Finding the Right Feed for a Sustainable Beekeeper and a Healthy Bee
WILMINGTON, North Carolina -- A commercial beekeeping operation in Wilmington, N.C., is exploring ways to improve honey production and crop pollination throughout the South that is sustainable for both the beekeeper and the bee.
With a $9,957 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Producer Grant, Silver Spoon Apiaries is testing various blends of supplemental winter feed on honeybee colonies. The objective, said owner Barry Harris, Jr., is to determine what feed blend is healthy for the bee and economically viable for the commercial beekeeper.
“Commercial beekeepers use high fructose corn syrup to feed bee colonies during the winter months. It’s inexpensive, easy to obtain, and can be bought in small quantities because of its long shelf life,” said Harris. “However, it’s been suggested that high fructose corn syrup makes bees more susceptible to Nosema, an illness that affects the bee’s digestive tract. It’s like dysentery in people.”
Harris said that beekeepers, especially hobby beekeepers, feed honey bees liquid sucrose, a more expensive and harder-to-obtain alternative to high fructose corn syrup. But it may not be economically practical for commercial beekeepers.
“First of all, we want to determine if high fructose corn syrup as a supplemental bee feed in the South is affecting the winter survival of honey bee colonies in general and specifically contributing to the spread of Nosema,” said Harris. “Secondly, we want to determine if the addition of enough liquid sucrose to comprise 20 percent of the total liquid bee feed would improve the viability of high fructose corn syrup as a supplemental bee feed. The health of the bees coupled with the affordability and accessibility of supplemental bee feed is important to the viability of not only honey bee production, but pollination of crops, in the South.”
Sixty honey bee colonies, divided into six test groups comprised of 10 colonies each, will be evaluated in the study. In August, the colonies will be equalized relative to frames of brood, frames of bees, honey stores and pollen stores. In September, the strengths of the colonies will be measured, along with the Nosema load.
In the fall, the colonies will be fed six types of supplemental feed treated for Nosema:
- 2:1 sugar syrup (liquid sucrose with 67 percent solids).
- High fructose corn syrup Type 55 diluted with 10 percent water.
- High fructose corn syrup Type 42 undiluted.
- Four parts high fructose corn syrup Type 55 diluted with 10 percent water and mixed with one part 2:1 sugar syrup.
- Four parts high fructose corn syrup Type 42 undiluted and mixed with one part 2:1 sugar syrup.
- Pro-Sweet – a commercially manufactured 50/50 liquid sucrose, high fructose corn syrup blend.
The feed will be administered incrementally until each colony has consumed 4 gallons of feed or will no longer take feed. In February, the winter survival rates of the colonies will be measured. In March, the colonies will be reassessed and relative change for each test group to determine the impact of feed type will be analyzed.
“If we determine that high fructose corn syrup is not contributing to increased winter colony loss and incidents of Nosema, then we will know the cause of the problem lies elsewhere. If we determine that the use of high fructose corn syrup as a supplemental feed is part of the problem, but the detrimental effects can be mitigated by blending it with a 20 percent liquid sucrose, then we may have a feed solution for most commercial beekeeping operations,” said Harris. “If we determine that mitigation will require a higher percentage of liquid sucrose, such as 50 percent, this will be valuable information to the larger commercial beekeepers as they have the infrastructure and capital to implement that feed change, including the ability to receive, store, and manage syrup shipments in tanker size loads.”
Harris added that special solutions may have to be developed for the small to intermediate commercial beekeeper to implement such a change, such as government run or privately co-op regional feed depots, since they typically lack the infrastructure and capital to buy syrup in tanker loads.
“On the other hand, if we determine that high fructose corn syrup is contributing to winter colony losses and the problem cannot be mitigated by blending high fructose corn syrup and liquid sucrose, then we know we’ll have to pursue another solution altogether. This could include looking at medium invert sugar as a feed alternative,” said Harris. “We may also find that liquid sucrose is not ideal for bees by itself. Bees need binomial and monomial sugars, and it may be that a blend of high fructose corn syrup and liquid sucrose is optimal. This information could be valuable to hobby beekeepers, as well as commercial beekeepers.”
Harris plans to share the results of the study at educational outreach programs next year. Learn more about the project: FS11-252, “Impact of Supplemental Feed Type on Winter Survival of Honey Bee Colonies,” by searching the national SARE database.
“It’s equally important to emphasize crop pollination as well as honey production with this study,” said Harris.
A short video related to the project is available.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of managed honey bee colonies has dropped from 5 million in the 1940s to only 2.5 million today. Yet, the call for hives to supply pollination service has continued to climb.
“Farmers growing bee-pollinated crops (almonds, berries, apples, cucurbits including cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, and squash) must rent hives from commercial beekeepers for pollination. Far more commercial beehives are devoted to pollination work than to honey production.”
According to the USDA, bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value. About one mouthful in three in the diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.
When it comes to honey, according to the latest USDA Honey report, production in 2010 from producers with five or more colonies totaled 176 million pounds, up 20 percent from 2009. There were 2.68 million colonies producing honey in 2010, up 7 percent from 2009. Yield per colony averaged 65.5 pounds, up 12 percent from the 58.6 pounds in 2009.Southern SARE Producer Grants, one of the organization’s seven grant opportunities, allow farmers and ranchers to explore sustainable agriculture production research projects. The program not only helps them solve on-farm problems, but also allows them to share their results with fellow farmers and ranchers who face similar issues.
Southern SARE Producer Grants, one of the organization’s seven grant opportunities, allow farmers and ranchers to explore sustainable agriculture production research projects. The program not only helps them solve on-farm problems, but also allows them to share their results with fellow farmers and ranchers who face similar issues. Learn more about Producer Grants and how to apply.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region.