What’s Bugging the Bees: Are Pesticides and High Fructose Corn Syrup to Blame?


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What’s bugging the honeybee? It might be the food. Photo: johan1958 / CC by 2.0

How is that whole-foods diet going? Would you go for a diet rich in healthy carbohydrates, a variety of proteins, and lots of enzymes and micronutrients? Your mother would likely approve, and chances are that the bees would too. As the northern hemisphere wakes into spring, there’s a bit of buzzing going around, but it might not be as vigorous as it used to be. The bees are back, moving from flower to flower. Unfortunately, in recent years both wild and cultivated bees have seen their numbers drop, and people are asking why. There has been a lot of discussion about what’s killing the bees, and there are many conclusions.

Tighter Pesticide Restrictions to Help Bees

One suggestion is that the pesticides are to blame. Bees are insects, and people aren’t fond of many insects. In fact, the pesticide industry is dedicated to removing many of them from our croplands so that they won’t eat or damage the food that we’re growing. Unfortunately, pesticides aren’t always terribly selective, and since bees are insects, these beloved pollinators suffer the consequences of our attempts to eliminate their far-flung cousins. Recently, the debate at the European Union has centered around neonicotinoid pesticides, insecticides that act on insects’ nervous systems and cause paralysis and death. In response to concerns about the impacts of these pesticides, Europe will be enforcing a continent-wide ban of the use of these pesticides on bee-pollinated crops.

A recent study points to another source of honeybee population collapse, however; this study points the finger at the bees’ nutrition – or the lack thereof. For decades, many beekeepers have removed the honey from beehives and have replaced it with high fructose corn syrup instead.

The Process of Honeybee Foraging

Why is this a problem? Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at what the bees are doing out there in the garden. When bees visit flowers, they’re not just tourists visiting the sights: they’re doing the very important job of pollination, ensuring that those plants set fruit. They’re also collecting vital protein (pollen) and carbohydrates (nectar) to bring back to the hive.

As a bee moves from flower to flower, it collects different types of nectar and pollen. Some flowers like dandelions have abundant nectar, while others, such as pretty but nectar-poor cultivars – may have very little. All of this food collection is hard work for the honeybees, who are rather particular about when they forage. They don’t like to go out when it’s below 55 degrees F, because it’s so cold that they lose a lot of energy flying around. They navigate using the sun, so it’s harder for them to do so when it’s cloudy. This means that the bees have only a limited time to collect their food.

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