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Will cream of tartar harm my honey bees?

Okay, this is one of those ongoing arguments: some say “yes” and some say “no.” But first, why is cream of tartar even an issue?

Cream of tartar, also known as potassium hydrogen tartrate or potassium bitartrate (KC4H5O6), is a white, powdery, acidic substance that is a byproduct of the wine-making industry. It is found on the inside of wine barrels after the grapes have fermented. The tartrate is processed into a salt which has many culinary uses.

Candy makers add cream of tartar to sugar syrups to prevent crystallization. Without the addition, candy made from sugar syrup has a grainy texture. With the addition, candy has a smooth, glossy, and creamy texture.

When beekeepers started using candy recipes for making bee supplements, many left the cream of tartar in the recipe. It was left there without much thought about its purpose. So basically cream of tartar in “bee candy” is just an artifact remaining from “people candy” recipes.

Although the debate continues over whether it harms bees, I’ve never seen data from even one controlled scientific experiment concerning this issue. So, in short, I’m just as clueless as anybody else about the chemical’s effect on honey bees.

However, since we don’t know if it causes harm, and since it doesn’t appear to be a part of the honey bee’s natural diet, why give it to them? So the sugar cakes are gritty–so what? I’ve never heard a bee complain about gritty-textured candy and I’ve never seen a bee push away from the table when presented with it.

So stop being so anthropocentric! Just skip the cream of tartar and make bee candy with sugar, water, and one of the essential oils known to be good for honey bee health such as spearmint or lemongrass. That’s it—there is really no need for corn syrup, cream of tartar, vinegar, preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, or anything else humans may like in their sweets.

Rusty

Freshly poured candy cakes made from sugar, water, and a few drops anise oil.
MREs for bees. Pop out the candy cakes and you can re-use the paper plates.

Comments

Phillip
Reply

Good photos. This is exactly how I plan to make some candy this weekend. I’ve got recipes that call for cream of tartar, though, and another one that calls for apple cider vinegar.

So you made yours with simply water and sugar, and that did the trick? Hmph.

Lauren Montgomery
Reply

Hi Rusty, Thanks for the excellent website. Re the use of cream of tartar in feed: One reason to use some kind of acid in syrup and candy is to bring the ph down to that of honey. Honey is more acidic than sugar (honey ph 4-5 or so, sugar 6-7). According to my local bee expert who is also a naturopathic physician, this difference is important to bee health. It is easier on the bees if the syrup is reduced to ph 4-5 using lemon juice, vitamin C powder or cream of tartar (maybe vinegar, but she doesn’t recommend it). I use color coded ph strips to test with, and it is easy to bring the ph of syrup down with a small addition of one of these substances. While there may not be any scientific studies on the subject, it does make sense to me.

Rusty
Reply

Lauren,

You bring up an interesting point and I can certainly see the logic behind it. Honey is indeed quite acid and the honey bee digestive system is designed for it.

My seat-of-the-pants feeling is that I would still prefer the lemon juice (or vinegar) because bees in captivity (i.e. winter) seem to have a difficult time with solids such as those found in cream of tartar or vitamin C powder. Even dark honey (which contains many solids) is said to cause dysentery more often than light-colored honey (which has many fewer solids.)

That said, I add vitamin C powder to pollen patties and nearly everything in a pollen patty is solid. It is a confusing issue.

I’m sure there must be a paper on this somewhere and I’m going to look it. You’ve piqued my interest!

Thank you for writing and thanks for the compliment. I appreciate your input.

Vickie
Reply

May I have the recipe please?

Rusty
Reply

Vickie,

Do you mean the recipe for sugar patties? I got confused. Several people wrote the same day and asked for the Bienenstich recipe, but now I see this is attached to a different post. Oops.

It’s posted here somewhere. I’ll find it.

Nancy
Reply

Oh, you used the “good” paper plates – coated. No wonder my sugar cakes stuck, even with cooking spray. It’s OK, the bees just chewed strips thru the paper plates between the bars. I’m going to use pie plates this time. The cakes will last longer. Thanks!
Nan

Doc Barney
Reply

Cream of tartar IS safe for bees to ingest and comes in handy when mixing essential oils in a syrup solution. Oil and water does NOT mix, it has to be emulsified, therefore it has to have something that will bind the water and oil together to prevent separation after placing in the feeder. If the oil and water are NOT emulsified, then the last of the bees that come for dinner will be eating their last meal. The oil would have separated by this time and these last bees would be drenched in oil and suffocate. In the candy or grease patty it would not be needed, but it would do no harm.

Rusty
Reply

Cream of tarter is used in human candy recipes to help stabilize the candy and keep it clear. Bees don’t care about the clarity, but cream of tartar leaves an ash residue. Any ash is bad for bees because it can cause honey bee dysentery. Now, that said, there is very little used in these recipes, but why add ash if you don’t have to?

When mixing essential oils with water, the manufacturers of things like Honey-B-Healthy and Pro Health use soy lecithin, not cream of tarter. Lecithin is a much more efficient emulsifier. The recipes on this site that call for an emulsifier use lecithin exclusively, and I will stick with that.

Doc Barney
Reply

Apple cider vinegar is one of nature’s natural antibiotics. It does not harm the bees, and some studies indicate that it may actually ward off foul brood. I use it as a preventative. I would prefer my bees to have a little apple cider vinegar than some pharmaceutical antibiotic after the fact. Just my opinion. Love your site.

aDub
Reply

I think that you will find that the advantage of adding cream of tartar, lemon juice, vitamin C or any other acid, is to help with the hydrolysis of sucrose. This cleaving of the compound sugar, reduces it to glucose and fructose. Bees would do this anyway using enzymes in their saliva; invertases and digestive acids.

Cane sugar is almost 100% sucrose, whereas nectar contains a mix of the disaccharide sucrose and the hexose monosaccharides, glucose and fructose.

Hydrolysis of sucrose therefore makes your syrup a closer facsimile of nectar and so hopefully, a better supplement (easier to convert) than pure sucrose.

Rusty
Reply

While everything you say here is true, I still don’t think it is necessary. Millions of colonies have survived on sucrose alone and, as you yourself point out, the bees can invert it themselves.

Still, if one were really hung up on inverting the sucrose, I prefer lemon juice or vinegar over cream of tartar for the job.

aDub
Reply

I wasn’t suggesting it was necessary, I was pointing out the science and the reason for doing it. Personally I wouldn’t add “essential oils” either, and leave the magic to the bees.
Leave on more honey and feed less syrup 😉

Terry
Reply

From another site: “The only reason I can postulate as to why cream of tartar might be at all harmful relates to the formation of hydroxymethylfurfurol (HMF). HMF is known to be toxic to bees, and its presence in high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the reason some recommend against feeding HFCS to bees”.

Rusty
Reply

Terry,

That is correct. You appended your comment to a very old post, and I think the HMF/cream of tartar info is new within in the last couple years. The mechanism has to do with heating syrup that has been inverted (which is what cream of tartar does).

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