Colony Collapse Disorder has been reported on here before. It’s a recent and disturbing trend that has been seen in numerous places around the world in which honey bee populations abruptly plummet as hive colonies “collapse” and die out. The implications are worrisome, since bees are important pollinators for food crops.
There have been numerous causes proposed for colony collapse. Many are fringe or just ridiculous. The chemtrail/haarp/depleted uranium/fluoride conspiracy theorists seem to love using colony collapse as a way of proving that the government must be spraying something horrible in the skies or transmitting evil energy waves. Another popular hypothesis is that colony collapse is caused by electromagnetic pollution from cell phones, wifi and other devices. Of course, there is no evidence at all that this is true, and, in fact incidence of colony collapse seem to have no coloration at all to the prevalence of RF transmitters. Still others have blamed the use of genetically modified organisms, although, again, the patterns of collapse do not relate to where genetically engineered crops have been used.
More mainstream hypothesis are that it is related to parasites, such as viruses or fungi. Pesticide use has also been suggested as a contributor, this remains controversial, and, as one might imagine, many will jump on any information about pesticides and make outlandish claims. It’s possible that insecticides do play some roll in stressing colonies, but they are clearly not the primary factor, though possibly a contributing one.
Despite the consensus that parasites play a major roll in colonies collapse, this does not explain why it has been increasing around the world in recent years.
However, a new hypothesis may explain what is causing the increase in CCD
Feeding bees corn syrup may leave them vulnerable to colony collapse
Apis mellifera, the western honeybee, is big business; the pollination services the bees provide to US agriculture are valued at roughly $14 billion. Unfortunately, bees the world over are suffering from colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which worker bees go out foraging and then disappear instead of returning to the hive and tending to the queen like they are supposed to. The causes of CCD are not clear, but pathogens, parasites, and pesticides have all been implicated. Neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that have been shown to alter bees’ navigation, foraging, communication, and reproduction, have just been banned in Europe in an attempt to help the bees.
New research suggests yet another potential contributor to CCD. The problem? We’ve been stealing the bees’ honey and instead feeding them high fructose corn syrup. The problem isn’t so much the fructose as the absence of chemicals in the honey.
Commercial beekeepers feed bees high fructose corn syrup instead of honey for the same reason that commercial food manufacturers feed it to us: it’s cheaper. But it’s only one of the problems the bees face. In the 1980s the varroa mite, Varroa destructor, started attacking bees in the US, so pesticides were introduced into beehives to kill the mites.
When I first saw the headline for these stories, I was skeptical. After all, HFCS has been blamed for everything from cancer to obesity, despite the science indicating its no more harmful than any other form of sugar. However, in this case, the problem really has nothing to do with High Fructose Corn Syrup, but rather is related to the practice of using a honey substitute to feed bees.
High Fructose corn syrup is the most common feed used for bees in the US, since it is cheap and available. Elsewhere, glucose syrup or other sugar syrups are used. The bees produce honey, which is used to feed larva and as a source of stored food for the colony. In nature, this is what the bees would live on. However, since one of the major reasons for keeping bees is to harvest the honey, bee keepers have routinely been removing honey and replacing it with other sugar syrups, allowing more of the valuable honey to be collected.
While the substitute sugar syrups are not themselves harmful, it’s long been established that honey has antimicrobial properties and contains traces of environmental chemicals from the area it is collected. Both of these features can be important, protecting the larva from microbial pathogens and helping build the immune systems of bees. In some ways, this is analogous to the proven benefits of breast milk.
While this hypothesis still remains unproven, it is very much worth considering. Despite the claims that it’s HFCS that is causing the problem, it’s really the absence of honey that is at issue, which is a much more reasonable explanation.