According to Berenbaum, three other honey constituents were effective inducers of these detoxification enzymes. These components probably originate in the tree resins that bees use to make propolis, the “bee glue” which lines all of the cells and seals cracks within a hive.

“Propolis turns on immunity genes – it’s not just an antimicrobial caulk or glue. It may be medicinal, and in fact, people use it medicinally, too,” Berenbaum said.

Many commercial beekeepers use honey substitutes such as high-fructose corn syrup or sugar water to feed their colonies. Berenbaum believes the new research shows that honey is “a rich source of biologically active materials that truly matter to a bee.”

She hopes that future testing and development will yield honey substitutes that contain p-coumaric acid so beekeepers can enhance their bees’ ability to withstand pathogens and pesticides.

Although she doesn’t recommend that beekeepers “rush out and dump p-coumaric acid into their high fructose corn syrup,” she hopes that her team’s research can be used as the basis of future work aimed at improving bee health.

“If I were a beekeeper, I would at least try to give them some honey year-round,” Berenbaum said, “because if you look at the evolutionary history of Apis mellifera, this species did not evolve with high fructose corn syrup. It is clear that honey bees are highly adapted to consuming honey as part of their diet.”

The paper, “Honey constituents up-regulate detoxification and immunity genes in the western honey bee Apis mellifera,” is available online.

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