You have decided you need to feed your bees. Maybe you just installed a package in a new hive, and they have to build out all of the frames. Maybe you just moved a hive to a new location and you want to give them a boost. Maybe you caught a late season swarm and they need help to be ready for winter.
Whether you are feeding dry sugar, candyboards, or syrup (with or without DIY Healthy Honeybee), it is important to choose the correct sugar. Choosing the wrong sugar can make your bees very sick and result in poisoning or nosema. So, which one should you use?
Reminder: Don’t feed with honey supers on. Instead of honey, you’ll end up with sugar water!
Types of Sugar
Granulated sugar or white sugar
White sugar is, chemically speaking, pure sucrose. Why is this significant? Because nectar is predominantly sucrose (with some fructose, glucose and trace minerals). White sugar, also called granulated sugar or table sugar, is the most similar to nectar that we have available. Therefore, white sugar should be your choice in feeding bees.
Cane or beet sugar
Both cane and beet sugars are pure sucrose, so both are appropriate for bees. Yes, sugar beets are a GMO product, however, GMO affects a plants protein, which sucrose is not. Therefore, cane and beet sugar are both chemically identical.
Although organic sugar can be fed, a 2009 study showed that organic sugar has a higher ash content than cane sugar (0.03% ash in cane sugar vs 0.20% ash in organic). Although these numbers seem insignificant, bees are able to digest the lower ash sugar more easily. Therefore, organic sugar should not be a first choice.
Sugar cubes are pure granulated sugar, with no caking agents. Therefore, they can be fed to bees.
Confectioners sugar, or powdered sugar, cannot be fed to bees. Though it is safe to use as a mite dusting powder, it contains 3% cornstarch which is why it should not be fed.
Drivert sugar is a dry fondant sugar that has been agglomerated with 8% invert sugar. Invert sugar is a mix of glucose and fructose created by heating pure sugar (sucrose) with water. In simple terms, it is 92% pure sugar (sucrose) with 8% glucose/fructose in powder form.
Evaporated cane juice
Evaporated cane juice results in a product with more nutrients than white sugar. Although this sounds like a good thing, the remaining nutrients can result in dysentery.
Brown sugar is white sugar with up to 10% molasses added. The high percentage of molasses in brown sugar, both light, and dark varieties, means it should not be fed to bees.
Turbinado sugar is a large grain, brown colored sugar. As with many other sugars, the brown color is from molasses, and should not be fed to bees.
Demerara sugar is another large grain brown sugar. Again, it should not be fed to bees because of the molasses.
Raw sugar is minimally or unrefined white sugar, which has a small amount of molasses to give it the golden color. Raw sugar is unlikely to have enough molasses to negatively impact bees and is safe to feed. Due to the higher cost than white sugar, without any particular benefit, white sugar should still be the first choice.
Coconut and Palm sugar
Coconut and palm sugars are sap sugars high in mineral content and only 70-80% sucrose, and for these reasons should not be fed to bees.
Although stevia tastes sweet, it is a glycoside byproduct of pressing the leaves. Since it contains no sucrose, it is not appropriate for bees.
Xylitol, sorbitol, and Mannitol are sugar alcohols, and which are poisonous and not to be fed to bees.
Sucralose, such as Splenda ® , is a chlorinated from of sucrose, where the chemical structure is changed. It is very different than sucrose, and should never be fed to bees.
Saccharin, commonly known as Sweet ‘N Low ® is a synthetic derivative of coal tar. It should go without saying, it should not be fed to bees.
Aspartame, sold as Equal ® or Nutrasweet ®, are synthetic sweeteners that are not suitable for bees.
What about high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, or maple syrup?
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is often fed to bees in the commercial application. HFCS is made by processing corn which results in a product that is predominantly fructose and dextrose. HFCS is often considered equal to cane sugar (sucrose) as bee feed. Be mindful, however, that the corn used to create HFCS could contain neonicotinoids, and that HFCS contains no sucrose.
Agave nectar and maple syrup, being derivatives of the plants sap, should not be fed to bees.