Everybody loves so-called “junk food”, right? Parents and school systems flavor milk and still many children refuse to drink it if they can possibly have juice instead. And they won’t drink juice if there’s soda available. Plain water? Only in the hottest weather, if then, is it a first choice for many of us. We’re even fonder of tinkering with our food – strawberry shortcake gets more takers than fresh berries. The expression “as American as apple pie” says it all. University of North Carolina researchers wondered if the same held true for Apis melaflora, more commonly known as honeybees.
All sugars, when digested by bees, break down. Grass and cane sugars, the kinds found in table sugar and soda, leave carbon 13, unlike the sugars found in pollen. The researchers expected since domesticated bees can learn to use sugar water provided by bee keepers, urban bees, exposed to spilled soda and other sources of grass sugars, would consume the “junk food” by choice. If so, urban bees would produce more carbon 13 than rural bees.
However, it was not so!
“… the researchers found that there was no evidence that urban bees consumed more processed sugar than their rural counterparts. However, domesticated bees did show evidence of consuming significantly more processed sugar than feral bees in both urban and rural environments, which is likely due to beekeepers supplementing their bees’ diet with sugar.”
Bees can learn to eat processed foods, but they seem to prefer natural pollen.
So we know a flower garden will attract more bees than a sloppy deck sticky with soda, although the soda will also feed and attract bees. But why? My first guess was that bees hunted by color, and spilled soda is just not that attractive. I wondered if a can of Coke or Pepsi, which are red and blue, would attract more bees than a green ginger ale, since bees can see red and blue, but not green. However, like the researchers, I had to abandon this idea. For one thing, “Honeybees use scent to locate flowers from a distance.”
Also, bees are not mindlessly drawn to colorful flowers, but can learn to use colors to find their preferred foods. In honeybees, two recent studies have shown that color vision is modifiable with experience for perceptually similar color stimuli.
Bees learn which colors are important and which are not. If bees truly did prefer spilled soda, they would, at least in urban areas, be able to find their preferred food more often.
So it seems that bees do appreciate a colorful garden “table setting” for their meals. But the attraction is as much previous delicious and plentiful food associated with the prettiness as appreciation of the beautiful colors. So by all means, make you bee garden beautiful. But to please the bees, it is even more important to keep the portions large and the food delicious. Sort of like a brunch buffet.