Colony collapse disorder, the phenomenon where bees mysteriously disappear from their hives and never come back, has preoccupied everyone who cares about our food system for the past few years. Bees have been disappearing at extremely rapid rates (over 30% of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. disappeared this past winter), and there is no one villainous thing to blame. Instead, we have an amalgam of reasons that slowly reveal themselves over time: pesticides, climate change, viruses, and parasites have all been implicated. A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois reports that high-fructose corn syrup, which is often fed to bees, is also part of the problem.
Normally, bees feed on their own honey–a potent mix of detoxifying compounds that provide immunity to disease. Problem is, that honey is worth some decent cash, so beekeepers sell it to us and feed the bees high-fructose corn syrup and sugar instead. The researchers believe that using these honey replacements can “compromise the ability of honey bees to cope with pesticides and pathogens and contribute to colony losses.”
The University of Illinois explains the detoxifying power of honey:
Research had previously shown that eating honey turns on detoxification genes that metabolize the chemicals in honey, but the researchers wanted to identify the specific components responsible for this activity. To do this, they fed bees a mixture of sucrose and powdered sugar, called bee candy, and added different chemical components in extracts of honey. They identified p-coumaric acid as the strongest inducer of the detoxification genes.
“We found that the perfect signal, p-coumaric acid, is in everything that bees eat–it’s the monomer that goes into the macromolecule called sporopollenin, which makes up the outer wall of pollen grains. It’s a great signal that tells their systems that food is coming in, and with that food, so are potential toxins,” Berenbaum said.
Should beekeepers start feeding their bees more honey? They should want to, especially since they know the dire nature of the colony collapse problem. But that’s still money down the drain, so they won’t. Instead the researchers suggest that future honey substitutes could contain immunity-boosting p-coumaric acid. Maybe that will help with colony collapse disorder–but it’s far from solving the larger problem.