Honey Is Discovered To Boost Bees’ Immune Systems
Bees may use honey as a source of energy to help them survive over long, cold winters, but that’s not all honey can do. Recent research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that honey has broader benefits for bees, including helping to protect them from infections and pesticides.
The honeybee population in North America has been in rapid decline in recent years, leading scientists to question the future of this beneficial species. The culprit appears to be colony collapse disorder, a widespread cause of death of entire hives of bees. It is not currently known what causes colony collapse disorder, but scientists believe that one or a combination of a variety of factors, including widespread pesticide use, parasites, and climate change, may be to blame. Bees die off suddenly and in large numbers, decimating the population of honeybees within a given area.
To help bees survive, especially during the winter months when pollen and other bee foods are not very available, bee keepers often provide bees with “bee candy.” It is well known that honey is the best and oldest bee candy, but because of cost, many bee keepers use other sweeteners instead. Corn syrup, sucrose, and powdered sugar may be provided to give bees enough energy to survive until pollen is available again. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, however, hypothesized that there may be more to bee feeding than just energy. They investigated the idea that honey may contain natural chemicals that help protect bees against the parasites and pesticides that are implicated in colony collapse disorder.
To investigate the beneficial effects of honey, bee researchers provided two groups of bees with slightly different versions of bee candy. One group of bees received commercial bee candy made of sucrose and powdered sugar. The other group received bee candy made with the same ingredients, but with some of the potentially beneficial components of honey added. They then studied the midgut, or small intestine, of the bees to see which genes were activated. The bees that received honey had higher levels of activation of genes in their midguts that are known to help break down harmful pesticides and protect the bees against parasites. In effect, the natural honey chemicals gave the bees an immune boost right at the level of their intestines, where they tend to be exposed to harmful parasites and pesticides.
While cost will still most likely prevent most beekeepers from feeding their bees honey alone, this study suggests that components of honey could help protect bees and prevent colony collapse disorder. In particular, one compound, p-coumaric acid, seems to be especially beneficial and to provide a key immune boost. The results of this study may lead beekeepers to include some honey in their bee candy. It may also encourage manufacturers of beekeeping supplies to produce bee candy that contains some of the protective components of honey in a corn syrup or powdered sugar base. For example, bee candy fortified with p-coumaric acid may be beneficial to bee colonies. More research is needed to determine exactly which compounds are helpful and why, but it may be that the best hope for the disappearing honeybee comes from the honey they produce in their very own hives.