Bee Scientifics

Making Sugar Syrup

In theory, making sugar syrup is not hard, mix water with sugar and you’re done.  The challenges really lie in the equipment needed to make the quantity you need in order to successfully feed bees. If you only are feeding a few hives, this task is easily done in a home kitchen.  Feeding tens or hundreds of colonies requires a bit more thought, space, and equipment.

We are not experts in all the ways to make sugar syrup, but thought helpful to show you the process we use to make syrup and some of the tricks we have learned along the way.

The basic ratio for heavy syrup we use is 60% sugar.  So this translates to 1 kg (litre) water to 1.66 kg sugar or 600 ml water to 1 kg sugar.  

We make 60 litres of heavy syrup at a time in a really clean 100 L wax melter from Quality Beekeeping Goods in Queensland. We prefer to use Sunshine Sugar that we buy in 25 kg bags from Campbells Wholesale partly because it is a good price, and partly because we LOVE to support Australian businesses with sustainable growing, processing, manufacturing, and social practices.


  • Something to hold and heat double the amount of water you are adding
  • something to stir with (A paint stirrer with hand drill works great on a large scale)
  • Sealable containers to transfer syrup


  • 30 litres water (rain/tank water is great)
  • 50 kg sugar


Heat the water up to a boil and add half the sugar.  Stir until the sugar is completely mixed in and the solution becomes clear.

Heat sugar water up again until very hot but not boiling.  Once hot, add the second half of the sugar and repeat process.  Mix until clear.  Let cool and transfer to storage container(s)

IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t boil the syrup.  When sugar syrup is boiled, HMF (5-hydroxymethylfurfural) is formed and can be toxic to bees in high concentrations.  Read more about HMF

Storing and Using Syrup

We don’t have any pumps to move syrup around so we keep everything liftable.  For that reason, we prefer to store the syrup in 20 l food grade plastic cubes that we get from People in Plastic.  

MASTER HINT: STORE SYRUP AS HEAVY SYRUP AROUND 60% SUGAR.  THIS WAY IT WON’T FERMENT.If you intend to feed light syrup 50/50, add water to the heavy syrup AS YOU USE IT. To make light syrup out of this stock, add approximately 200 ml water per litre or as you like it. Light syrup does not store well and will ferment on you.  Feeding fermented syrup to the bees is not good for them.

We are developing a feed supplement that you add to sugar syrup to delivering  essential oils that act as an attractant and support honey bee health.  We also add Bee Boost to deliver vitamins, amino acids and protein to the otherwise nutritionally poor sugar syrup. 

We hope this little post helps those interested in or needing to feed bees sugar syrup.  Best of luck and skill out there!  We’ll post another article on the benefits of Bee Boost in the near future.  Thanks for reading.

Feeding Bees Part 1: Anecdotal Science

Measured Anecdotal Science

Deciding to feed bees requires quite a bit of forethought.  This is best to do BEFORE the bees are hungry.  How are you going to feed; what are you going to feed; when are you going to feed?  Luckily I had some, but not all, of this figured out. The other part of the equation is how do you know if feeding worked.

Foremost, I am a beekeeper, but I am also a scientist.  This is a very difficult balance because In order to answer the question “did feeding work” I must first define what “it worked” is.  Then, I need to have unfed controls and measure some parameters of unfed colonies against fed colonies and determine if the treatment (feeding) resulted in “it worked” or not.

As a beekeeper, this is excruciating.  I rely on every one of these colonies for an income, plus I need these colonies to thrive for future research already funded.  Collecting and analysing data is time consuming (expensive) and difficult.  Consequently, this story will not be a true scientific experiment, but rather a Measured Anecdotal Scientific process where I am making some assumptions based on my beekeeping experience and gathering the bare minimum essential data based on my scientific background in order to determine if feeding “worked”

Defining perimeters of this non-experiment

Bee Build in hive entrance

Telling the bees that their feeder is full.  GO check it out!

I am working on the assumption that if I did not feed, the colonies would die over winter.  So “it worked” will be finally measured in the spring as colony survival.  However, my experience overwintering 5 frame nucs in Victoria tells me that if colonies enter winter with 4.5 frames of bees, 2 frames of brood, at least 1.5 frames of honey with pollen, they have a very good chance.

With this information, I can change my definition of “it worked” to a colony being set up well for winter by the end of April.

As it is nearly the middle of March I can do some bee maths to anecdotally measure progress toward “it worked”: how many frames of bees and brood does this colony have now, what does the brood pattern look like, and is the colony infected by chalkbrood.  I can extrapolate these numbers to say “if the colony stayed on this trajectory, would it be ready for winter”. For example, a colony sitting on 2.5 frames of bees and 1 frame of brood with a spotty brood pattern in March would definitely not make it through winter.  A colony with 4 frames of bees and three frames of brood with good resources and good resource prospects for the next month would probably survive until spring in central Victoria.

To keep things simple, frames of bees (the number of frames completely covered by bees) are measured in half units.  Frames of brood usually follows frames of bees by 1 less, for example, if a colony has 4 frames of bees, they usually have 3 frames with brood on it.  The brood pattern is scaled at a 0-3 range with 0 being none, 1 being really spotty and 3 being really solid.  Chalkbrood is also measured on a 0-3 scale with 0 being none, 1 being a few cells, and 3 being completely disgusting.

Now that we have defined our parameters, we can start the non-experiment.

The right gear and know-how

As I said at the beginning, if you plan to feed bees, a little forethought goes a long way.  I am halfway prepared to feed bees.  I know what to feed and how to feed, and I even have some systems set up to do this.  It is just actioning these systems that takes a bit of time and experience.

I am feeding both heavy sugar syrup and protein supplement (free flight feeding as well as in-hive feeding).  I have also added some magic Bee Boost to the sugar syrup to boost the nutritional profile beyond just carbohydrates.  In some future posts, I will let you know about some interesting work with blue-green algae stay tuned. For now, I will walk you though my process of feeding hungry nucs with the goal of building up their populations to get ready for winter.

Sugar syrup

I have said that my nucs are 5 framers- this is true, but I keep a frame feeder in all year around so actually I have 4 frame nucs.  I will discuss the design of these nucs in a later post, but for now, just know that I have a frame feeder in and now there is some chicken wire in each feeder to act as a bee ladder.

I am feeding heavy syrup that I make in my clean wax melter by adding 50 kgs sugar to about 30 litres water.  I store this syrup in 20 litre plastic cubes that I get from People in Plastic in Melbourne.  Heavy syrup will not ferment and can be stored for a long time.  HINT: If you want to feed light syrup, mix it as you feed it because the life span is so short.  Light syrup WILL ferment quickly depending on how clean your container is and external temperature.

Protein supplement

For this non experiment I will be free flight feeding as well as in-hive feeding.  To free flight feed, I simply toss some Bee Build in a container and the bees are hungry enough to find it.  They collect it and bring it back to the hive as pollen. Bee Build is Australian made and owned, developed over the course of a decade to make sure everything about it is just right.  The ingredients are ground to less than 100 microns and oil is added to make sure the bees can collect it.  The nutrient composition is similar to the highest quality pollen, and we strive to source Australian organic ingredients.  This stuff is really good.

Free Flight Feeding Bee Build

Increasing the surface prevents the “frenzy” of bees fighting for resources.


I will also be feeding pollen patties in the hive.  I have been working over the past two years to make a pollen patty that is easy for beekeepers to use and the bees readily eat.  After A LOT of trialling, I think I have finally gotten it right.  This mix uses Bee Build as a base, and has some extra special Ingrediants to keep it from drying out in the hive and make it extra attractive to nurse bees.  Since developing this new formula, I haven’t met a hive that hasn’t gobbled it up.  Mission accomplished!

Concluding thoughts

Please note, that I know this is poor science.  By doing all of these things, I cannot say anything conclusively about any of them individually.  However, I don’t really care.  My end goal is to do anything I can to get the bees healthy enough to make it through winter.

These nucs have new queens reared from hygienic breeding stock and destined to contribute to our breeding program next season.  Loosing these nucs wouldn’t just be a loss of bees, but it would be a major setback in our breeding program.  I realise this situation isn’t ideal, but I am going to do the best I can with what I have on-hand and hopefully learn/teach along the way.

Should I Stay or Should I Go….

Hang in there girls

Spotty Brood Pattern
Spotty brood pattern from lack of protein
Early chalkbrood
Early chalkbrood

It’s the beginning of March in the Box-Ironbark of Central Victoria.  The last time I stood in this apiary, I told my bees of my father’s passing and that I wouldn’t be able to shift them to greener pastures, I had to go away for a while.   I had just taken their queens and given them cells. I told them to hang in there, hoping the feed they got from the Red Gum this year would hold them over. 

Six weeks later, I returned to the apiary of 50 mating nucs (5 frame and two-way 8 frame) and 15 honey/drone mother hives in March fearing the worst and hoping for the best with my three year old sleeping in the carseat.

I walked around the apiary, lifting boxes.  Light.  Little flight. No pollen coming in.  Yuck.  I opened a few lids to find jittery, flighty, unsettled, hungry bees.  They still had  honey in the combs, but not a bit of pollen.  The brood was suffering and most colonies had 3 frames of bees.  They would not make it through a Victorian winter.


The next right thing

The container of heavy syrup I left in my ute six weeks ago was still there, as was my watering/sugaring can and I went around giving each colony a drink.  I refilled the free flight feeder with Bee Build and coated the bees in each entrance with the powder to let them know their feed was refilled.  Within 10 minutes, the feeder was buzzing.  I needed to make some decisions about the next move (or not).

Weighing the options

Although I have been keeping bees for over 15 years, I have only been in Victoria for 6 years, and only running this number of mating nucs for 2 years.  I have a ute, but no trailer.  I have some secure sites around Bendigo, but no real options to move to greener pastures.  I have a three year old and am confined to working within the constraints of creche.  I understand bees, but am just learning about Australian flora.  I know how to feed bees and have devoted considerable time to understanding the best recipes and products, but few in Australia think it is possible to build bees on “artificial diets” (except Tasmanians).


A little help from my friends

I spent the following week looking into buying or borrowing a trailer and talking to my local beekeeper friends about options to shift the bees.  I gathered options, weighed the advantages and disadvantages, did my maths, did a gut check, and have decided to stay put and feed bees.

I figured that there is no point in me touting products and supplemental feeding if I am not willing or able to follow my own lead.  The next series of posts will document the process of trying to build bees for winter on a supplemental feeding regime.  In theory, it should work, we will see.

Resistance vs Tolerance

The USDA-ARS Honey Bee Breeding lab is world renowned for bee research attracting collaborations from United States and international organisations. During my visit at the lab, Dr. Jiri Danihlik from Palacky_University in Olomouc Czechia spent a few weeks working on a project started by a student of his studying oxidative stress in bees. Dr. Juri specialises on bee immunity, but is also a skilled and experienced beekeeper and queen producer.

A few of us were having a chat in Bob’s lab (Bob Danka) where I was explaining to Juri the complexities of trying to prepare Australian stocks for living with Varroa and about the goals of my fellowship to better understand Varroa tolerance selection techniques. During my explaination, I was gently corrected by my friend and mentor Mike Simone-Finstrom that I was not looking for traits that conferred Varroa tolerance but rather Varroa resistance.

Up until that point, I through of resistance and tolerance as interchangeable words meaning the same thing: bees that lived with Varroa. However, after deeper consideration, we don’t want bees that tolerate Varroa just as we wouldn’t want a housemate that tolerates a dirty kitchen. Tolerance is about living with something and accepting it. Varroa tolerance becomes tricky to achieve because high mite levels usually means high virus loads and high virus loads are difficult to defend against and often lethal for colonies. So unless bees are tolerant of Varroa AND resistant to viruses, colonies will still die. In fact, we want traits that confer Varroa suppression and Varroa resistance, not Varroa tolerance.

Traits under selection providing protection from Varroa mites, must keep hive mite numbers and consequently keep virus loads at levels the bees’ immune systems (social and innate) can handle. Varroa resistant bee populations have been developed through both selective breeding programs and through good old fashion natural selection. The exact mechanisms providing resistance are not fully understood, and likely a combination of genetic and environmental influences. The end result, however, is the same: colonies keep Varroa from reproducing, keep virus levels low, and remain healthy without chemical intervention.

This article in Science Mag published in 2019 is quite a good read explaining “where we are at” with respect to breeding and arriving at Varroa resistant bees. It highlights work on marker assisted selection, the golden ticket in bee breeding, and describes some of the main reasons why uptake of Varroa resistance stock isn’t greater in commercialised beekeeping operations.

In the coming weeks, I will expand on some of the issues and projects mentioned in the article based on experiences from this fellowship.

Thank you to the International Specialised Skills Institute and the Victorian Honey Bee Compensation fund for making this possible.

Capacity Building

Our second stop on the Varroa Tolerance tour brought us to Western Washington, the land of islands, rivers, mountains, and IPAs. At a friends house, we were directed to the beer fridge in the garage with the disclaimer that “there are several different beers to choose from”. In Washington, it turns out, that this translates to “there are several different IPAs to choose from.” Good luck finding a lager, or worse yet, an amber! Nothing remotely similar to our beloved Toohey’s OLD!

Just south of the town of Coupeville, located on Whidbey Island, we visited with Sue Cobey. Sue is a queen bee breeder specialising in instrumental insemination and contributed greatly to the development of the New World Carniolian.

A map of the United States highlighting Coupeville WA
Coupeville Washington

Sue is one of the world’s experts on Instrumental Insemination (II) /Artificial Insemination (AI) of queen bees. Her courses are highly sought after and participants carefully vetted. We arrived at the tail end of a three day II course attended by people from all over the United States and a few international participants.Instrumental Insemination class participants

Class participants finishing up an Instrumental Insemination course held by Sue Cobey

Courses like this one are essential for teaching skills fundamental to queen bee breeding. These skills are honed in by A LOT of practice. Participants here applied for the course and were chosen based on the likelihood that they will continue using and building upon the skills learned here.

During these travels, I have realised that there are two essential components to breeding for Varroa tolerance (or any other set of traits). One part is the selection criteria and techniques used to identify, measure, quantify, and weigh desired traits. The other aspect is the framework of the breeding program. An important part of program framework is capacity.

In my next post, I’ll lay out some thoughts about these two pillars of breeding programs important to get right in order to play “the long game” of bee breeding.

Lavender flowers with beehives in the distance

Learning From The Best

We are heading to the United States in a few weeks on an exciting adventure to learn how to breed Varroa tolerant bees from some of the most successful projects in the world. We will bring all our learning back to Australia and start creating the framework to tackle Varroa even before it arrives! This work is proudly supported by the International Specialised Skills Institute Agribusiness fellowship, the Victorian Honey Bee Compensation and Industry Development Fund and Bee Build.

We will first travel to Hawaii to learn about Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) breeding in a commercial apiary supported by the Arista Bee Research Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture. We will then visit Sue Cobey in Washington State to better understand the intricacies of incorporating imported stock into a breeding program.

From Washington we head to the Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Lab in Baton Rouge Louisiana to learn first hand by helping out with VSH trait identification and stock selection in the VSH and Pol-line lines of bees.

Our last two stops are Purdue University in Indiana to better understand selection for its mite biter bees, and then to visit the West Central Ohio Beekeepers Association to learn about collaborative breeding from “survivor stock”.

The project is titled “Development of Varroa tolerance selection methods tailored for the benefit of Victorian (and Australia wide) beekeepers and the honey bee industry”

We will be keeping our blog posts updated so keep in touch!!

Winter Feeding

Winter has finally arrived here in central Victoria. Hopefully all this rain will make for excellent spring forage. During winter bees hunker in their hives and feed off the stored honey and bee bread. In much of Australia temperatures are warm enough to supplemental feed if stores fall short.

Sugar provides carbohydrates necessary to give bees fuel to keep the brood nest warm while pollen supplement keeps protein levels of nurse bees up. Protein, fats, and amino acids help immune function of adult bees and also help sustain brood food glands of nurse bees. Fat healthy nurse bees and a warm brood nest enable brood production through out winter.

Bees and plants enter into their expansion phase when daylight begins to increase after the winter solstice (June 22, 2019). If the right amount of carbohydrates and proteins are available, colonies will begin to grow instead of just maintain or even shrink.

In the United States, feeding a pollen patty during the warm days of late winter is common practice in both hobby and commercial beekeeping operations. This early feeding encourages colony growth and health.

To support bees and beekeeper, we developed a winter patty out of our bee build sausage base mix. We added extra sugar, fats, and oils to our bee build sausage mix to support the health of overwintering bees.

These pollen patties are individually wrapped and easy to feed. Simply score the grease paper and place on top of the top bars of the brood nest. Keep the pollen patty accessible to nurse bees to promote colony growth or to emergency feed in your bees run out of stores.

ISS Agribusiness Fellowship 2018!

The International Specialised Skills Institute (ISS) is excited to help support honey bee research!  Jody Gerdts was awarded a travel fellowship to study Varroa tolerance selection techniques with some key bee labs in the United States in July-August 2019.  The goal of this project is to learn about traits and selection methods instrumental in helping bees defend themselves against Varroa mites.  Upon returning to Australia we will adapt the techniques to the Australian beekeeping industry.  Hopefully better preparing ourselves for winning the Varroa battle.

Thank you to the ISS Institute and good luck to all the 2018 fellows!

Propolis Flow at Darebin Parklands

Last week I was at Darebin Parklands checking queens from the nucs we made during our queen rearing workshop.  I was working late into the evening watching the sky fill with daunting rain clouds (57 ml of rain the following day!) and preparing to shift the colonies back to Bendigo.

At 7:00pm, the girls were bringing in loads of pollen, resin collectors were abundant and there was a very heavy nectar shake.  Needless to say, I did not shift the bees that night!  Why would I??  They are filling up their boxes and getting ready to host another round of queens come the new year.