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Fake Gardening News: Bee-lieve it or Not

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture

Here’s an example of how fake gardening news can drive do-gooder behavior with unintended consequences.

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The Honeybee Threat

We’ve heard and read many news posts over recent years about how that honeybees are an endangered species and as a result could potentially put mankind at risk of joining the endangered species club. Causes are typically attributed to global warming, pesticide use, parasites, competition or predation by invasive species, and habitat loss.

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Bees play a role in agriculture as natural pollinators with a type of symbiotic relationship between plants and bees that is undeniably important to mankind—a love triangle if you will. And, as such, we should be deeply invested in maintaining this balance of nature.

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However, that investment in maintaining this balance of nature is often thwarted by what I often like to refer to as “the best laid plans of mice and men…and all that.” So, it came as no surprise while researching some additional material about a new study that discusses using microscopic algae as a potential food source for honey bees, that I came across a lot of internet “how-to” videos on building honeybee feeders.

From what I have gathered, there is interest in helping the news-defined honeybee crisis by putting honeybee feeders in the yard, just like many do for hummingbirds. The idea being that you are giving nature a helping hand by making life easier for the hardworking bee. That’s when my inner “mice and men” BS detector began clanging its alarm.

But first, let’s see what science has to offer.

New Food Source for Bees Study

According to a new study published by Agricultural Research Service scientists in the journal Apidologie, microscopic algae—a type of pond scum—could prove to be a nutrient-complete and sustainable pollen substitute for managed-agriculture bee populations.

Finding a good pollen substitute is important to bee survival during times when natural sources of pollen are decreased. Not only are bees at risk of starving to death, but to a lesser degree can suffer from malnutrition which makes them more susceptible to the aforementioned causes of bee extinction.

What the new research has discovered according to the USDA Agricultural Research Service is that the microalgae known as Arthrospira platensis (a member of the family of blue-green algae commonly called spirulina) has a nutritional profile that closely resembles pollen.

Spirulina grows in fresh water as single-celled organisms that exist individually, in chains and/or in groups. The significance of spirulina is that it is a rich source of essential amino acids and lipids required by bees, with levels matching those found in tested pollen samples. Furthermore, it contains prebiotics that support the growth of healthy gut bacteria in bees.

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In fact, Spirulina is used in human dietary supplements available in capsule, tablet, and powder forms, and has been even been added to certain foods and beverages such as energy bars and smoothies. Spirulina is promoted as a curative for high cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes; as a boost to the immune system; and, is reputedly useful towards improving kidney and liver function. However, there is little or no scientific evidence to back up these reported claims.

The significance of the study is that commercial beekeepers have become increasingly reliant on artificial pollen substitute diets to nourish colonies during periods of pollen scarcity. Those substitute diets typically consist of a variety of ingredients such as soy, yeast, wheat, lentils and milk proteins. However, they can be deficient in essential macronutrients.

"So, the need to scientifically improve the efficacy of pollen substitutes can be considered vital to modern beekeeping and we need to think about how we can do it in a sustainable way," stated Vincent Ricigliano, the lead co-author of the study. "Our work is a pioneering first look into the nutritional and functional properties of a single microalga and how well it corresponds to what is needed in a complete pollen substitute for the honey bee."

One of the other benefits of using algae is that it is relatively easy to grow in shallow ponds, needing only some nutrient salts and sunlight for its culture.

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The next step in the continuation of this study is to ensure that the bees will take to the diet and that it will support colony growth outside of the lab.

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Fake News and Bee Feeders

So, back to my inner “mice and men” BS detector clanging its alarm, the idea of putting bee feeders into your yard might be traced to a Facebook post reputedly made by the renowned English broadcaster, writer, and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. In it, he appears to be recommending feeding sugar water to bees as a “rescue” practice while raising awareness of the theorized link between bee-kind and mankind survival.

Reportedly, this is a myth as pointed out in a Garden Myths blog, but one that is held onto even today as can be seen in so many videos and posts promoting feeding bees with sugar water in bee feeders in yards.

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A supporting blog on beekeeping, points out the following reasons why leaving sugar water outdoors for bees is really a bad idea:

1. Sugar water left out can attract literally thousands of bees and result in a situation you do not want in your backyard.
2. Sugar water is junk food for bees and does not provide the nutrients found in pollen.
3. Sugar water can spread disease among bees.
4. Sugar water also attracts other insects like wasps.
5. Bees may very well neglect their pollinating duties with easily available sugar water to detract them.

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However, this is not to imply that bees should never be given any form of sugar water. Many professional beekeepers do so; but, only as a temporary supplement when starvation is a threat. The caveat is that beekeeping and any practices related to bee health, are best left to the professionals and the educated.

The lesson here is to apply critical thinking when it comes to practices in gardening that seem like a good idea—but in reality, are not. In other words, in this day and age of “fake news”—question everything, do the research, use some common sense, and carry on.

If you have any thoughts about the practice of providing sugar water to bees in your backyard, please let us know in the comments section below.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

References:

Nutritional and prebiotic efficacy of the microalga Arthrospira platensis (spirulina) in honey bees” Ricigliano, V.A., Simone-Finstrom, M.; Apidologie, published: 08 May 2020.

Microalgae Food for Honey Bees” by Kim Kaplan, May 11, 2020; USDA Agricultural Research Service newsletter.

Don’t Feed Sugar Water to Exhausted Bees” the Garden Myths blog.

Why Leaving Out Sugar Water for Bees is Such a Bad Idea” The Little Honey Bee Company blog

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Comments

Dr. Boyer: I enjoy your articles. I just had to comment that I find that your most recent advice, " ...in this day and age of “fake news”—question everything, do the research, use some common sense, and carry on..." applies to much more than just bee keeping! Please keep up the great work! Bill
Thank you Bill. Much appreciated from one wayward son to another. We must all carry on as best as we can.