Bee honey’s health benefits make it an underrated superfood

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It’s no surprise that bees know a lot about honey. They are not only producers of honey, they are also consumers, and fairly knowledgeable people. For example, offer a sick bee different varieties of honey and she will choose the one that best fights her infection.

People, on the other hand, have a long way to go when it comes to the nutritional nuances of honey. Just a few decades ago, most lists of “functional foods” – those that offer health benefits beyond basic nutrition – didn’t mention it, says entomologist May Berenbaum. “Even beekeepers – and certainly beekeeping scientists – regarded it as nothing more than sugar water.”

Since then, a lot of research has revealed that honey is full of plant chemicals that affect the health of bees. The components in honey can help bees live longer, increase their tolerance to harsh conditions such as severe cold, and increase their ability to fight infections and heal wounds. The results suggest ways to help bees, which have been hit hard in recent years by pests, pesticide exposure and habitat loss.

“It’s such a remarkable substance, and I think people may not quite like it yet,” says Berenbaum, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It’s delicious on toast or mixed with tea, but honey is more than a sweetener. Certainly, the viscous liquid is mainly sugar, which the members of the hive use for food, but it also contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals and organic molecules which give each honey its uniqueness and confer many benefits. for bee health.

A variety of insects can produce honey – bumblebees, stingless bees, even honey wasps – but only bees (Apis cash) produce enough to fill grocery store shelves. This ability did not happen overnight; it was millions of years in the making.

Bees separated from wasps about 120 million years ago, during an increase in the evolution and spread of flowering plants. This floral diversity, along with a change in the behavior of bees that feed on pollen rather than insects for bee larvae, has spurred the evolution of some 20,000 bee species known today.

Becoming a honey expert took a few more behavioral and chemical tips. The bees began to add some nectar to the pollen, which molded it into more transportable packages. They also developed wax-secreting glands, which provided a way to store liquid nectar and solid pollen separately.

“Wax makes a very flexible building material,” says Christina Grozinger, an entomologist at Penn State University, who studies the mechanisms underlying the social behavior and health of bees. When forming a honeycomb, bees mold the wax into hexagons, which turns out to be the most efficient shape for storing something, as the hexagons pile up tightly together. “It’s a feat of engineering,” says Grozinger.

Another benefit of building many small, uniform cells is that more surface area means water evaporates faster, and less water means less microbial growth.

The process of producing honey that will fill these cells begins as soon as a foraging bee sucks up the nectar. While it may seem like she eats it, the sugary snack doesn’t end up in her stomach, at least not in the traditional sense. She stores it in her crop, or her honey stomach, where it mixes with various enzymes.

One of the first enzymes to work is invertase, which cuts the sucrose molecules in nectar in half, producing the simple sugars glucose and fructose (strangely, research suggests that bees don’t have the genes to make this enzyme. cut of sucrose, a microbe that lives in the guts of bees probably does). Upon returning to the hive, the bee then regurgitates the payload to the first of a bee assembly line. The following mouth-to-mouth water content decreases and introduces more enzymes, processes that continue to break down the nectar and prevent microbes from growing.

The bees then deposit the mixture in a cell of the hive, then evaporate more water by fanning their wings. Another enzyme gets to work, glucose oxidase, which converts some of the glucose into gluconic acid which will help preserve honey. The chemical reaction also lowers the pH – increasing acidity – and produces hydrogen peroxide, which inhibits the growth of microbes but can become toxic at high levels. Even more enzymes, probably provided by pollen and yeast, break down some of the peroxide, controlling its levels.

Finally, the cell is ready to be waxed. The nurse bees will give the processed honey to the other members of the hive and the rest will be stored for cold or rainy days.

A USDA technician harvesting honey from the two colonies at the People’s Garden Apiary on the rooftop of the USDA headquarters Whitten Building in Washington, DC

Lance Cheung

Nectar is what drove Berenbaum to honey, an interest that first flourished in the mid-1990s. She knew nectar was infused with a ton of plant chemicals, called phytochemicals: compounds that deter pests and aid in plant growth and metabolism. She had a hunch that these phytochemicals were coming round when the bees turned the nectar into honey. And if they were, she wanted to know what they could do for the bees.

So Berenbaum began to probe the diversity of chemicals in honey. In 1998, his team discovered that different honeys contained different levels of antioxidants depending on the floral origin of the honey. “It piqued my interest,” she says. His group later found that bees fed sugar water mixed with two phytochemicals in honey – p-coumaric acid and the powerful antioxidant quercetin – tolerated pesticides better than those just given the sugar water. . In addition to this, the bees that received water mixed with phytochemicals lived longer that bees that didn’t, she and her colleagues reported in 2017 in Insects.

Further research has uncovered the effects of additional phytochemicals in honey. Abscisic acid stimulates the immune response of bees, improves wound healing time and tolerance to cold temperatures, studies show. Other phytochemicals mitigate the impact of parasites, one of the main causes of bee decline: for example, giving bees infected with fungi a syrup containing thymol, a phytochemical in thyme plants, reduced by more than half the number of fungal spores. Phytochemicals have even been shown to inhibit the bacteria responsible for European and American foulbrood, the latter being so devastating and contagious that it is recommended to burn entire hives to prevent its spread.

Certain phytochemicals appear to do their job in improving the activity of genes related to detoxification and immunity. When bees are fed nectar phytochemicals such as anabasin, for example, a gene responsible for the production of antimicrobial proteins, a team reported in 2017 in the Journal of Economic Entomology.

And phytochemicals could confer health by keeping happy the microbial communities that live in and on bees: their microbiomes. Caffeine, gallic acid, p-coumaric acid, and kaempferol all improve the diversity and quantity of bee gut microbes, researchers reported last year in the Journal of Applied Microbiology. Healthy gut microbiomes in bees have been linked to lower intensities of multiple parasitic infections.

Bees even choose a variety of honey that improves health when sick. Entomologist Silvio Erler and his team presented four types of honey to bees infected with parasites. “We just gave them the choice,” says Erler, now at the Julius Kühn-Institut in Germany. The sick bees prefer sunflower honey, which was also the best medicine against infection and had the highest antibiotic activity, the team reported in Behavioral ecology and sociobiology.

Despite the boosting immunity and other health benefits of honey, bees are still struggling. American beekeepers lost 45% of their colonies between April 2020 and April 2021, the second-worst year since the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership’s investigation began in 2006. While beekeepers often leave honey in the hive, having a variety of honey seems to matter: research suggests that different honeys, derived from bees foraging on black locust flowers, sunflowers or a mixture of flowers, ward off different types of bacteria.

Erler likens this variety to a drugstore. “We go to the pharmacy… and say we need this for the headache and this for the stomach pain. And at the pharmacy, we have it all together.

But bees can only build their honey pharmacy if the right flowers are available – not just in number and variety, but throughout the growing season, says Berenbaum, who co-wrote an overview of the impact of honey on bee health in the 2021 Annual Entomology Review. This biodiversity is lacking in the large cultivated fields to which bees are shipped each year to pollinate staple foods like almonds, apples, pumpkins and pears.

Improving floral diversity makes bees healthier, says Arathi Seshadri, an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bee Health Lab in Davis, California. And the USDA is pushing landowners to convert sections of cropland into wildlife areas through the conservation reserve program. “Agriculture must continue,” says Seshadri. “But it must also support pollinators. “

Better bee nutrition will not solve all the problems that bees face. But making sure bees have access to their own medicine can help, Erler says. Beekeepers, he suggests, could leave portions of honey from various flowers in the hive so that the bees have a well-stocked honey pharmacy all year round.

And Berenbaum, who started her investigations years ago because she believed honey wasn’t respected enough in research, says the accumulation of knowledge is a step in the right direction. “I’m glad,” she said, “to see this finally attracting attention. “

Berly McCoy is a freelance science writer and producer based in Northwest, Montana.

This article originally appeared in Known magazine October 20, 2021. Known magazine is an independent journalistic business of Annual Reviews, a non-profit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the advancement of science and the good of society. Sign up for Known magazinethe newsletter. “


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