Is Fondant Actually Detrimental to Bees?
Hydroxymethylfurfural is Toxic to Bees
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David D from Massachusetts writes:
I heard from someone who should be a reliable source that fondant has been found to be detrimental to bees. Is this true? Secondly, I have a big block of purchased fondant that is very difficult to divide into smaller sections. So if fondant is safe, can I just put it out in the yard and let the bees feed on it as the weather allows?
Rusty Burlew replies:
Common table sugar (sucrose) is a disaccharide made from two simple sugars: fructose and glucose. When you cook sugar or add an acid such as vinegar or cream of tartar, you break the molecular bonds that hold sucrose together and end up with the two simple sugars. It’s the fructose portion that causes the problem. When fructose is heated it produces hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is toxic to bees. So these days, more and more beekeepers avoid adding heat or acidifiers to sugar.
Beekeepers have been cooking syrup and making fondant for generations, yet this toxicity only became apparent relativity recently. Feeding cooked syrup will not kill a colony, but researchers have found that HMF may shorten the lifespan of some bees in the colony, depending on how much HMF they’ve eaten. The fear is that if you lose, say, 5% of a colony to HMF, and 8% to nosema, and 30% to viruses, you eventually reach a tipping point that may kill the entire colony. So, to reduce total risk, you can avoid cooked sugar products.
If you search online for HMF in sugar syrup, you should find plenty of articles. In addition to increases in HMF due to heat and acidifiers, just the process of aging increases it. Honey is mostly glucose and fructose, and as honey ages, it too produces HMF. Lots of beekeepers still cook syrup, so you can expect to hear other opinions. The harmful effects of HMF are well-supported, but how much damage it does is still debated.
In my opinion, feeding your bees the fondant you already purchased will not do noticeable harm, but you may want to avoid it in the future. I started using only no-cook feeding techniques about 10 years ago and I’ve had excellent success with overwintering. Not only is it better for bees, but it saves a lot of work.
You can put your block of fondant outside, although bees don’t fly much once the temperature drops below 60 F, so make sure they have plenty to eat within the hive. Also, don’t put the food too close to the hive because it may attract predators toward the hive, including bears, if you have them.