Honey … ah, sugar, sugar

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Six weeks at the number one spot in 1969 has imprinted this song on my brain indelibly and I’m sorry to say that an e-mail from Fragile Planet prompted it to return in its ear-worm fashion while I stewed over the content (of the e-mail, not the syrupy lyrics).

We’ve been having a great bee summer haven’t we? The forage has been superb, bees flying as if on a mission as indeed they are. They want to ensure they get through the winter on the sweet liquid sunshine they’ve supped and dried and stored so efficiently.

Cut to the company who have called themselves Fragile Planet. Their e-mail recommends the routine feeding of sugar syrup in September and fondant in December.

“Sometimes bees just won’t take the sugar down. We’ve all had this and no matter how many times you tell them that they’ll die if they don’t eat the syrup, they still don’t do it.”

I would just like to say, what if you left them the honey they’ve collected? Will they die then?

White sugar is devoid of nutrition. It is ‘refined’, meaning that it has had all of the original plant material stripped away during processing until it is crystalline. It has no smell, explaining why bees even with their exceptional olfactory capacity, can’t detect it.

The importance of scent to animals can’t be underestimated. Although the olfactory bulb in humans is relatively small, still we know how important it can be in discerning what is harmful and what is good. We eat with our noses too! Try biting into an apple while holding your nose.

We can tell whether it’s cabbage or cake for dinner because the heat of cooking releases volatile ‘aromatics’ into the air for us to smell. Imagine this sense magnified many times to the point when you could determine different vegetable plants still in the ground from their scent at quite a distance. Honey bees are able to differentiate flowers by their scent long before they can see them.

Refined sugar has no smell because it has become mineral and without ‘life’. Food writers have estimated that in humans digesting refined sugar takes more out of the body than it supplies, leaving a deficit. Yet we’re programmed to seek out sweet foods as if we were hunter gathers still – tricky! (However I’m sure you know not to feed unrefined or brown sugar to your bees as this can upset their tummies.)

White sugar is almost pure sucrose, a disaccharide made up of one glucose and one fructose molecule. Glucose and fructose have the same chemical formula but the arrangement of atoms, and therefore the structure, is different. In nectar, enzymes break down sucrose into the separate molecules to a greater or lesser extent. The proportion of sucrose, glucose and fructose is fairly constant within plant families and honey bees have been shown to prefer a balance of all three.

Some beekeepers argue that there is no difference between the sugars because the formulae are the same but research into molecular gastronomy suggests otherwise. R-carvone, the molecule responsible for the scent in mint, and S-carvone in caraway are identical in chemical composition but differ slightly in their structure and clearly they taste and smell quite different*. It’s through our noses that we know this and that’s something very difficult for our scientific world to work with.

Our living planet is fragile and our concern over the well-being of honey bees might be the alarm bell we need to wake up to the way we try to understand it. Could animals really know better than us what’s good for them, with their superior survival instincts? Could sugar-feeding be another factor in what is harming the health of honey bees? More importantly will we have to wait for science to discover the mechanics of how information from our senses works before we can trust them?

• From ‘Taste Buds and Molecules’ by Francois Chartier

For more fascinating information on our senses I recommend: