A recent edition of Scientific American had a wonderful article (and podcast) on the western honeybee. This bee is responsible for much of the commercial pollination (i.e. crops) in the US and many areas of Europe. These bees are generalists. They will pollinate essentially any crop and return to their hives with a high rate of efficiency. This contributes to the high crop yields produced by the agricultural industry today. Commercial bee keepers travel around the country with their hives pollinating one crop after another. Unfortunately, the bees have been disappearing. They are failing to return to the hives when released. They simply disappear. The cause of this is unknown, but has been labeled Colony Collapse Disorder. The usual culprits–fungal infection, parasites, bacterial or viral infection–have not proven the cause. So, what is the problem? No one at this point is sure, but there are a few intriguing possibilities.
Beekeepers feed their hives over the winter, when the bees are not working pollinating crops. Because of its cheaper expense, beekeepers, like processed food manufacturers, have moved away from supporting the bees and the baby bees (grubs) with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) instead of honey. Through amazing bench work, researchers have shown that bees fed HFCS do not activate the same genes as bees fed honey. The HFCS bees do not turn on their immune genes (that is they have less ability to fight off infection) and do not turn on the enzymes needed to break down pesticides (and are more likely to be harmed or killed by pesticides that normally would have no or limited effect). Moreover, the bee bread, the food given to the baby bees, is not the same and may effect bee development. Another possibility is that the bees are suffering from being forced to specialize (in pollinating huge numbers of the same plant) instead of being left generalists (pollinating many different plants, one after another). If this is true, the very thing that leads to use of this particular honey bee is what has caused the problem. While it is likely that there are several factors involved in Colony Collapse Disorder, it is interesting that many seem to point to problems within commercial agricultural (use of HFCS and huge singular crop production) as playing a role in the honey bee problem.