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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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HONEY BEES -- MORE THAN JUST HONEY

FDA Veterinarian Newsletter March/April 1998 Volume XIII, No II

This information was presented in a seminar at CVM's Animal Research Center by Ann Harman, a certified Master Bee Keeper. Mrs. Harman is retired from the National Bureau of Standards, and currently participates as a volunteer in the Overseas Cooperative Assistance Program to access the possibility of expanding apiculture in foreign countries as a viable agricultural market.

Honey is a natural, pure food product that is produced by bees in the United States as well as other countries around the world. Honey bees are extremely intelligent and productive little insects which thrive in colonies of 20,000 to 60,000 bees. The chemistry of the honey bee colony uniquely controls the number and activities of the individuals. Beekeepers maintain colonies in wooden hives which can be transported to field sites for the pollination of food crops and the collection of honey. The primary use of the honey bee is actually for pollination of crops rather than the production of honey. One-third of our food supply is dependent, either directly or indirectly, on the honey bee. Almost no wild bees are left at this time, and growers are having difficulty finding enough beekeeper-managed colonies for pollination.

The products of the hive fall into two groups: plant products, which are substances produced by plants and simply collected by the bees with little or no change in composition, and products of the bee. The plant products are honey, pollen, and propolis. The products of the bee are beeswax, royal jelly and venom. Honey is the bees' carbohydrate food; pollen provides protein, vitamins and minerals in the bees' diet; propolis is plant resins gathered by the bee for caulking and waterproofing. Beeswax is turned into honeycomb for the storage of food and cells for raising bees; royal jelly is the food for the developing larvae and for the queen; venom makes an effective defense of the colony for its food and young. The number of chemical compounds contained in these products is very large and quite varied.

To produce honey, the bees visit flowers to obtain nectar, a dilute sugar (sucrose) solution. During transport to the hive the bees add an enzyme, invertase, to convert the sugar to the simple sugars of glucose and fructose. The bees then simply evaporate water from the nectar and when the concentration reaches about 18.6 percent water it can be considered honey. At this point the honey is capped with beeswax. The plants used by the bee are responsible for the characteristic colors and flavors of honey.

Contamination of honey can occur in several ways:

  1. Spraying field crops with pesticides
  2. Microencapsulated pesticides used on field crops
  3. Medicines used by the beekeeper

Pesticides are usually lethal to the bees thus preventing them from contaminating the honey.

Unfortunately, two parasites are causing the death of bee colonies. These are tracheal and varroa mites. The mites can be kept in check through the use of medicines. Although these may be thought of as a source of contamination, good beekeeping practice should prevent that. For tracheal mites, menthol is used once a year, but menthol is present in many honeys, principally those from the very common mint family blossoms. Grease patties, made from granulated sugar and Crisco are used year-round but these are considered trash by the bees and removed from the hive, never stored as honey is stored. For Varroa mites, a twice-a-year treatment with fluvalinate-impregnated plastic is used. This is a contact miticide that is most effective in late autumn after nectar gathering has ceased. A second treatment can occur in early spring before surplus honey is being stored.

The only other medication used for bees is oxytetracycline. The commercial formulation is "Terramycin" which is normally used for treating domestic animals. For bee colonies affected by American foulbrood, Terramycin is a useful method of control, but does not provide a cure for this devastating disease of honey bees. The bee hive should not be medicated during the summer months when honey is being produced and stored in the honeycomb.