April 12, 2012

4 Min Read
HFCS and Colony Collapse Link Unlikely

Douglas J. Peckenpaugh, Community Director of Content/Culinary Editor

Harvard caused quite a stir late last week when it issued a press release outlining the results of a study designed by one of its faculty that purported a link between high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is used as feed for bee colonies, and colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon first noticed in Oct. 2006 that has caused significant losses of honeybees used to pollinate a wide range of crops valued at $15 billion dollars, per USDAs Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). Although farmers have had adequate access to pollinating bee populations to datealbeit at a higher costif CCD grows more widespread, USDA-ARS notes a U.S. food-production crisis could potentially result.

Although researchers have suggested several possible causes for CCDincluding exposure to pesticides, attacks by pathogens and/or parasites, pollution, climate change, and other stressors related to overcrowding and nutritionno definitive conclusions have been drawn. (A UN News Service press release on a CCD report includes a currently definitive list of potential causes.)

In his study, Chensheng (Alex) Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, hypothesizes a connection between HFCS and colony collapse disorder (CCD). The line of reasoning here is that HFCS, which is fed to the bees, is generally contaminated with trace levels of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide used on corn crops. He has also noted that the bees are also exposed to the pesticide via nectar in treated crops.

However, after reviewing Lus paper, John White, Ph.D., president, White Technical Research, wasnt convinced. It certainly is not proven by this study, he says.

Lu and his team spiked samples of HFCS with imidacloprid, fed the samples (containing varying introduced levels of the pesticide) along with unadulterated control samples to colonies of bees, and observed them over a period of time for signs of CCD. As might be predicted, after a study period of 23 weeks, nearly all (94%) of the bees receiving the HFCS spiked with the pesticide had died. Three out of the four controlsthose fed regular HFCS without any spiked pesticidesurvived. The one colony that that didnt survive reportedly showed signs of dysentery unrelated to CCD.

Part of Lus study involved analysis of the various pesticide-spiked samples of HFCS used to feed the bees, including the control sample of regular HFCS that did not have any imidacloprid added. Heres where a major flaw, according to White, revealed itself. They found no pesticide in HFCS, he says. That should have invalidated their hypothesis right there. Their hypothesis was that HFCS produced from corn that has been treated with the pesticide, contains residual pesticide and is killing bees. For that hypothesis to be true, there has to be pesticide in the HFCS. They found none. They succeeded in killing bees, but essentially they poisoned them with the pesticide they added themselves. The HFCS didnt kill any.

Lu wasn't certain that the HFCS used in the study would contain any residual pesticide, and likewise was unsure whether beekeepers would typically use HFCS from this source. We had agreed not to disclose the source of the HFCS, he says. I do not know whether beekeepers would have gotten the HFCS from the same sources. He did note, however, that they used a source of HFCS that they believed was free of pesticide, but couldnt be sure until testing it.

White noted other flaws within the study. They sent people out into the fields to look at the bee colonies periodically, he says. The field observers reported scattered, dead honeybees in front of individual hives on a couple of occasions. And they concludedthey admittedthat this observation was not quite reminiscent of the reported CCD symptoms. So it isnt even clear that the bee deaths they observed were due to CCD.

Finally, the Harvard press release outlining Lus study, claims, Since most U.S.-grown corn has been treated with imidacloprid since 2005, its also found in corn syrup. However, Bayer CropScience, the manufacturers of imidacloprid, have gone on record noting that this statement is inaccurate. The company reports that the pesticide has been used on less than 0.5% of total corn acreage in the United States. The company also reports that their analytical research has not found any detectable level of imidacloprid in field-grown corn samples.

CCD still largely remains a mysteryand research is ongoing. If the bees are in trouble, so are the farmers who depend on them, and the consumers who want fresh produce, said Yul Kwon, host of the PBS series America Revealed, in the April 11 episode, Food Machine, which touched on CCD. Thats a destructive chain-reaction that needs to cease.

For more on the ongoing research into CCD, see Plight of the Honey Bee , which outlines some investigations into parasites that cause zombie-like behavior in the bees.

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