Study shows bees prefer healthy eats over fast food

Study shows bees prefer healthy eats over fast food

Honeybees apparently instinctively go for a balanced diet – and the data could offer some clues on Colony Collapse Disorder

Honey bee workers collecting artificial pollen diets from a feeding dish. (Credit: Harmen, P Hendriksma)
Honey bee workers collecting artificial pollen diets from a feeding dish. (Credit: Harmen, P Hendriksma)

Honeybees have been found to seek out a diverse diet consisting of a variety of pollen and nectar that provide them with the full array of proteins and other needed nutrients. When they suffer a lack of nutrients, bees go out looking for the food they need to restore their nutritional balance.

Researchers at Hebrew University came to that conclusion after studying honeybee colonies that were put on unhealthy diets, and then let loose to see what they would do. The result: Bees sought out plants and flowers that helped give them a balanced diet, restoring the nutrients they had been denied while inside a netted cage.

Research on the matter was published this week in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology by Dr. Harmen Hendriksma and Prof. Sharoni Shafir of Hebrew University, who studied the behavior of bees in eight colonies in order to determine whether there was a connection between nutrition issues and the precipitous decline in the world’s bee population.

There are many theories to explain the ongoing reduction of the bee population – known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – with some pointing to increased use of pesticides, and others to the proliferation of genetically modified crops.

A new, developing theory involves what bees eat. In recent years, scientists have begun analyzing bee diets in order to determine if there is a relationship between bee diets and the amount of honey they can make (worldwide honey production has been in constant decline for the past five years), as well as whether nutrition issues can provide a clue to CCD.

Of particular concern to scientists studying bee nutrition is that many bees are raised in areas where single cash crops are raised. Beekeepers in California almond country, for example, raise 1.6 million bee colonies every year. Almond flower pollen supplies many nutrients bees need, but not all. Studies have shown that when they are exposed to a “low floral diversity diet,” bees tend to have a shorter life span – meaning nutrition issues could be connected to CCD.

But that does not appear to be the case, because bees are apparently sensible enough to realize that they need more food sources.

In the experiment, eight honeybee colonies were kept in screened enclosures and fed pollen substitute diets that were deficient in particular essential amino acids. The bees were then let loose and given a choice of three diets – the same as the poor diet they had been fed, one deficient in other ways, or one that provided the nutrients they were missing.

How the bees did it is a mystery, but in each case, they chose the right diet needed to restore nutritional balance when they were given a foraging opportunity.

Obviously much more research is needed – but the initial findings provide researchers with some new information on how to keep honeybees nutritionally “fit,” as well as perhaps help in efforts to stem CCD.

“This research indicates that honey bee colonies strive to balance their nutrition if appropriate floral resources are available,” said Dr. Harmen Hendriksma. “Bee colonies can benefit by this type of resilience when food options are sparse, for instance at certain sites or in seasons of dearth. Since alternative floral resources can help bees to balance their nutritional needs, this should serve as an incentive for everyone to plant flowers, wherever and whenever they can.”

“Our research with bees continues to reveal their remarkable abilities,” added Prof. Sharoni Shafir. “Honey bee colonies must maintain a balanced diet for optimal health, and bee foragers seem to have evolved the sophisticated ability to bias their efforts towards finding food that balances the colony’s nutritional deficiencies. In so doing they remind us that in nutrition, as in many other things, maintaining the proper balance is key.”

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