Utah Department of Agriculture and Food

Red "Honey" - A summary for beekeepers

Red ‘Honey’ Update

By: Clint Burfitt
Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, Entomologist

After much investigation regarding this issue, the UDAF determined that the questionable practice of 'pit feeding,' although troublesome in areas where there are high concentrations of hobbyist beekeepers, is not in violation of any state or federal laws. The Utah Bee Inspection Act focuses on managing honeybee "pests, parasites, or pathogens" and has no provisions for regulating feed which is presumed to be safe and non-toxic.  Also, because the commercial operator did not intend on selling the red colored bee regurgitate as honey, and agreed to exchange honey for red syrup that ended up in other beekeeper’s hives, they were not in violation of the administrative rules which govern honey standards (R70-520). The Federal Insecticide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) regulates pesticides and this incident would not apply because crushed candy canes are not considered a pesticide. The intent of the beekeeper responsible was to supplement the nutrition of the hives because they had come back from pollination in California late and missed the bloom along the Wasatch Front (this is a common practice for commercial operations).
As this event unfolded last year, the UDAF was hampered in its attempt to gather information about the scope of the hives affected by ‘red honey’ because of the culture within the hobbyist beekeeping community to not register colonies with the UDAF (which is a violation of the of the Utah Bee Inspection Act). Incidentally, while we were conducting complimentary honeybee health inspections of registered hobbyist beekeepers last year, we found that many hives were infected with American foulbrood (AFB) and that the owners were unaware of the symptoms.  These beekeepers had experienced colony loss in previous years.  Based on research of honeybee health, we know that AFB is a disease which devastates colonies. The current distribution of this disease along the Wasatch Front, coupled with the tendency of hobbyists to not register hives, makes a pandemic amongst urban beekeepers a credible threat.
Currently, there is no little (revised 2/25/14) scientific evidence that would suggest that the feed in question is detrimental to bee health.  The anecdotal reports of unusual behavior or mortality associated with exposure to the crushed candy cane syrup are sparse and inconsistent with the fact that the commercial operator who had several hundred hives feeding on the red syrup has not observed any unusual patterns. However our department is nevertheless monitoring the situation. This year, the UDAF will be conducting a winter loss survey in March and we will be looking for unusual patterns of beehive decline in areas where the pit feeding operations were conducted. This survey will be sent to all registered beekeepers by email; we encourage everyone managing honeybees to complete this survey. I will report what we find in this survey to you when the results are available.   -CB-

Below is an internal report submitted last year by Utah Department of Agriculture and Food Compliance Specialist Dave Basinger of the events leading up to and the conclusion of the red 'honey' incident:
"In early July 2013, a red syrup or honey substance started showing up in a few hives in Utah County. This was reported to Utah County bee inspectors and UDAF. Just as fast as it was reported, it seemed to disappear in the hives as many of the beekeepers observed that the bees had consumed the honey. The source was not known and assumed to be from cherry production around Utah Lake because of the time of year coincided with the cherry harvest and juice production. Small isolated cases of colored honey had come from bird feeders also in different areas around the county—this also could have been a possibility. A few more reports of the red syrup trickled into UDAF until the first of September when the number of reported cases sharply increased.

In the first part of September, UDAF learned of the possible cause of the red substance stored in hives. It was from a few commercial beekeepers that were feeding a candy byproduct (crushed candy canes) dissolved to make a syrup in open pit feeders. Once the commercial beekeepers learned of the problem with other hives, they immediately volunteered to quit feeding this product.  UDAF released a press release on September 4th to notify the public of the problem and to notify the UDAF apiarist, David Basinger, by email to report if they had any production of red syrup in their hives. As of October 4th, there were 10 noncommercial beekeepers reporting red syrup in their hives at one time or another this summer.  A total of 18 hives were reported: 10 from Salt Lake County, 1 from Morgan, 5 from Utah, and 2 from Davis Counties. Only 1 commercial beekeeper reported the red syrup, and he had 18 hives affected in his Morgan County bee yard.

Issues with the red syrup were raised that it may contain toxic levels of lead from the coloring used in the production of the candy byproduct. Samples obtained by UDAF of the candy and red syrup were tested, and on September 10th, UDAF released their findings in a press release stating that no toxic levels of lead were found in either samples. Beekeepers were informed to do one of the following, leave it in the hive and let the bees use it up over winter, remove the syrup and exchange it for real honey at one of two exchange days, or remove it and discard it. 

The UDAF is working with the parties responsible, and the Wasatch Beekeeping Club has arranged a swap of beekeepers red syrup for real honey produced in accordance to the Utah Honey Standard. This will take place in Salt Lake County with help from the Wasatch Beekeeping Club, and in Utah County with help from the Utah County Beekeeping Club.”  Editors note: this letter was written last year. There is no honey swap scheduled as of this posting (02/12/14)

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posted: February 12, 2014
updated: February 25, 2014