Sugar Blues

It's a prime ingredient in countless substances from sodas to coffee, from building materials to paper products, cement to glue, from bioplastics to bee hives, and it can extend the life of fresh cut flowers. Consumed at a rate in excess of one hundred pounds per person per year in the US,  it's as addictive as nicotine and just as poisonous. So argued William Dufty in Sugar Blues, the dietary classic of 1975. Dufty, who also wrote Billie Holiday's biography, Lady Sings the Blues, labeled sugar a narcotic, defined as ‘a drug that dulls the senses.’ "Heroin is nothing but a chemical,” he wrote. “They take the juice of the poppy and they refine it into opium and then they refine it to morphine and finally to heroin. Sugar is nothing but a chemical. They take the juice of the cane or the beet and then refine it to molasses and then they refine it to brown sugar and finally to strange white crystals.”


Dufty, who was a veteran on WWII, an award-winning investigative journalist and an editorial assistant at the New York Post, died in 2002, aged 86. He had and still has his critics, not least for what is described as ‘a stylistic pungence’ (for example, Lady Sings the Blues opens with ‘Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was three’) and hyperbole,  but his passion was undeniable.  For many, the impact of Sugar Blues is comparable to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. 


Data are important yet one should not ignore the role of intuition.  More than two years ago my intuition, piqued by Dr. Tom Seeley’s work on feral colonies, questioned the role of sugar syrup in managed  honey bee colonies - it seemed to be yet another example of managing bees for the benefit of the beekeeper rather than for the health of the bees - and I elected  to stop feeding sugar syrup entirely for five years and to monitor the results. The initial results in terms of over-wintering rates and varroa infestations have been sufficiently encouraging to prompt a search for collaborative evidence. 


It’s challenging to identify exactly when it became common cause to feed sugar syrup to honey bees, but the initial impetus is undeniable.  Commercial beekeepers argued that simple economics made it impractical to let the bees consume their own honey; it was more profitable to sell the honey and feed an artificial substitute. 


What was an economic choice for commercial beekeepers has now become accepted as common practice for almost all beekeepers, for which, perhaps, there are consequences we have not fully considered. 


Sugar is sugar, you might argue, but the associated nutrients of white sugar and honey are significantly different. Take enzymes, for example, which are proteins that act as biological catalysts which in turn accelerate chemical reactions.  For eons of time honey bees have been gathering nectar, mixing it with their own special enzymes such as invertase and protease, and placing it in cells where, even after capping, the enzymes continue to work.   Foragers also add enzymes to pollen that cause it to interact with honey (bee bread contains more than 8 000 recorded micro-organisms) which the bees can assimilate better and is thus  more nutritious for the brood.


Just as we cannot live without the microorganisms and flora living in our intestines, neither can the bees, and in the latter case this combination of bacteria, enzymes and fungi has taken millennia to develop.  


There are many charts comparing sugar and honey, and using the one in David Heaf’s latest publication, the former has a different pH and lacks the enzymes evident in honey.    Changing the pH in a hive by feeding sugar syrup affects the finely tuned balance of the honey bee world and weakens  the colony, not least by enabling pesticides and fungicides to reduce the quality of bee bread.  Dr. May Berenbaum has shown that there are substances in honey, by contrast,  that  increase the activity of genes that break down potentially toxic substances such as pesticides and fungicides.   When a laboratory in New Zealand studied directly how  differing food sources have different influences on the digestive tracts of bees, it was no surprise that honey was the least harmful.   The worst was sugar syrup, made even more so if yeast or malt was added.  So what is the impact on the bees of feeding sugar syrup in conjunction with pollen patties that contain yeast or malt?


Another three-year study measured the life span of three groups of bees, each of which was fed only honey, sugar or acid invert syrup.  The average lifespan of bees fed only honey was 27 days compared to 21 days for the group fed sugar  and 12 days for the third group.  In other words, feeding only sugar  reduced the lifespan of a honey bee by 6 days or, in this case, 23 per cent, compared to feeding only honey.   The theory is that, besides the enzymes,  the minerals in honey are vital supplements to the proteins derived from pollen and are crucial to healthy larval development. By contrast, white sugar often retains a  residue of chemicals from the processing plant. 


So what does honey have that sugar does not?  Both are carbohydrates, the glycemic index is similar and sugar has 29% more calories, but what sugar lacks entirely are probiotic bacteria such as lactobacillus, as well as the bacteria that inhibit the growth of EFB and AFB; phytochemical, polyphenols and flavonoids with antimicrobial activity; macro-elements like calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and chlorine; 47 trace elements (although trace and macro-elements are present in the water used to make syrup;) non-protein amino acids like the phagostimulants found in nectar; and vitamin C and six B vitamins. 


Dr. Gene Robinson studied gene activity in response to feeding honey, sucrose and corn syrup. The activity of hundreds of genes were changed by sucrose and corn syrup, in particular activities linked to protein metabolism, brain-signaling and immune defense.  The first two are important but the questions begged by the third include are we compromising the immune defense system of bees  by feeding sugar, which makes them less able to confront the diseases transmitted by varroa mites?   And might one criteria for raising varroa-resistant queens be a natural diet without either supplements or sugar? 


Clearly much work needs to be done.  The latest US BIP survey, for example, suggests that  there is little difference in outcomes between beekeepers who feed their colonies and those who do not, but the survey questions over the years seem to designate ‘supplementary products’ as Honey-B-Healthy, Vita Feed Gold  and ApiGo rather than as white sugar syrup.  Does giving honey back to the hive count as supplementary feeding? That is what at least three of my colleagues do.


This citizens science project is a smaller part of what David Papke and I are calling Restorative Beekeeping, which is the api-equivalent of Regenerative Agriculture and in which we are attempting to reconstruct those criteria that honey bees have developed over millions of years together with the necessary management techniques that have largely been diminished since the Industrial Revolution.  In my later years I have become more of a scout than a warrior (as described in last month’s essay) with the objective not to defend the status quo so much as to understand its origins and implications, as honestly and accurately as I can, even if it's inconvenient or unpleasant. 


The down-side of the warrior mindset is that there are winners and losers, victors and vanquished, competition rather than cooperation, short term gains and long terms deficiencies. Honey bees managed themselves for 99.9997% of their history, and they haven’t exactly found comfort and well-being in our recent intervention. 



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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