Israeli researchers find what bees can teach humans about dieting

Bees can shift their foraging effort toward resources that complement nutritional deficits, Hebrew University scientists discover.

Bees in their natural habitat (photo credit: DVORAT HATAVOR)
Bees in their natural habitat
(photo credit: DVORAT HATAVOR)
While humans often fail to balance their diets despite expert advice, honeybees are so smart that, according to Hebrew University researchers, they seek out pollen that specifically balances their nutritional deficits and extends their lives.
In recent decades the industrious insects have been threatened by pesticides and pathogens, with reports of decreases in their numbers around the world. As a result, there has been a growing appreciation for the need of bee colonies for balanced nutrition.
As colonies are kept in agricultural areas for crop pollination, they may encounter nutritional deficits when foraging predominantly on one pollen source. In California, for instance, 1.6 million bee colonies are kept every year in almond orchards, despite the risk of low floral diversity, which can reduce the life expectancy of bees.
Because of the challenge that this agricultural intensification poses for pollinator habitats, HU’s Dr. Harmen Hendriksma and Prof. Sharoni Shafir just reported in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology that honeybee colonies are astoundingly resilient under nutritional stress. They found that bees can shift their foraging effort toward resources that complement nutritional deficits.
In their experiment, eight honeybee colonies were kept in screened enclosures and fed pollen substitute diets that were deficient in particular essential amino acids. Subsequently, the bees were tested for their dietary choice, between the same diet previously fed, a different diet that was similarly deficient, or a diet that complemented the deficiency. The foragers preferred the complementary diet over the same or similar diets.
This result shows that honeybee colonies not only attempt to diversify their diet, but they channel their foraging effort toward a diet that specifically balances nutritional deficits of the colony.
How bees perceive and evaluate nutrient composition is not clear, the Jerusalem researchers said. This newfound ability of honeybees to counter deficient nutrition contributes to mechanisms that social insects use to sustain homeostasis at the colony level.
“This research indicates that honeybee colonies strive to balance their nutrition, if appropriate floral resources are available. Bee colonies can benefit by this type of resilience when food options are sparse, for instance at certain sites or in seasons of dearth. Since alternative floral resources can help bees to balance their nutritional needs, this should serve as an incentive for everyone to plant flowers, wherever and whenever they can,” said Hendriksma.
“Our research with bees continues to reveal their remarkable abilities. Honeybee colonies must maintain a balanced diet for optimal health, and bee foragers seem to have evolved the sophisticated ability to bias their efforts towards finding food that balances the colony’s nutritional deficiencies. In so doing they remind us that in nutrition, as in many other things, maintaining the proper balance is key,” said Shafir.