Friday, May 10, 2013

The bee thing.

When I'm in the kitchen baking my weekly loaf of bread, one of the podcasts that I often listen to is the Science Magazine podcast. One of the presenters continually makes "ah" noises when she listens to people explaining things, which is annoying, but apart from that it's pretty good listening.

This week the had a short segment on bees that led me to this PNAS paper. Bees, as you will probably be aware are suffering a decline in numbers. A decline that will potentially cause a significant impact on agriculture. The cause of this decline has for a long time, not been understood. Which hasn't stopped large numbers of people dispersing whackadoodle theories on facebook sadly.

Recently though, there have been indications that neonicotinoid insecticide may be a contributing factor to the problem. Which is unfortunate because neonicotinoid insecticides work quite well are are quite widespread. It's sufficiently serious that the EU is moving to ban them though. The recent PNAS study casts an interesting light on the matter though. Honey, as we all know is packed with good stuff. The interesting (and obvious in hindsight) is that some of the good stuff in honey helps the bees rudimentary immune system remove unwanted substances from their bodies. There is a compound called p-coumaric acid which is a component of pollen cell walls, which up regulates  genes that deal with the removal of unwanted chemicals, as well increasing the activity of a while bunch of antimicrobial peptide genes.
Something similar becomes evident when you look at the bees diet. A varied diet is required for bees to produce sufficient amounts of a hormone called glucose oxidase - used to sterilise the food fed to larvae. 

You might not think much of this given that bees have lots of honey. The problem being that commercially farmed bees (is farmed the right word there? hrrmm) don't get that much honey - the beekeepers take their honey and replace it with sugar syrup. And while sugar syrup might give the bees sufficient calories to stay alive, it doesn't have the compounds which help the bees immune system.

So while the neonicotinoid insecticides probably aren't helping, at the same time that we're dosing them with the insecticide, we're removing their ability to cope with it. Bees feeding largely on a single crop in mono-culture heartland, I imagine probably fare even worse.

It demonstrates quite nicely I think, that the quick, obvious answers are not always right. Or at least not always right for the reasons that we think we are. And that is important because that can influence how we deal with said problems. All in all, an interesting, important and nuanced problem. And one more reason to hide the feed of the next person who posts some unsubstantiated claim about power lines or cell phone towers being responsible for bees disappearing on my news feed.