Honey bees - important pollinators of crops around the world - are dying from a mysterious illness, which many scientists blame on a combination of pesticide exposure, parasitic, bacterial and viral diseases, and even poor nutrition.
New research suggests that the honey bees' unique diet plays a vital role in helping the insects withstand a variety of external assaults.
As bees collect pollen and nectar from flowering plants to make honey, they are also ingesting a compound that helps them break down and detoxify pesticides and harmful natural chemicals.
University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum led the study. It identified the compound, p-coumaric acid, which is found in everything the bees eat. It activates the insects' 'detoxification genes,' which create enzymes that begin the cleansing process. Berenbaum calls p-coumaric acid a "signal that tells [the bees'] systems that food is coming in, and with that food, so are potential toxins."
Many commercial beekeepers feed their colonies honey substitutes, such as sugar water. Berenbaum says her research shows that honey is "a rich source of biologically active materials that truly matter to a bee," and she hopes that future testing will lead to a honey substitute that contains p-coumaric acid so beekeepers can enhance the vitality of their hives.