to tell us that they were immediately medicated as per government and bee association standards. So when I asked why they were medicated if they were such a healthy colony I was immediately shunned and outcasted. The only answer I got was because that was the industry standard protocol. Sounds a lot to me like another load of pharmaceutical (chemical) sales crap! People beware, there is an agenda in place. I do not for one second believe it is in any of our best interests.

muzafar
Reply

Hello everyone,

I found honey bee hive inside a tree. Is there any way to get them to my box?

Rusty
Reply

Muzafar,

You have to cut the combs out of the tree and tie each comb into a frame.

Edward
Reply

I know this is an older post but saw this directive from The European Parliament.
Council Directive 2001/110/EC (3) defines honey as the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees (‘bees’). Honey consists essentially of different sugars, predominantly fructose and glucose, as well as other substances such as organic acids, enzymes and solid particles derived from honey collection.

Surely it should have said from Nectar collection.

http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32014L0063

Rusty
Reply

Edward,

That’s funny. Sounds like a classic case of no proofreading.

may
Reply

I have diabetes and I have read about the good benefits of honey into our body. But I was confused between a cultured honey (feed by sugars) and wild honey (feed naturally from plants). Is cultured honey still good to a person who suffer diabetes? thanks

Rusty
Reply

May,

There is no such thing as “cultured honey” as you describe it. Honey is made by bees from the nectar of plants. If is has any sugar syrup in it, it is contaminated and not allowed to be sold as pure honey. Whether a diabetic should eat honey is a question for a doctor.

Mike Henry
Reply

How much sugar water at 2:1 should you feed a hive to make it through a Wisconsin winter? They just took 1.5 gallons in less then 24 hours.

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

Your bees will need 80 to 90 (I would go 90) pounds of stored honey or syrup, which is equivalent to about 10 deep frames both sides. See How much honey should I leave in my hive?

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