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  • Writer's pictureDave Black

Sugar Supplies

For good reason, beekeepers may need to intervene to ensure honey bees have an adequate supply of carbohydrates. Therefore, understanding what bees want, why we use sugar in our hives and where it comes from is important. Resident science writer Dave Black brings you up to speed in this, part two of his series on sugar.

By Dave Black

The feed-honey risk

Honey is not always the perfect answer to ensuring adequate carbohydrate supply to managed honey bee colonies, especially when bees are confined for a long winter.

Honeys rich in protein (such as heather or manuka) or minerals can be problematic. Indigestible substances in feed intended for wintering have to be kept low (<0.1%) to prevent filling the rectum during the winter period[1]. Honey like avocado, with a high mineral content (for instance, sodium, potassium or phosphorus), has been blamed for paralysis of bees in the past[2].

Sugar cane harvest in Australia. Our western neighbour supplies much of New Zealand’s sugar, grown in vast cane plantations.

Inadequately ripened honey and crystallised honey can both ferment and result in dysentery. Honeydew contains, depending on the insect that produced it, melezitose, raffinose, or erlose among the sugars collected. There can be enough melezitose to crystallise in the honeycomb (think willow dew[3]), while raffinose is another considered toxic in the right amounts. In other honey a range of sugar types can be harmful, unless diluted and present in small amounts.

In addition, most beekeepers are counselled against feeding honey back to bees to avoid introducing or spreading the spores of the pathogen American foulbrood[4]. There is also the problem of storing enough of it while preventing crystallisation, fermentation, or the production of toxic hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). For these and other reasons beekeepers look to manufactured sources of sugar when they are feeding bees.

Generous stores of safe sugar dilute and ameliorate any issues with the honey the bees have collected, but it doesn’t pay to be too generous. Honey that comes to market contaminated by any kind of added sugar is considered contaminated, even counterfeit. Bees are notorious for moving stores around (as added food colouring will show) so getting the timing and quantity right matters if you don’t want their ration in the supers you are extracting.

The World of sugar

In New Zealand the sugar now imported comes entirely from sugar cane plants, essentially because beet sugar sources are too far away. Around the globe 80% of the world’s sugar is made from sugar cane (the balance from beet). India and Brazil vie for the top spots producing sugar, but India is a major consumer too. Annually, in terms of net export contribution, Brazil, with more than 45% of the total, sits in top place. Australia lies about fourth, exporting around 60% of its total production, but just one seventh of Brazil’s 30 million tonnes. Brazil's volume has a large influence on production and price, altering a balance between sugar and ethanol (biofuel is also made from sugarcane).

Many countries either have, or continue to regulate, sugar production, imports, and price with quotas. These days sugar is a commodity traded for its own sake, regardless of any culinary goal.

New Zealand Sugar

New Zealand Sugar (Chelsea), the country’s best-known and once only supplier, is majority owned (75%) by the giant agribusiness group Wilmar International, founded and headquartered in Singapore[5]. Wilmar, a company with more than US$58 billion in assets is one of the world’s largest international traders of sugar and owns eight mills in Australia and half of the country’s supply, seven in India, seven in Morocco, two in China and two in Myanmar. Sugar, with palm oil, accounts for about 5% of its business[6].

A Wilmar International sugar depot. The agribusiness conglomerate headquartered in Singapore owns 75% of New Zealand Sugar, the largest sugar importer in the country.

The remaining 25% of New Zealand Sugar’s ownership stake is held by Mackay Sugar, a company established from the merger of Queensland cane-growing co-operatives[7] and who also own (again with Wilmar) Sugar Australia. Mackay, in turn, is largely owned by Nordzucker, another of the world’s large sugar companies with an asset base of US$2.7billion. New Zealand Sugar trades in sugar mainly from Australia, Malaysia and Thailand, both for domestic use and for re-export around the Pacific.

So, that’s why beekeepers use sugar and where it comes from. Next month I will dive deeper into this figurative mound of sugar and elaborate on the various forms used by apiarists…

For part one of the Sugar series read: Sugar for the Bees

Note: New Zealand Sugar, a major supplier to apiculture, was consulted for information in this story.

Dave Black is a Bay of Plenty based hobbyist beekeeper who now works in the kiwifruit industry. He has a degree in Environmental Science and for the past 25 years he has been reading and writing about bees and beekeeping. His essays are available at

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