If you want to a kill a honeybee hive’s buzz, take all its honey away and feed the bees a steady diet of high-fructose corn syrup.
Believe it or not, apiarists have been doing just that since the 1970s — feeding HFCS to their colonies as a replacement source of nourishment for the honey that gets taken away from them to be sold.
And believe it or not, HFCS, which is bad for humans, is also bad for honeybees. It’s especially bad for those that are exposed to pesticides, which these days is a high proportion of them.
It’s not that HFCS contributes to honeybee diabetes, nor does it result in honeybee obesity. But it weakens their defenses. And right now, the bees need all the defenses they can get in order to survive.
When honeybees collect nectar from flowers, they also gather pollen and a substance called propolis, which they use to make waxy honeycombs. The pollen and propolis are loaded with three types of compounds that University of Illinois entomologists discovered can help the bees detoxify their cells and protect themselves from pesticides and microbes.
“The widespread apicultural 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,” the scientists wrote in a paper reporting their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers aren’t suggesting that high-fructose corn syrup is itself toxic to bees, instead, they say their findings indicate that by eating the replacement food instead of honey, the bees are not being exposed to other chemicals that help the bees fight off toxins, such as those found in pesticides.
Cutting the crappy sweeteners from honeybees’ diets and allowing them to eat a bit more of their own honey won’t necessarily save them in a world doused in pesticides. But it might give bees back some of their natural defenses against the poisons they encounter every day.
Get Grist in your inbox