Sweet Detoxification: P-Coumaric Acid

Thanks to a compound on pollen called p-coumaric acid, honey triggers honeybees’ ability to detoxify in a way that substitute sugar feeds can’t.

| July/August 2013

Honey may be one of life’s simple pleasures, but honeybees have an extra reason to love the sweet stuff, writes Susan Milius in ScienceNews (April 29, 2013). A recent study confirms what bee specialists have observed in the field for some time: honey triggers bees’ internal defenses. The study, led by entomologist May Berenbaum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that compounds in honey, specifically p-coumaric acid, activate genes involved in making detoxifying chemicals and antimicrobial agents.

Spring through fall, honeybees come into contact with p-coumaric acid regularly—it’s part of the coating on pollen grains. Honey contains it as well, but sugary substitutes (typically high-fructose corn syrup) and protein supplements fed to bees by commercial keepers in winter don’t, explaining why colony resilience drops in that season.

“Honeybees these days have plenty to detoxify,” notes Millius. “121 pesticides and their breakdown products showed up in a 2010 survey of honeybees and their hives in 23 states and one Canadian province.”

Berenbaum warns against attempting to add p-coumaric acid to the bees’ diets. Research is still fresh and it’s just one compound they are looking at. The implication, she suggests, is that it’s time to reexamine the practice of wintering bees on artificial diets.