Feeding Honeybees Honey May Increase Mortality

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After reviewing the details of the BIP survey results for two years where feeding honeybees carbohydrates is concerned, some very surprising suggestions come to light. These results are statistically significant and come from sample sizes including thousands of beekeepers from all over the USA and tens of thousands of colonies. First, it doesn’t matter what carbohydrates you choose to feed your honeybees, you are either not improving their chances of survival or you are damaging their chances of survival. Those who do not feed are achieving as good or better survival rates.

There is one important exception. In every case, feeding honeybees frames of honey increases their chance of death. Talk about the unexpected! Let me repeat: if you feed your honeybees that which they would feed themselves, frames of honey, then you are increasing their chance of death. We don’t know the cause. But we have strong survey data speaking and we should listen.

Feeding Honeybees Honey May Increase Mortality

By Don Studinski, Colorado beekeeper and guest author for BIP

Many of us who practice “natural” beekeeping or “permaculture style” beekeeping are quite comfortable feeding our honeybees honey when they “must” be fed. We all know to never feed honey from the grocery store because it will likely contain American Foul Brood (AFB) spores. But when we feed back the honey, many times still in the frame, that we earlier harvested from this very colony, that seems harmless. Or when we feed a frame from another colony because we have a high degree of confidence the honey is disease free, we think to ourselves “what could be more natural, more healthy or more of exactly what a honeybee needs, than honey?” Notice that I’m using the inclusive pronouns, us, we and our. That’s because I spent many fine years using this philosophy.

Statistically, We Are Wrong

First, we will look at the Bee Informed Partnership survey results for 2011 – 20121. About 3600 beekeepers participated in the survey question representing about 233,000 colonies. That large sample size turned up exactly no difference where feeding carbohydrates is concerned. Feed your honeybees candy, dry sugar, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, sugar syrup, wet supers or nothing at all, it doesn’t matter, you get the same colony loss, in this case, about 23%.

Does that make you wonder why you are going to all that trouble to feed your bees? It should.

If lack of forage is a major contributor to honeybee decline, as some claim (read USDA), then why does it make no difference what so ever when beekeepers feed their bees? Well, “beekeepers must be feeding the wrong food” is one possible explanation. But what could be more “right” than honey? Let’s look further.

carbfeedingproductConsider only those honeybees being fed. Only two methods of feeding showed statistically significant differences: candy boards and honey frames. Candy boards showed a positive effect and honey frames showed a negative effect. The survey covered all these feeding options: candy board, dry sugar, frames of honey, HFCS, honey and sugar syrup. Of all those feeding methods, the only one showing a positive effect was candy board. Those using candy boards lost fewer colonies than those not using candy boards, but only by about four of 100 colonies. And only one method showed a negative effect, honey frames. Those using honey frames lost more colonies than those not using honey frames, but again, only by about four colonies in 100.

Suppose this is an anomaly that showed up in the 2011 – 2012 survey, but will not be repeated. What does the next survey have to say about feeding honey?

The BIP survey results for 2012 – 2013 did show some differences2. But, I bet these are not the differences you expected. First, those who fed carbohydrates to their bees lost more colonies, significantly more, than those who did not feed. The survey covered the same six methods of feeding as before. This time, the participants increased to nearly 3800 representing slightly over 557,000 hives (nearly double the previous year hive count). Those who chose to feed their colonies lost about 45% while those that chose not to feed carbohydrates lost 36%.

Note that both 36% and 45% are more than the 23% shown in the 2011 – 2012 survey. Something seems to have affected the data overall from one year to the next.

Carbohydrate Feed 2013Again, in the 2012 – 2013 survey, two methods of feeding showed a statistically significant difference in colony mortality, but this time the two methods were sugar syrup and frames of honey. Both of these methods showed an increased mortality rate over those not using these feeding methods. Those who fed sugar syrup experienced about five more colony deaths per 100 colonies than those who did not feed sugar syrup. Those who fed frames of honey experienced about nine more colony deaths per 100 colonies.

Needless to say, I found these results pretty counter intuitive. It’s a long way from what I would have instinctively assumed was true about honeybees and honey.

Conclusion

These results are very surprising. They are counter to my intuition. But until something strongly suggests otherwise, I must rethink my feeding practices. When I find honey left behind by a dead colony, I may harvest that honey for human consumption, but I will no longer pass that honey on to another colony. And when I find a struggling colony that I think I need to feed, then I might consider some candy, but I definitely will not be stealing honey frames from another colony to help them out.

Up to now, I thought I was helping my colonies when I provided supplemental carbohydrates. In fact, I have jars of syrup on several newly installed packages right now (5/12/2014). But these results will definitely change my practices where honey is concerned and may change my practices where syrup is concerned as well. Why would I want to go to all that extra work to end up hurting my colonies?

About the Author:

Don Studinski, dba Honeybee Keep, is a permaculture enthusiast and member of the board of directors at Living Systems Institute (LSI) where he applies permaculture philosophy to beekeeping. Apiaries under Don’s management are located from Golden to Erie, spanning about 50 miles. Honeybee Keep manages Colorado’s first Certified Naturally Grown apiaries. Don’s beekeeping articles have been published in Bee Culture magazine and on-line at Honeybee Haven, Peak Prosperity and Selene River Press.

As a beekeeping mentor, Don provides advice and counsel for students throughout the United States. You can reach him using dstudin@yahoo.com. Colorado Bees for Colorado Beekeepers is Don’s “produce local bees” project which will provide nucleus colonies for sale. Learn more about beekeeping, read free articles and see all the products and services provided by Honeybee Keep at HoneybeeKeep.com.

Don has a BS in Computer Science and an MS in Computer Information Systems. He spent his computer career working for IBM, StorageTek, and McKesson as a programmer, manager and director. He has also owned and operated his own t-shirt and embroidery business. Today, Don spends his time as a beekeeper, mentor and community building activist. He removes bees and wasps from structures, collects swarms, sells honey, performs public speaking, provides honey extraction and provides beekeeping consulting.

1 http://beeinformed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/title-carbohydrate-feed.pdf visited 5/12/2014

Written By: Don Studinski

Don Studinski has written 2 post in this blog.

Don Studinski, dba Honeybee Keep, is a permaculture enthusiast and member of the board of directors at Living Systems Institute (LSI) where he applies permaculture philosophy to beekeeping. Honeybee Keep manages Colorado's first Certified Naturally Grown apiaries. As a beekeeping mentor, Don provides advice and counsel for students throughout the United States, teaches classes and performs public speaking events. He writes extensively about beekeeping on his own website and for a variety of others, including Selene River Press, Bee Culture magazine and Honeybee Haven.

  • SC beekeeper

    We have two lines of thought: those who are willing to feed
    and those who are not. Those who do not feed at all are forced to adapt their
    management practices accordingly; for instance, they will only make splits when
    there is a honey flow on and their splits are generally (by necessity) larger
    and they always leave the colony plenty of stores knowing that they will not be
    feeding them later. On the other hand those who are willing to feed have a much
    bigger variety of choices: they may make more and smaller splits and make them
    during less than ideal times for the bees such as after a honey flow, thereby
    not affecting their honey harvest, or during the early spring so that the
    colony will be built up in time for the flow–but queens generally are not
    mated well in the early spring.

    Bearing these things
    in mind, it is important to remember that a survey gives percentages of the whole
    and does not tell the story of individual colonies. For instance, I know based
    on past experience that the colonies I feed have a lower survival rate than the
    colonies that I did not have to feed but this comes as no surprise to me given
    that the colonies I fed were fed because they needed it for some reason i.e.
    they already had problems and after I feed them they have a diet of sugar syrup….not
    healthful. But still if I can split a colony four ways as opposed to a no-feed
    beekeeper that splits his two ways and then I suffer a 45% loss and he a 36%
    who still has more colonies?

    Regarding sugar vs. honey (and sometimes vs. no-feed), these
    questions come to mind:

    Which colonies died off–the fed ones or non-fed ones in the
    apiary? The percentages were for the beekeeper’s whole operation but we need
    many more details.

    Did every colony get fed? Was it in spring/early summer (temperature-wise
    for the southeast) for splits or during late summer/early fall when the
    longer-lived fall bees were the ones eating? Does it make a difference which
    (spring vs. fall) bees are eating the sugar vs. honey vs. not fed?

    What was going on that made feeding necessary? Queen loss
    resulting in a reduced hive size, split without resources available (no honey
    flow or bad weather so the bees could not gather), hive reduction due to
    disease (DWF or other)? [Pests such as SHB and moths are
    opportunistic and don’t drive down the colony numbers themselves but take
    advantage of a weakened-by-other-means struggling colony which is why I did not
    list them as a reason for hive size reduction.]

    Of the colonies lost, were other causes ruled out such as an
    unmated queen (I lost a hive to this) – regardless of them being fed or not?

    Was the feed supplemented with something like HBH? Was the
    feed/candy board even used (I know beekeepers who use them as “insurance” but
    they are not always used by the bees even though the bees have easy access to
    them)?

    I would like to see colony deaths looked at by the ratio of
    colonies:beekeeper and with consideration given to how often on average the
    beekeeper checks each colony.

    Also feed-free beekeepers tend be treatment free as well and
    once their operation recovers from the initial huge loss typically experienced,
    they then have the advantage of not only good nutrition (or no nutrition) but
    also a much lower incidence of chemical residues in their hives.

    Just a few of the random thoughts that came to mind when
    reading this article—I guess you could say it raised more questions than it
    answered for me.

    • DonTheBeekeeper

      SC Beekeeper,
      Yes, the questions you raise are exactly what needs to happen as the next step. BIP can refine the survey questions to start drilling down in future years. If this piece gets you thinking and asking questions, then it has served the intended purpose. Thanks for writing in!

    • Melissa Kellison

      Those are excellent details I’d like to see examined as well. I’d like to add an examination of water sources used to make feed. Fluoridated and municipal treated water is cautioned against when mixing feed and I’ve even seen quality mineral-rich bottled water suggested, but can we reasonably expect keepers mixing tons of sugar syrup for large apiaries to go to the expense? Are they doing other things to avoid treated water, like private wells or is the bulk of feed being made with treated water from the tap? Have most keepers even heard of avoiding treated water or fluoride? It would go along with the results that the feeds using higher water content are experiencing larger losses. Perhaps the higher temperatures of making candy sterilizes the mixture or boils off some of the chemicals that can evaporate.

  • Rudy Taylor

    So the process/staging map is complicated… Did the extra mortality of fed colonies come from the feed, or from a myriad of other variables… from the environment/weather which caused them to need feed, from their own colony genetics and health, or from beekeeper actions such as late/weak splits, as the previous poster described. This finding
    is reason for a great Ph.D control/treatment study of feed methods and survival/strength.

  • DonTheBeekeeper

    In this article, I studied the survey results from 2011/12 and 2012/13. Interestingly, I just looked at the results for one year earlier, 2010/11 and found this quote:
    “one result that stood out is that beekeepers who fed colonies by adding
    frames of honey to colonies reported 6.5 MORE (=16.7%) over wintering
    colony deaths per 100 managed colonies than those who did not report
    feeding colonies frames of honey”
    So, this result is consistent over three years, whereas this article only points that out over two years.

  • Chris Barnes

    To me, this screems the old addage: “correlation does not mean causation”. Without a doubt this is the most common method of MIS-using statistical research data.
    (PS: I work in a Public Policy Research Institute, whose job it is to produce mountains of this kind of data).

    Until a research can show HOW feeding honey (that they produced) back to the bees, I am going to continue to do it.

  • Jeanette
    • DonTheBeekeeper

      Thank you for the reference. I read it at your prompting.
      Obviously, honeybees need honey and pollen based protein.
      The best results for honeybees are when they can find their own food and benefit from their storage efforts during the off season.

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