Beekeeping economics

You are not going to make a million being a beekeeper. Or even a fraction of that.

I know a couple of beekeepers who have all the trappings of wealth … the big house, the big car with the personal number plate, the holiday place in France and the beesuit with no smoker-induced holes in the veil.

Neither of them made their money beekeeping.

Anyone aboard Murray?

I’ve met a few of the large commercial beekeepers here and abroad, operations with 500 to 1000 times the number of hives I’ve got.

None of them seemed to have yachts or Ferraris.

Or any free time to enjoy them if they had 😉

If you want to have a lot of money when you finally lose your last hive tool you probably need to start with lots more 1.

But the vast majority of beekeepers aren’t commercial. Most are hobbyists.

A hobby that (sometimes) makes a profit

In the UK there are ~25,000 beekeepers. Of these, the Bee Farmers Association represent the interests of the ~400 commercial beekeeping businesses.

Over 98% of UK beekeepers therefore do not consider themselves as commercial. These amateur or hobby beekeepers have on average 3-5 hives each, according to relatively recent surveys. Most probably have just one or two, with a few having more 2.

It’s worth emphasising (again) that it is always better to have more than one colony. The small increase in work involved – the apiary visits, the inspections, extracting all that honey 😉 – is more than justified by the experience and resilience it brings to your beekeeping.

Two are better than one …

For the remainder of the post I’m going to consider a (hypothetical) beekeeper with four colonies.

What are the costs involved in running four colonies and how much ‘profit’ might be expected?

Inevitably, this is going to be very, very approximate.

I’m going to make a load of assumptions, some loosely based on real data. I’ll discuss some of the more important assumptions where appropriate.

I’m also going to ignore a load of variables that would be little more than guesstimates anyway e.g. petrol costs to get to your apiary 3, the purchase of additional hive hardware or rent for the apiary.

Why four hives?

I’ve chosen four hives for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a small enough number you could house them in a small(ish) suburban garden and, wherever they’re sited, they will not exploit all the forage in range.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives on wooden pallets

Secondly, it’s a manageable number for one beekeeper with a full time job and lots of other commitments. However, it’s not so many you have to buy an electric extractor or build a honey-processing room 4.

Finally, some expenses are for items sold in multiples e.g. frames or miticides, and it saves me having to slice’n’dice every outgoing cost too much.

This hypothetical four hive beekeeper also, very sensibly, belongs to her local association. She therefore has access to the shared equipment (e.g. a honey extractor) that the association owns.

The costs of starting beekeeping

I’ve covered this before and will just summarise it here.

I reckon the minimum outlay is a bit less than £500. This covers the purchase of two hives (Thorne’s Bees on a Budget @ £160 for a complete hive, two supers, frames, foundation etc.), a good quality beesuit (perhaps another £100) together with the peripheral, but nevertheless essential, smoker, hive tool and gloves. It does not cover the cost of bees.

Two hives really should be considered the minimum. Even if you only start with one colony, swarm control or colony splits in your second year will necessitate the purchase of a second hive.

So, for the purpose of these back of an envelope calculations I’ll assume our hypothetical beekeeper has already spent about £1000 on starting up and then doubling up the numbers of hives.

Cedar or polystyrene hives should last more than 25 years. I’m not going to work out the depreciation on this initial outlay 5.

So, let’s get back on track.

In an average year, what is the expenditure and potential income from these four hives.

Expenditure

The outgoing costs are associated with maintaining a good environment for the bees, minimising disease and ensuring they have sufficient food for the winter (or during a nectar dearth).

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

The first annual expense is the replacement of ~30% of the brood comb every season. This is necessary to reduce the pathogen load in the hive and to replace the old, black comb with fresh new comb.

Frames and the foundation to go in them are generally bought in 10’s or 50’s. With four hives (assuming Nationals) that means you need a fraction over 13 new frames a season. First quality frames bought in 10’s, together with premium quality foundation 6, work out at £2.99 each i.e. ~£40 for the year.

To control mites you need to use miticides 7. For the purpose of this exercise we’ll assume our beekeeper chooses to use Apivar in the autumn. This costs £31 for 5 hive treatments 8 and is required once per year. In midwinter our beekeeper wisely chooses to use an oxalic acid trickle as well, knowing that – while the colony is broodless – the mites are easier to slay. £13 buys you a ten-hive (35 g) pack of Api-Bioxal 9 which has a shelf-life of more than a year, so for one year the expense is £6.50 (which for convenience I’ve rounded up to £7).

Food is essentially sugar in some form or another. A single colony needs 10-20 kg of stores for the winter (depending – very much – upon the strain of bee, the harshness of the winter etc.). You therefore need to feed about 12.5 litres of heavy syrup (2:1 by weight, sugar to water) which weighs about 16kg (and finally generates ~14 kg of stores) and contains about 10 kg of sugar. Tesco sell granulated sugar for 64p per kilogram. So, for four colonies, our beekeeper needs to purchase ~£26 of granulated sugar.

Remember two of those figures in particular – 14 kg of stores and the 10 kg of sugar that needs to be purchased to make them 10.

Expenditure totals

In total, four hives are likely to cost about £104 to maintain per year.

Yes, I know I’ve omitted all sorts of things such as stimulative feeding in the spring, replacement super frames and hive tools. I’ve not costed in the honey buckets or any number of other ‘odds and sods’ like replacement Posca pens for queen marking. Let’s keep this simple 🙂

The essentials work out at a little over £25 per hive.

But wait … there is something I’ve omitted.

Not expenditure per se, but losses that have to be made good to ensure that our beekeeper still has 4 colonies in subsequent seasons.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

These are the ‘losses’ due to colonies dying overwinter or during the season. I think these should be included because they are the reality for most beekeepers. On average ~20-25% of colonies are lost each season. Not by everyone (which I’ll cover in a follow-up article on economies in beekeeping) of course, but winter losses are so common for most beekeepers that they need to be factored in – either by making increase or by avoiding losing them in the first place.

Enough on these hidden costs, what about the the income?

Products of the hive

Bees, as well as providing critical ecosystem services (pollination) and being fascinating animals, also produce very valuable products.

The best known and most obvious product is of course honey. However, the products of the hive also includes wax, propolis and Royal Jelly.

Local honey

I’m going to ignore everything but the honey. Royal Jelly and propolis are too specialised for the sort of ‘average beekeeper’ we’re considering and four hives produce relatively small amounts of wax each year.

There’s an additional product of the hive … bees. Don’t forget these as they can be the most valuable product made in any quantity.

You can sell complete hives, small nucleus colonies (nucs) and mated queen bees 11. For convenience I’m going to assume the only ‘live’ product of the hive our beekeeper might sell is a five frame nuc if they have one spare. What’s more, I’m going to assume that our beekeeper either recoups the cost of the box or has it returned (but pays £15 for the frames and foundation in the nuc).

So, how much honey and how many bees?

Income from honey

The average honey yield in 2018 in the UK was ~31 lb per hive.

2018 was a very good season.

The annual BBKA survey of 2017 showed the average that year was ~24 lb per hive.

Yields vary year by year and according to where you keep bees. The 2010 figure was ~31 lb, 2012 was a measly 8 lb per hive and 2014 was ~31 lb. I can’t find a record of the 2016 figure (but haven’t looked too hard).

Yields are higher in the south and lower in the north.

I’m going to err on the slightly generous side and assume that the honey yield per hive is 25 lb and that our hypothetical beekeeper therefore generates 100 lb of honey per year.

More local honey

As we saw last week, honey prices vary considerably across the country.  For the purposes of these calculations we can use the BBKA survey which showed that ~56% of beekeepers sold honey at an average price of £5.49 per lb (cf. £5.67 in 2017).

And here’s the first dilemma … did the 44% of beekeepers who did not sell honey not have any honey to sell?

How does this affect the average per hive?

Or did they simply give everything away?

Or just eat it themselves 😉

The annual BBKA surveys are not ideal datasets to base these calculations on. They are voluntary and self-selecting. Perhaps the 23,000 beekeepers who did not complete the survey 12 produced 150 lb per colony.

No, I don’t think so either.

I’m going to make the assumption that the average yield per hive was 25 lb and that our beekeeper chooses to sell her honey at an average price of £5.50.

So the gross income from honey is £550 13.

However, selling this honey requires packaging – jars, labels etc. Like everything else, costs vary, but 12 oz hexagonal honey jars plus lids from C Wynne Jones cost ~39p each, with a standard custom label and a plain anti-tamper label adding a further 10p per jar.  Therefore to sell that 100 lb of honey our beekeeper will have an outlay of £63, reducing the net income to £487.

Income from bees

A strong hive in a good year should be able to produce both bees and honey. With good beekeeping, good forage and good weather it is possible to generate a super or two of honey and a nuc colony for sale or to make increase.

However, you can’t produce large amounts of both from a single hive … it’s an either or situation if you want to maximise your production of honey or nucs.

I’m not aware of any good statistics on nuc production by amateur beekeepers (or even poor statistics). My assumption – justified below – is that the majority of beekeepers produce few, if any, surplus nucs.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Why do I think that?

Firstly, nuc and package imports from overseas are very high. Demand is enormous and is clearly not met by local supply 14. Secondly, winter losses (25%, discussed above) need to be made good. I presume that this is what many/most nucs are used for.

If they’re produced at all.

There are some major gaps in the available information meaning that the next bit is a guesstimate with a capital G.

For the purpose of this exercise I’m going to assume that our hypothetical beekeeper produces one nuc per year that it is used to compensate for overwintering losses, thereby keeping colony numbers stable.

In addition, she generates one surplus nuc every four years for sale.

I’ve chosen four years as it’s approximately every four years that there is a ‘good bee season’ giving high yields of honey and the opportunity for good queen mating and surplus nuc production.

This surplus nuc is sold locally for £175 which, after subtraction of £15 for the frames, leaves an annual profit from bees of £40 (£160 every 4 years).

Income totals and overall ‘profit’

That was all a bit turgid wasn’t it?

Here are the final figures. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum (4 year average).

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Experienced beekeepers reading this far 15 will appreciate some of the assumptions that have been made. There are many.

They’ll also probably disagree with half of the figures quoted, considering them too high.

And with the other half, considering them too low.

They’ll certainly consider the average ‘profit’ per hive per year is underestimated.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But remember, our hypothetical beekeeper is based upon the average productivity and number of hives reported in the BBKA annual surveys.

As you will probably realise, a limited amount of travel to and from the apiary, or to shops/markets to sell honey, very quickly eats into the rather measly £102 “profit” per hive.

Observations

I think there are two key things worth noting immediately:

  1. Miticide treatments cost ~£7.50 per hive per annum. Even at the rather derisory £5.50/lb honey price quoted, this is still less than one and a half jars of honey. It is false economy to not treat colonies for Varroa infestation. If you compare the cost of the treatment vs. the ‘value’ of a replacement nuc to make up losses (£175) it further emphasises how unwise it is to ignore the mites.
  2. Some beekeepers leave a super or two at the end of the season ‘for the bees’. This is also false economy if you want to have any profit. The ~14 kg of stores (honey) needed will be replaced with a heavy syrup feed containing 10 kg of granulated sugar. At £5.50 per pound this honey could be sold for ~£170 16. The granulated sugar costs about £6.40. Do the maths, as they say. There is no compelling (or even vaguely convincing) evidence that bees overwinter more successfully on honey rather than after a granulated sugar feed. None 17.

Summary

This article highlights some of the major expenses involved in beekeeping. Where possible I’ve based the figures on a hypothetical ‘average’ beekeeper with an average number of hives.

I’ve assumed that all outgoing costs were at list price from large suppliers (and excluded shipping costs).

I’ve left out the almost invaluable pleasure you get from working with the bees to produce lovely delicious local honey (or wax, or propolis, or bees or queens).

Do not underestimate this 🙂 Many – and I’m one – would keep some bees simply for this pleasure and the odd jar of honey.

No one is going to get rich quickly on £100 per hive per year 18. However, the purpose of this post was to provide a framework to consider where potential cost savings can be made. In addition, it will allow me to emphasise the benefits, to the bees and the beekeeper (and potentially her bank balance), of strong, healthy, highly productive colonies rather than the ‘average’ 25% colony losses per autumn with less than a full super per hive honey … which is then sold for less than it’s worth.

But that’s for another time …


Colophon

Beekeeping economics as in “The management of private or domestic finances; (also) financial position.” which is distinct from economy in beekeeping (which I will cover in a later post) meaning “The careful management of resources; sparingness”.

Footnotes

  1. Money … and hive tools.
  2. I am one of the latter, with about 20 colonies for work and pleasure going into the winter of 2019.
  3. Which might be £0 if the bees are at the bottom of the garden, or quite a bit more if you use your Bentley Bentayga (<20mpg) to travel across the county.
  4. But it’s a slippery slope!
  5. If I could I’d be an accountant and wouldn’t need to be concerned about the profit or loss of my beekeeping … ;-)
  6. Where possible, all prices are from the current EH Thorne’s price list.
  7. Yes, good beekeeping strategies can help reduce mites as can bees with reduced susceptibility to mite infestation or the viruses they transmit. However, we’re making some assumptions here … not least that the beekeeper is not so hugely experienced or naturally talented that the mites just fall off of their own accord. Or that our hypothetical beekeeper has miraculously selected a strain of highly mite-resistant bees. We’re talking about average bees and average beekeeping here.
  8. Conveniently, as the ‘spare’ can be used to treat either captured swarms or a nucleus colony.
  9. Actually slightly more, as the dose recommended is too high.
  10. And, just to reiterate, the amount of stores needed depends upon the strain of bee and the severity and length of the winter. Whether it’s 14 kg for your bees, or 24 kg, you’ll need need ~70% of that weight in granulated sugar to prepare the heavy syrup for autumn feeding.
  11. Another oversimplification – look around and you will find you’re able to buy packages (a colony but no hardware), unmated queens and even queen cells (talk about ‘taking a punt!’).
  12. Survey response numbers are ~700-1400 per year.
  13. Note added as this nears publication (but I have no more time to write) … I’d bet that 25 lb is a significant overestimate of honey available for sale. Lots of us get pleasure in giving away honey to friends and relatives, and they certainly enjoy receiving it. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if 50% of honey produced by small-scale 2-4 hive beekeepers is given away, so reducing any potential profit significantly. It certainly was when I had only a couple of hives.
  14. I’ve already seen 2020 nuc prices advertised at a – frankly daft – £290. If there was ample supply these prices would be much more reasonable.
  15. Deserve a commendation.
  16. And even then would be undervaluing the product.
  17. Lots of ‘natural beekeepers’ will tell you differently but I’d challenge them to produce anything other than anecdotal evidence to support their belief. It’s simply wishful thinking that ‘unnatural beekeepers’ are not really caring for their stocks.
  18. And don’t even think about working out how much below the annual minimum wage you’d be earning if you charged your time as well!

20 thoughts on “Beekeeping economics

  1. Emily

    For the first time in something like 10+ years this autumn I’ve deviated from my usual successful overwintering techniques and haven’t fed the bees syrup. Instead I’ve left them a super of honey. This was really a time saving thing – being pregnant and having a toddler to run after, I’m tired. Too tired to bottle up honey and sell it. As usual, I’ve made a loss rather than a profit this year.

    My plan to make money by selling nucs instead has evaporated as the queens in my nucs didn’t work out and I had to combine with my bigger hives. Ah well – the house in France and the personalised number plate will have to wait!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Emily

      Pregnant and a toddler makes everything tough, not just beekeeping. As long as you’ve removed the QE the bees will be OK, assuming there’s enough honey in the supers. Very important that the queen doesn’t get the separated from the cluster.

      You’ve spotted the problem with the “get rich quick” plans to make a load of nucs and sell them off mid-season … if the queens don’t get mated well you’re just left with a series of boxes with an ever-increasing chance of turning into laying workers, so you unite and are back to square one (actually worse off, as you’ve lost a hive).

      I’m going to write some money-saving strategies and a few money-making ones for the next week or so. Once I get back from the villa in France 😉

      If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. They’re not and it isn’t!

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Emily

        Thanks David, yep made sure to remove the queen excluder already.

        Another problem I found with the nucs was knowing when to advertise them for sale. I felt like I should make sure the queen was established and laying well, but then if you keep a thriving colony in a nuc for too long they get squashed and you run the risk of them trying to swarm again. I’m not sure whether I’m meant to make the nucs up in autumn and try to overwinter them, then sell in the spring instead. If you get a chance to cover anything on the timings of that in your money savings posts that would be great! I think you did give me some tips before, but I’m so forgetful sorry…

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Emily
          Without doubt overwintered nucs are much more valuable. They’re also easier to sell. As far as the buyer is concerned they’re a proven entity as they have survived the winter. They’re ready early in the season when demand far outstrips supply. They’re easier to advertise as you know when they’ll be ready (a month of more before they are actually sold).

          They are also more work and more ‘risk’. You need to buy good nuc boxes, treat them in the autumn, nurture them overwinter and you’ll inevitably lose a percentage (e.g. failing queens). There’s also a bit more skill required to prepare them in mid/late summer … too soon and they outgrow the box, too late and they aren’t strong enough to overwinter.

          As with all things beekeeping, timing will differ depending upon climate and latitude. In Scotland I prepare them almost one month before I used to when I lived in the Midlands.

          I always try and overwinter a few nucs. They are always useful. If not sold I’ll either bring them on as a production colony, or unite them with another to replace an unwanted queen.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  2. Alastair Morley

    Fantastic article as always. And I’m definitely going to remember: 14 kg of stores and the 10 kg of sugar that needs to be purchased to make them. I should have bought 6 5kg bags from Costco rather than the three I brought home (I have three hives plus nucs so am very nearly average).

    There is a LOT of ivy near me plus HB still, so I’m not relying on feeding entirety.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Alastair
      Take note of footnote 10 … the absolute amount may be different depending upon where you are and the strain of bees. it’s the ratio that’s about right … and the potential financial loss associated with leaving the bees honey rather than feeding them sugar syrup.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Rick A - Warner

    So good to know that I’m not crazy bee guy. I’ve seen the numbers yours look good to me ,I’d say that most keepers are in it just for the honey something that I’ve not been able to remove from the hive lately. Just keeping healthy bees with the added work of beetles wax moths and mites is enough to send you off the top. Having good happy bees is what I’m looking to have. A real pleasure to read you works here. Thanks

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Rick
      I’ve said somewhere else that happy bees are healthy bees … or someone else has. Aside from the gross anthropomorphisation in suggesting bees are ‘happy’ it’s certainly true that a strong healthy colony will be able to defend itself better against wasps and it will collect much more honey. It may also collect more mites when it robs out collapsing neighbouring colonies, but that’s something you can watch out for.
      Enjoy your bees
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      Your mentor was correct 🙂
      However, although not a small fortune, I think it should be pretty straightforward to not run at a loss year after year after year.
      I’ll tell you if I achieve it 😉
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. J. D. Josephson

    As usual, a sensible and helpful posting, much appreciated. However, re: note 17, is it not also wishful thinking that sugar syrup supplies the same nutrients to the bees that honey provides? If you were a bee, would you really make no distinction between converted sugar syrup and honey as a winter feed? I appreciate that nectar is the starting point for honey, and that nectar is substantially a sugar solution; but does it not contain anything that syrup doesn’t, and is ‘honey’ made from syrup therefore just the same, dietetically, as honey?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi

      Every year I hear beekeepers tell me they’ve left supers on the hive with the direct or indirect implication that this is “better for the bees”.

      I’m not aware of a shred of evidence that supports this. Remember that I’m a scientist … we can get a little pedantic over the difference between demonstrable facts and wishful thinking 😉

      The statement I made (“There is no compelling (or even vaguely convincing) evidence that bees overwinter more successfully on honey rather than after a granulated sugar feed. None) related to overwintering survival.

      I don’t know if the bees can distinguish between honey and sugar syrup that they’ve taken down and stored in capped cells. This stored syrup has, after all, been processed by the bees in the same way as nectar from the flowers. I would think that the contents are distinguishable, though perhaps not as easily as you might think.

      Consider the problem with the thousands of tonnes of adulterated honey sold (and imported) every year. At least some of this will presumably have been fed as syrup colonies, extracted and then exported. It takes some really fancy technology – mass spectrometry or analysis of the 13C/12C ratios (indicating the source of the sugar fed to the bees, whether derived from C3 or C4 carbon metabolism) to discriminate between real and fake honey.

      Certainly there are likely to be differences in pollen content. Whether these have a material influence on overwintering success I rather doubt.

      I have only ever fed syrup or fondant. I never strip the brood box of honey stores for extraction. My overwintering success rate is better than acceptable and the colonies I have lost are most likely due to Varroa and DWV levels.

      The article was on the economics of beekeeping. If you want to make (or not lose!) money you really need to sell honey (or bees). If you leave the honey for the bees you cannot sell it. If the colony is healthy and has sufficient stores – whether honey or syrup – it will overwinter well.

      I certainly don’t condemn beekeepers who leave a super or two on the hive. Their call entirely. Actually, perhaps I should encourage it as it means there will be less local supply! However, I think they’re wrong if they do it to benefit the bees (rather than feeding syrup).

      So, in conclusion … I don’t think it’s wishful thinking that sugar syrup and honey ‘supplies the same nutrients’ (though that wasn’t actually what I claimed). I know that bees overwinter perfectly well on sugar syrup at 64p per kilo and that the equivalent amount of honey sells for about £22 …

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. calum

    Hi David,
    as ever a great article.
    Yeah I would say 4 colonies is really too few.
    I would always recommend 4 colonies + 2 nucs per year minimum. (to cover potential losses). Or 4+4 is better as it is also a form of mite management.

    If the UK is really that strapped for bees, I should maybe publish my paper on making 10 colonies from 1 – at those prices its a lot less hassle than honey production, for a much better return.

    And every beekeeper should really be selling propolis – its very simple to make, and has the best margins of any beekeeping product.

    BR
    Calum

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum

      The early season demand for nucs remains high and it’s clearly more ‘profitable’ to split a colony X ways (where X is between 4 and 10 (!)) at the sort of prices some of the large suppliers charge. The problem is the consistency of queen mating and having sufficient bees in the first instance to be able to select and provide good quality stock. There’s little point in a two hive owner splitting one into 6 if the starting material is of borderline quality.

      Producing bees should be a lot less hassle than producing honey, but I suspect producing good quality bees is more difficult than producing good quality honey.

      Simply reducing overwintering losses is probably the cheapest and easiest gain to be made … something I’ll return to shortly.

      Cheers
      David

      PS And I agree with the propolis comment, though It’s not something I’ve done (yet).

      Reply
  6. Archie McLellan

    Hello David

    Sorry, this has veered off the topic of economics. When you say there is no evidence that overwintering bees by feeding sugar rather than honey has any negative effects, are you referring specifically to granulated beet or cane sugar (whether given as syrup or fondant)?

    I’ve heard that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as used in the US, NZ etc was the subject of some research that indicated negative effects on honey bee colonies. [Of course, I haven’t read the actual papers!]

    Sorry if you’ve already answered this – by specifying *granulated* sugar. Is this a different entity from sugar derived from corn, which is syrup, not granulated?]

    Archie

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Archie

      There’s data published showing that HFCS-fed colonies do less well in terms of comb drawn or colony build-up than sugar syrup- (sucrose)-fed colonies (~30% weaker, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3735052/ for example). This suggests it is less good from a dietary perspective.

      Similarly, studies have shown that both HFCS and syrup-fed colonies show differences in gene regulation to honey-fed colonies. This partly also addresses the comment by JD Josephson further up the page. There are differences between honey and sugar but the point I stressed is that I’m not aware of differences in winter survival between honey-fed and syrup-fed colonies.

      Finally, it’s also worth stressing that brown sugar should not be fed to bees as it gives them dysentry. I’ve read this repeatedly and consequently have never tried it, so do not speak from experience. And, of course, anything with high levels of HMF should be avoided at all costs …

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Neeta

    Hello David
    Apologies for digressing from the original article.
    Re Sugar v Nectar
    I am of the mind that this is aka
    Fast food v Superfoods
    Nectar composition is not just Sucrose Glucose Fructose
    but in addition to these carbohydrates nectar contains a plethora of other compounds and elements albeit in low concentration eg glycosides, proteins inc. amino acids, VOC – terpenes, organic acids, alkaloids, phenolics sterols flavanoids phytochemicals……. and probably more.
    Humans understand some of the roles these chemicals play in HB but perhaps not entirely…..yet!
    I understand that pollen contains many compounds and elements and that honey is a mix of bee bread and nectar. If pollen is mixed with sugar syrup would this produce a SIMILAR chemical consistency to that which is mixed with nectar…? Probably. However I still need convincing that the honey from sugar syrup will be superior to honey from nectar. The minutest of amounts of organic compounds and elements offered as an extra, must surely have a positive benefit.
    David can you sway my thoughts any further towards removing all my supers for human consumption and feeding winter bees entirely a sugar diet.
    I think this is an interesting debate to take further!
    Best regards

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Neeta

      Thank you for your comment. I covered some of this topic in a response to a comment on an earlier post (by J. D. Josephson on Beekeeping Economics).

      I agree with lots you say about the content of honey made and stored from sugar syrup … there will lots of additional organic content that is missing when compared with honey from nectar.

      I’m not sure that the Fast foods vs Superfoods comparison is valid though. They are simply terms (generally rather poorly defined) that we – humans – apply to things, often for marketing purposes in the case of ‘Superfoods’ or because of the negative connotations of excess packaging, high sugar, high salt, high in artificial flavourings etc. in the case of ‘Fast Foods’.

      The sugar content of syrup-derived honey and nectar-derived honey is pretty much identical. This is one of the reasons that adulterated and fake honey is so difficult to identify.

      But the question is do the organic ‘additives’ in nectar-derived honey make it superior?

      I actually don’t claim that it is superior (here or in the earlier post about Beekeeping economics). The point I’ve tried to make is that honey bees overwinter perfectly satisfactorily on a diet of syrup-derived honey and, considering the difference in the cost of granulated sugar and honey (perhaps 64p vs. £21.90 per kg), it’s economic madness to leave the honey supers for the bees.

      I’m not aware of any convincing studies that show that bees overwinter better on honey rather than syrup. I suspect this is a rather difficult experiment to do. However, just because it’s difficult does not mean I have to accept the repeated anecdotes about ‘honey being better for the bees’. This is a view often promoted by so-called ‘natural’ beekeepers who are critical of some of the standard practices in ‘unnatural’ beekeeping, with the implication that it is bad for the bees.

      It generally isn’t.

      I think there are some additional things that could be taken into account.

      Firstly, you’re correct in saying that any organic compounds are likely present in low concentrations. Surely they are also present in other parts of the brood box? I never strip the brood box of stores when harvesting honey. I would expect there would be at least some of these compounds available to the bees within the brood box.

      Secondly, storing syrup in the brood box means that it will have been processed by the bees. Inevitably during this process it will have gained at least some of the organic compounds – after all the bees are still foraging when they’re receiving the autumn feed and the unprocessed nectar/syrup is being passed from bee to bee as it’s stored in cells, moved around and excess water is evaporated. I know you could detect differences between nectar-base honey and sugar syrup before processing and capping, but what about afterwards?

      Finally, there may be things present in supers that are lost when they’re removed during the honey harvest … for example, pathogens such as Nosema spores. I suspect that this is of minor significance, but it’s important to remember that the supers contain more than just honey.

      I have no problems with beekeepers feeding their bees honey overwinter. The more the merrier! It means that there’s less competition for the sale of local honey 🙂

      My problem is that some beekeepers claim that it is better for the bees. If there’s evidence to support this – controlled experiments not anecdotes – then I’d like to see it. The suggestion that it is better for the bees makes the implicit suggestion that what I do (feed fondant) is worse.

      I take exception to this … I try and keep happy and healthy bees and I have very low overwintering losses. I only ever feed them sugar (fondant) and the only supers I leave are half-empty or half-capped which I put under the brood box and which are emptied by November.

      Of course, I’ve no idea whether my bees really are ‘happy’ … but they are healthy and well fed.

      So, rather than me convincing you to remove all your supers (which is entirely up to you), I’ll turn the question round … show me evidence that honey is superior for overwintering.

      There are too many assumptions in beekeeping!

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Neeta

        Hello again David
        I do agree with much of what you say and you are talking about the bees jist making it through the winter. I definitely feed my bees fondant when there is a shortage of stores. I agree it is a useful source of energy for overwintering – but I still think it should be used on an emergency basis.
        Just as humans need sugar for energy , bees need sugar for energy. My arguement is that if sugar is not healthy for humans why should it be for the bees.
        I do think that there is a risk of not getting enough nutrients over time. Saying that if sugar, a nutrient poor food, is fed to them for 6 months of the year (or more in poor weather like this year) then over time I wonder how much it affects the health of bees and their future generations, their brain development, development of their organs and more importantly their hormones. We must not forget that larvae and the new born (wrt hypopharyngeal gland development) need the best possible food to develop but sugar feed does not matter too much with fully formed winter or summer bees. It also matter where the Queen is concerned as she continues to form eggs.
        I am of the opinion that feeding sugar can have a place when overwintering and at times of dearth but I am not convinced that we should remove the good stuff and let them have an inferior product.
        I guess if you are running it as a business then you would look at maximising profits but I am a hobbyist.
        I agree there are so many variables to consider with regard to HB management. I can’t say there are rights and wrongs and I don’t preach to others but it does concern me with regard to drone development as these will be breeding with my Queens. Are drones that come from a hive fed on sugar – honey, over 6 months of the year equally developed to those bees that have had a greater amount of nectar- honey over the year? I would like to imagine that they are not, but as a scientist myself – I too wouldn’t like to say without evidence to back it up.
        So on that note I would like to leave it there and say each to there own.
        Thank you for an interesting debate.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello Neeta

          By all means continue to feed your bees honey from the supers. They’ll do fine, but I’m not sure they’ll do better.

          It’s worth remembering that drones won’t be reared until all of the winter stores are used up and there’s a strong spring nectar flow on. They’ll never have a syrup-based diet. In addition, it doesn’t matter what you feed your own drones on as your new queens will almost certainly mate with drones from other colonies … and you’ll have no control over the diet they had during development.

          Whether you’re beekeeping as a business or as a hobbyist (as I am) it makes strong economic sense to extract the honey and feed syrup … and this post was all about the economics of beekeeping.

          With Best Wishes
          David

          Reply

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