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Eating Honey Protects Bees

Molecules in honey help guard bees from pesticides

by Sarah Everts
May 6, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 18

As declining honeybee populations threaten crop pollination, much attention has focused on commercial pesticides and bee pathogens as causative agents for bee death. Now researchers report that four molecules found in honey can activate the production of enzymes that break down pesticides and kick-start the bee immune system (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1303884110). The team of scientists, led by May R. Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, notes that some apiculturists feed bees honey substitutes such as high-fructose corn syrup. This practice “may thus compromise the ability of honeybees to cope with pesticides and pathogens and contribute to colony losses,” the researchers note. They extracted p-coumaric acid, pinocembrin, pinobanksin, and pinobanksin 5-methyl ether from honey. Then they studied gene expression in bees consuming those compounds. In addition to boosting expression of two immunity genes, p-coumaric acid increased by 60% the bees’ metabolism of coumaphos, a pesticide commonly used by apiculturists against mites. “p-Coumaric acid is ubiquitous in the natural diet of honeybees and may function as a nutraceutical, regulating immune and detoxification processes,” they note.


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