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Are Monsanto and High-Fructose Corn Syrup to Blame for Honeybee Disappearances?

By Brian Stoffel - Mar 2, 2014 at 1:35PM

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The answer is more nuanced than you might think.

Perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised when we fundamentally change the way certain species have been living for eons, and then suffer in unpredictable ways.

In 2006, industrial honey producers started reporting that entire colonies of Western honeybees were disappearing. The phenomenon later became known as colony collapse disorder.

The disappearance of these bees is of vital importance for us humans, as many plants that we eat every day depend on honeybees for pollination. While some studies say the problem isn't nearly as serious as some may think, most of the focus has gone toward blaming companies producing agricultural herbicides and pesticides, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow Chemical.

But a new study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is painting a more nuanced picture of how and why these colony collapses might be taking place, and the blame isn't being placed entirely on the usual suspects.

First, a little history
When we take honey from bee colonies, we are taking much of the food they'll eat during the winter months. Some hobbyists like to leave enough honey in a hive to guarantee the bees can get by though the winter, but most commercial operators remove the honey, sell it, and replace it with high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS.

Back in the 1970s, studies were done to see if this was a safe practice, and the industry was given the go-ahead. But the most recent study seems to have uncovered what scientists may have missed 30 years ago.

HFCS and honey: a key difference
It isn't so much that high-fructose corn syrup is inherently bad for bees -- or even that it kills them -- but that it lacks the same enzymatic make-up of honey.

When those enzymes aren't present, they don't interact with some of the pollen the bees bring back, which -- when mixed together -- induces specific detoxification genes. These genes help create natural immunity to some of the toxins present in herbicides and pesticides that many predict are responsible for the disappearance of bees.

In essence, the researchers are saying that though the chemicals are still the likely culprits for the demise of certain honeybee colonies, it is the lack of natural immunity -- via HFCS replacement -- that is really to blame.

How could this affect different businesses?
While some may say this is bad news for Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, two of the largest producers of HFCS, I don't think the volume of HFCS provided just for honeybees would be significant enough to cause alarm.

The group this most likely will affect will be honey producers themselves. Having already dealt with colony collapse disorder, if more evidence comes forward supporting the ill-effects of HFCS, they could be forced to leave honey for bees to eat. This would turn the economics of the business upside down, and make it far less profitable.

The most likely scenario would be that honey producers turn to the scientific community to come up with a solution that is cheap and allows for extraction of honey, but doesn't disrupt the delicate enzymatic make-up that provides bees with their natural immunity.

The scary thing is that tests may prove this to be possible, only to have our kids find out 30 years later -- once again -- that there was something we missed.

Sometimes, it's pretty difficult to outsmart Mother Nature.

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