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

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Your morning toast topping is the result of a bee’s hard work. Photo: MMNoergaar / CC by 2.0

Honeybees Use Honey as Winter Food

Contrary to popular opinion, honeybees don’t make honey so that humans can enjoy it on toast. They expend energy visiting flowers so that they can get through the winter. Bees store honey during the warm, sunny, and blooming seasons of spring and summer so that they can eat it in the fall and winter, when they must stay in the hive.

Collecting honey from a hive means removing it from the bees’ storage facility. Some beekeepers take a portion of the honey, leaving enough for the bees to survive the winter by eating their own honey. However, honey is worth more than corn syrup, so for years some beekeepers have removed all of the honey from their hives, replacing it with corn syrup instead.

Honey Enzymes Are Important for Toxin Resistance

This is where the situation becomes challenging for the bees. While corn syrup does contain carbohydrates, it’s not the same as honey. Researchers found that p-coumaric, an enzyme found in pollen, can help bees detoxify. In an environment that’s increasingly full of pesticides and other chemicals, it’s important for bees to have a sturdy immune system. By removing their natural food source, honey producers remove important enzymes that help the bees stay healthy.

Why do we need healthy bees? Well, bees are multifunctional. Yes, honeybees produce honey. However, they’re also pollinators, and they help us create much more than just honey. While some crops can do without insect intervention, many food crops depend on bee pollination. Undermining bee health undermines the health of the human food supply as well.

Bee Populations: Don’t Mess With Nature

Bees are complex animals with complicated nutritional needs. All life is complex, and this makes it amazing. This recent study provides us with a warning: Changing the food or habitat of an animal will have unintended and likely unforeseen consequences, simply because the interactions between animals, their food, and their homes are complex – and we don’t fully understand them.

Resources

The Guardian. Bee-harming pesticides banned in Europe. (2013). Accessed May 2, 2013.

Mao, Wenfu, Mary A. Schuler and May R. Berenbaum. Honey constituents up-regulate detoxification and immunity genes in the western honeybee Apis Mellifera. (2013). Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America. Accessed May 2, 2013.

Utah State University Cooperative Extension. Honey Bee Navigation. (2012). Accessed May 2, 2013.

Ellis, Amanda et al. The Benefits of Pollen to Honeybees. (2012). Accessed May 2, 2013.

Esch, Harold. The Effects of Temperature on Flight Muscle Potentials In Honeybees and Cuculiinid Winter Moths. (1988). Journal Exp. Biology: 135, 109-177. Accessed May 2, 2013.

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