Bees Without Honey

Few environmental changes are as bewildering — or disturbing — as the collapse of bee colonies across the globe. Like the ruins of a veiled ancient civilization, hives once rich with sweet golden treasure stand silent, crumbling onto the earth until only strips of hexagonal patterns remain: a code that was meant to be read, a warning soon to be lost.

Scientists are desperately trying to solve this enigma and find the key that will reestablish these fragile monarchical societies. Nature cannot truly be in balance until bees return to where we know they belong — floating above blossoms in spring, buzzing inside cotton shirts in summer, busily knitting together the tapestry of life in gardens, in orchards, in fields.

Adding substance to some of the main colony collapse theories, a new study suggests that a change in bees’ diets has weakened their physiological ability to survive environmental contaminants. Bees didn’t suddenly decide to explore new cuisines, however. Like pesticides and pollutants, the dietary change was a man-made idea.

As Reuters correspondent Richard Valdmanis explains: “Beekeepers’ use of corn syrup and other honey substitutes as bee feed may be contributing to colony collapse by depriving the insects of compounds that strengthen their immune systems. . . .

“A bee’s natural food is its own honey, which contains compounds like p-coumaric acid that appear to help detoxify and strengthen a bee’s immunity to disease, according to a study by scientists at the University of Illinois.

“Beekeepers, however, typically harvest and sell the honey produced by the bees and use substitutes like sugar or high-fructose corn syrup to feed them.

“‘The widespread [beekeeping] use of honey substitutes, including high-fructose corn syrup, may thus compromise the ability of honey bees to cope with pesticides and pathogens and contribute to colony losses,’ according to the study. . . .

“Honeybees pollinate fruits and vegetables that make up roughly one-quarter of the American diet, and scientists are split over whether pesticides, parasites or habitat loss are mainly to blame for the deaths.

“Similar losses have been recorded in Europe where lawmakers have moved to ban three of the world’s most widely used pesticides for two years amid growing criticism from environmental activists.”

Writing in Science News, Susan Milius adds: “Honeybees these days have plenty to detoxify; 121 pesticides and their breakdown products showed up in a 2010 survey of honeybees and their hives in 23 states and one Canadian province.

“Relentless exposure to pesticides on crops and to antimite treatment in their own hives ranks among the major suspects contributing to bees’ precarious health in the United States. Winter losses have been large in recent years, including those from colony collapse disorder, the puzzling disappearance of worker bees.”

1 Comment

  1. This is a fascinating blog post remarking upon a serious threat to the bee population: diet. Among other factors, the bee population can diminish due to man-imposed changes on the food they consume. Is it possible to receive a link to the research article published by the University of Illinois? Additionally, here is a link to a TED talk with Dr. Mary Spivak, professor of Apiculture at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Entomology, who further discusses the important role that bees play in agriculture and what we can do to help.

    Thank you, Mr. Dodge, for a great post!

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