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During my first year of beekeeping, one of my hives died in a span of 3 days from the fungal parasite called nosema ceranae. The parasite, which can also transmit a virus, is passed quickly from bee to bee when they exchange food. Nosema ceranae causes severe dysentery in bees and if not treated quickly will kill the hive in a matter of days. The way I discovered that my hive had nosema was truly shocking and upsetting. When I went to open up the hive for a routine inspection, the bees all came flying out and began defecating runny, yellow diarrhea everywhere, including all over my beekeeping jacket and tools. I sent a sample of my dead and dying bees to the USDA Beltsville Bee Lab in Maryland and their diagnosis confirmed my fear that nosema was the cause. Here is the bee diagnosis I received back from USDA: Bee disease diagnosis. We recommend you send samples of your live and dead bees to the bee lab if you sense any problems with your hive. It’s a free service!
Doing more research, I found that some beekeepers lower the pH of their sugar syrup to make it more like the pH of wild nectar. The pH of wild nectar is usually around pH 3.5-4.5. Nosema ceranae, although an almost indestructible spore (it can’t be killed by extreme freezing or heating), does not live well in low pH environments. Basically, if you lower the pH of your sugar syrup feed, the pH of your bee’s crop (stomach) will also be lowered to a point where nosema spores do not thrive. A lower pH inside the bee crop is also generally considered better for their digestive system.
I went out and bought a good Milwaukee pH tester and found that my sugar syrup made from regular white cane sugar and tap water had a pH of around 8! That was pretty darn high compared to the pH of wild nectar. Now I had to lower the pH level of my sugar syrup feed. There are many ways to lower the pH of sugar syrup, including using apple cider vinegar, but we recommend using ascorbic acid powder (Vitamin C) because it is odorless and won’t attract robber bees or mess with the scents and pheromones within your hive.
You can purchase ascorbic acid at Whole Foods or in bulk through Bulk Supplements. If you have a lot of hives, buying in bulk will save you money. For me, I make sugar syrup using 1 part water to 1 part regular white cane sugar (don’t use brown sugar or molasses as it is hard for bees to digest) by volume (note: some people mix their sugar and water by weight, not volume, just choose a method and stick with it). My normal sugar syrup pH is 8 and it usually takes 2.5 grams (1/4 tbsp) of ascorbic acid per quart (4 cups) of sugar syrup to lower the pH to 4. You have to test the pH of your own sugar syrup first before you add ascorbic acid. The pH of your sugar syrup could be a lot lower or higher, which would affect how much ascorbic you would add. Ideally, you want your sugar syrup to be in the range of pH 3.5-4.5.
What else do we put into our sugar syrup
I put in a few sprinkles of sea salt to make sure that the bees get some amount of minerals and trace minerals that may be missing from my tap water and the store bought cane sugar. I was considering using more expensive Himalayan Pink Sea Salt, but read this article and decided any sea salt would do the trick. With anything, don’t overdo it. 3-5 turns of the sea salt grinder per gallon of sugar syrup should do.
Don’t feed your bees 2:1 sugar syrup
Some beekeepers will feed their bees extra sugary syrup made from 2 parts sugar and 1 part water instead of the common 1:1 recipe. They usually do this for emergency feeding or if they can’t get to the hive for awhile and need to give the bees more sugar. We recommend that you do NOT feed 2:1 sugar syrup. It is rough on the bee’s digestive system, which could lead to ailments such as dysentery. I wouldn’t even consider it for “emergency” feeding. Think of the old rule of not overfeeding someone who has been starving. Beekeeping, despite what Michael Bush at Lazy Beekeeping says, requires you to work hard and be responsible. If you have to feed, do it regularly when the nectar flow stops and make sure the bees have enough capped stores going into the winter. Don’t wait until fall to start feeding, which may tempt you to use 2:1 sugar syrup and may force you to even open up the hive in winter to feed pure sugar or fondant. I have yet to do emergency winter feeding and my hives still survive.
- Use only regular white cane sugar in your 1 part water to 1 part sugar recipe
- Don’t ever boil your sugar syrup, just get the mixture hot enough so that the sugar dissolves (usually you can do this by keeping the stove burner turned to medium-low and by constantly stirring)
- Test your sugar syrup to see what the pH is. It will normally be anywhere from pH 6-8.
- Lower the pH of your sugar syrup to around pH 4 by using ascorbic acid powder (Vitamin C). This matches the pH of wild nectar.
- Sprinkle in some sea salt to give your bees access to minerals and trace minerals that may be missing from the cane sugar and tap water
- Never feed your bees thick 2 parts sugar to 1 part water syrup as it is hard for the bees to digest
- Put the sugar syrup in the hive quickly and then close it up to prevent robbing