Cutting the Ham

While celebrating their first Christmas together, a husband noticed his beloved cutting off the ends of the ham.  When asked why, she explained that it was something she had watched her mother do.   Mom , duly consulted, replied that it was something Nana had always done.  Nana, consulted in turn, explained that the hams had been too big for her small oven.


Sometimes we do things because ‘that is the way they have always been done,’ and beekeeping is no different.  Before moving to a specific example, allow me to add one further piece of background.  Commercial beekeepers write for, and are cited by, journals and newsletters, including this one, even though their objectives may be different to hobbyists, with management strategies designed to meet those targets. Because they work with such large numbers of colonies  we assume that they know what is best for the bees and that we should imitate their methods, even though our goals might be quite different.  Two examples :  commercial beekeepers need to give their colonies a strong start in the spring if they are to meet the pollination contracts  which are vital for their financial wellbeing.  The same methods used by a smaller beekeeper run the risk of  excessive swarming.  Commercial beekeepers need to graft to maintain a strong supply of queens; there are more natural ways using splits and queen cells for smaller beekeepers to get the queens they might need. 


It’s like a mom-and-pop corner store looking uncritically to Walmart for its operational strategies. 


One of the advantages of being a hobbyist, or a mom-and-pop store, is that there is a flexibility that is denied to the larger enterprises, one example of which is the decision as to how and what to feed bees in the autumn.  Two years ago my intuition told me that feeding white refined sugar to the bees was convenient for the beekeeper rather than healthy for the bees.   I decided last fall not to feed, to leave as much capped honey on as possible, and to monitor the outcomes.  If this led to the robbing of the weak by the strong, so be it.  Does it mean not feeding even in a nectar dearth?  ‘Fraid so.   Do I second guess myself in the midst of winter?  Absolutely.   Yet sometimes, to best help the bees, we need to accept nature’s hard stance against the weak. 


The results after one year?  The winter survival rate was high and the varroa levels throughout the summer were low - an average of a little over 1 mite per 100 bees per colony throughout the year.  I’m acutely aware that by putting this in writing I am inviting retribution from the gods of beekeeping, who can be ruthless in their need for vengeance. 


It was a small sample (20 colonies) over a short period, and I intend to repeat the procedures this fall.  In the interim,  and wondering whether I was projecting concerns about the effects of sugar in my own diet, I did a quick search via Uncle Google to see if there was any supporting science.  You may have seen the correspondence between Randy Oliver and myself on this subject in Bee Culture.  The first hits were, in my opinion, from reliable sources - 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 concurred  that some substances in honey increase the activity of genes that help beak down potentially toxic substances such as pesticides, substances that are missing in sugar.  


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.” 


In summary, it appears that feeding  sugar syrup creates larger numbers of bees in the spring who are smaller in size, lighter in weight, live shorter lives and are more susceptible to disease.  I have to ask if there is a relationship between sugar syrup and the ability of bees to resist varroa mites.


The point is that hobbyists can conduct these kind of experiments, unlike commercial beekeepers who cannot afford to take such risks because of the potential financial implications. Tom Seeley, for example, begins his  presentation of Darwinian beekeeping by stressing that it is not suitable for a commercial enterprise. And when Dr. Eva Crane made her second visit to the US in 1957, during which she travelled some 18 000 miles by plane,10 000 miles by car, slept in 38 beds and met only one other traveler from Europe (in Mexico!) she observed, after giving one of her 25 lectures to a group of beekeepers in California, most of whom ran 10 000 hives or more, “I felt that the intricacies of individual bees must seem rather irrelevant to them.”  


Incidentally, Eva’s first trans-Atlantic flight in 1953 in a propeller-driven Lockheed Constellation took 18 hours, with re-fueling stops in Shannon, Reykjavik, an  army base in Newfoundland, and Boston, before arriving at New York City.  A similar flight fourteen years later, this time to Halifax, took five hours.  


So, first, why are we feeding sugar syrup?  Is it simply because ‘that is the way it has always been done?’ Secondly, I for one would like to see increased input from hobbyists in the advice columns of journals and newsletters, the majority of the readers of which are small scale operators even if they have less colonies in total compared to the bigger guys.   Bob Tatro’s articles in the electronic edition of this newsletter are a good example.  And finally, when we read articles submitted by large-scale beekeepers, do we ask what kind of operation the provider runs, what his or her  objectives might be, and whether they are pertinent to our own undertaking,  before adopting them wholesale? 


Out of necessity new beekeepers adopt wholesale the suggestions, routines and processes of their instructors and mentors.  A personal example.  In the first of my bee classes we would venture into the apiary to discuss the location of a hive.  I would point out that my hives all face south east (or they did at the time) because I wanted them to get the morning sun, and it happened to suit the layout of the bee yard.  What most new beekeepers heard, and later stoutly defended, is that a hive has to face south east … rather than that this was my decision based on local circumstances.  And I was at fault for not clarifying what is recommended versus what was a personal choice.   


After a while (five years seems to be about average) beekeepers learn to read a frame of bees and make decisions based on the evidence before them  rather than on preconceived notions and procedures.  It is soon after this, I suggest, that beekeepers need to question almost everything they initially took for granted and to make decisions based on their experience, their observations, their reading and their objectives.  


If you decide to feed sugar in the fall, I hope you do so for a clearly defined reason and not ‘because everyone else does it.’  Ask enough questions and you might find the  that the oven is now big enough after all. 



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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my