Impacts of hydrogen peroxide on honey bee foraging preferences

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are an iconic species in the United States known for their distinctive appearance, production of honey and unique social structure that prioritizes the wellbeing of the group as a whole rather than as individuals. This unusual approach to survival results in honey bees investing in group immunity rather than individual immunity, which can leave them more vulnerable to parasites and has contributed to the decline of honey bee populations in recent years. With many agricultural systems relying on honey bees for pollination services, CEID researchers are investigating the mechanisms used by honey bees to achieve group immunity.

One essential method used to achieve protection from parasites is through the honey bees’ production of hydrogen peroxide, a chemical compound that can prevent the establishment of  some parasites in their food stores. This production can be costly to the bee, but hydrogen peroxide is naturally available in the form of glucose oxidase in nectar and other foods consumed by the bees. The process of synthesizing hydrogen peroxide from glucose oxidase has some researchers questioning if a diet supplemented with hydrogen peroxide would be preferred by the honey bees.

A new study, led by CEID postdoctoral researcher Dr. Lewis Bartlett, aimed to decipher if honey bees show a preference for food based on its hydrogen peroxide content. To do this, bees from three different colonies were given access to sugar solutions containing varying concentrations of hydrogen peroxide.

Bartlett and his research team hypothesized that honey bees would prefer to feed on the solutions with a similar amount of hydrogen peroxide as is naturally found in honey. They also believed the honey bees would avoid solutions with high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide that surpassed their tolerance threshold. However, the research team found that the honey bees avoided the nectar solutions supplemented with hydrogen peroxide and instead tended to consume the control solutions, which contained no hydrogen peroxide.

An aversion to hydrogen peroxide consumption may indicate that honey bees are potentially unable to detect the presence of hydrogen peroxide, or that they actively avoid it once it is detected. Interestingly, the researchers found that when the bees choose to consume solutions supplemented with hydrogen peroxide, they preferred those with higher concentrations. This may be because these solutions provide the most hydrogen peroxide for the bee with the least amount of consumption.The results of this study indicate that the interactions between honey bees and hydrogen peroxide are likely complex, dynamic and require further investigation to explore the tolerance and potential avoidance of hydrogen peroxide. For more information about this study, click here.

by Amanda Budd