Honeybee deaths linked to insecticides and high-fructose corn syrup

Honeybee deaths are a growing problem around the world, and according to research both here in Canada and in the United States, the bees may be dying from exposure to a specific insecticide and because they're losing resistance to that insecticide by being fed a diet of high-fructose corn syrup.

Incidences of 'colony collapse disorder' have been linked to diseases, fungi, insecticides and a combination of all three together. According to CBC News, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) is asking farmers to take special care when planting corn this spring. This is because the corn seeds have been treated with an insecticide called neonicotinoid, which studies have shown bees are particularly susceptible to, and if too much of the dust from planting corn gets into the air, this could have a devastating effect on bee populations.

[ Related: Mass honeybee deaths linked to insecticides ]

A report from the federal government's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), released earlier this month, says:

"Between April and June 2012, PMRA received an unusually high number of incident reports of bee losses from across southern Ontario, involving 40 beekeepers and over 200 beeyards, as well as one report from Quebec involving eight beeyards. Timing and location of these incidents coincided with corn planting in major corn-producing regions of the provinces."

"Residues of nitro-guanidine neonicotinoid insecticides used to treat corn seed were detected in approximately 70% of the dead bee samples analysed. On a beeyard basis, these residues were detected in approximately 80% of the Ontario beeyards where dead bee samples were collected and analysed (57 out of 70 yards), and in all Quebec beeyards where dead bee samples were collected (1 yard)."

As reported by CBC News, the government is asking corn farmers to keep local bee keepers informed of when they'll be planting crops. Since bees can range out as far as several kilometres from their hive in search of nectar, knowing that this 'neonicotinoid-contaminated dust' from the corn will be in the air could give the bee-keepers a chance of minimizing any effects from the insecticide. The Ministry report also says that if farmers plant in wet weather, as opposed to dry weather, the dust is less likely to be carried far distances, thus minimizing the risk.

Meanwhile, research out of the University of Illinois has found that there may be a link between these bee deaths and the practice of feeding them high-fructose corn syrup.

This study, led by May Berenbaum, an entomologist with the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, has shown that replacing the bees' natural food sources with substitutes like high-fructose corn syrup are depriving the bees of three key chemicals that help to regulate their immune systems. These ingredients aren't found in nectar, which the HFCS replaces, but are found in pollen — which the bees pick up incidentally in their search for food — and a substance called propolis — which the bees gather from sources like tree sap, and use to line hive cells.

Without these three ingredients, of which one called 'p-Coumaric acid' seems to be the most important according to the research, the bees are apparently more susceptible to insecticides and diseases.

There's an interesting, and perhaps ominous, connection between these two studies that stands out. Neonicotinoid is used to treat corn seeds. There's a strong enough link between this insecticide and bee deaths that the Ontario government is warning farmers to be careful and stay in contact with bee keepers about when they're planting corn. The corn plant absorbs the neonicotinoid and is protected from insects as it grows, and the corn is then taken and turned into high fructose corn syrup, which is used to feed the bees as a nectar replacement. Also, by feeding the bees corn syrup instead of them gathering nectar from flowers, they are being deprived of some necessities that would allow them to better resist the effects of the insecticide.

This connection hasn't gone unnoticed by others. Last April word was going around about it, with articles popping up in like this one in The New Yorker, which sites three different studies into the problem.

[ More Geekquinox: April’s weather may have been cruel, but not unusual ]

There's an oft-used, but likely-misattributed quote that says "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left."

Einstein may or may not have said that (more likely not), but it still illustrates how important bees are to us. Without using insecticides, crop yields would be reduced due to pests, but it seems that if bees completely die off because we're using these insecticides, that poses a risk to the entire crop, rather than just a percentage of it. There really has to be a better way of doing this.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @ygeekquinox on Twitter!