You thought bees were vegetarians?

These bees are arriving with more than vegetables. (Photo: Miksha)

Well, looks like another sacred truth has been shattered. Bees eat beefy little microbes as part of their regular diet. Never again will I stand in front of a class of new beekeepers and implore them to marvel at the wonderful fact that bees get all their nutrition from flowers: carbohydrates from nectar; protein (and vitamins and minerals) from pollen. Apparently, the “meat” of microorganisms also makes up an important part of a bee’s lunch.

I was just getting over the unrelated bacterial facts that (1) our bodies contain ten bacteria for each human cell; and, (2) bacteria thrive in oppressive heat and pressure kilometres below the Earth’s surface. Well, if they are everywhere, and if they exist in nearly infinite numbers, I guess our bees couldn’t avoid eating a few.

But this Scientific American magazine article, reporting on this bit of research, suggests that bees actually need the meat that microbes provide. They seek it out. If you keep bees long enough, you’ll believe almost anything about them. Many of us have seen how a starving colony of honey bees will cannibalize its brood (eating the youngest first). It’s a dirty little secret that we don’t share in public (except on bee blogs). Bees were never strictly vegetarians, and we knew it all along. But bee cannibalism is one of those things we can accept – the brood was going to die anyway and maybe the colony will survive. Sort of like eating the seed corn during a deep famine, or participating in the Donner Expedition. But this latest news is new and unsettling. For me at least.

Dr Dharampal, U of Wisc.

Prarthana Dharampal and Shawn Steffan, both at the Madison branch of the University of Wisconsin, found that bees eat enough microbes to qualify as omnivores – animals that consume both plants and animals. In fact, Dharampal speculates that bees who are collecting pollen may actually be foraging for microbes – a good place to find micro-organisms is pollen. If this theory is substantiated, my head will hurt adjusting to another new reality.

Part of the University of Wisconsin team’s experiments included feeding sterilized pollen to mason bee larvae. A control group of bees received regular, microbe-contaminated pollen. The larvae fed sterile pollen ate the same pollen with its array of lipids and vitamins and minerals, but with none of the ‘germs’. The larvae that were fed the ‘clean’ food soon died.

But wait – there’s more.  Some are speculating that the damage we are unintentionally doing to the environment is killing the nutritious microbes that live on plants that are visited by bees. Is this yet another factor making life unlivable for bees?

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeepingblog.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Diseases and Pests, Ecology, Pesticides, Save the Bees, Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to You thought bees were vegetarians?

  1. While I hadn’t thought about this particular facet before, I did know that we (and plants) cannot absorb the nutrients in our food without a healthy microbiome… (That’s the collective name for all the little critters you’ve been feeling squeamish about, Ron; )
    One (smaller) field that I pass by quite regularly retained that ‘dead’ appearance for several years after its first application (which was obviously an overdose) of RoundUp and, even though it was left fallow for 4-5 years afterward, nothing grew there – not a thing – except a few clumps of Tolerant Dandelion… That piece of property was eventually severed off and houses were built instead… Anyway, this particular piece of land set me to looking at satellite photos of the area and I started to notice what I call a ‘scorched earth’ colour of the soil in farm fields that I knew to be/or have been under cultivation here in southern Ontario with ‘RoundUp Ready’ crops. Have a look, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Great points about scorched earth. Our bodies look the same without our friendly bacteria.
      No – not squeamish at all, just upset that I have to change what I teach. I’m actually quite proud of the ten trillion microbes who have chosen to live inside me. I feed them very well. I’d give them all names if I had time.

      Liked by 1 person

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