If you haven’t heard, the Purina company is marketing a new protein supplement for honey bees, called Hearty Bee. The ingredients include something called “spray dried poultry blood,” which may sound unsettling. Since my mail is running strongly against feeding animal blood to vegetarian bees, I decided to look at the issue more carefully.
Rewriting the menu
The truth is, bees are basically vegetarian, just like wasps are basically carnivores. But the operative word is “basically.” Wasps also drink nectar and bees also eat meat.
For example, honey bee workers are known to cannibalize certain larvae within their own hive. The term beekeepers use for this practice is “reabsorb”—a dainty substitute for eat. Munch. Scarf. Swallow.
When worker bees find diploid drone larvae in the brood nest, they eat them. From a biological point of view, this prevents the workers from spending a lot of time and energy feeding a drone that will be sterile. Instead, it takes the nutrients already spent on those larvae and reuses them as food.
Similarly, when the queen lays more eggs than the workforce can care for, the eggs are sometimes eaten by the workers. Eggs are full of protein and it doesn’t make sense for the colony to waste those valuable nutrients.
Carnivores are actually common in the bee world. Many species of cleptoparasitic bees eat the brood of other bees. They enter a bee’s nest, lay their eggs on the pollen ball collected by the homeowner, and sometimes eat any eggs or larvae found in the nursery. Bees are survivors, so they do what’s necessary.
The beverage bar
It is also well known that honey bees prefer water that has an odor. Bees are frequently attracted to pools with chlorine or salt. They like mossy bird baths and slimy stones. Many believe that the bees find these water sources by smell rather than sight. In addition, water with an odor probably contains nutrients the colony requires.
Regardless of the reason for selecting the liquids they do, honey bees are not picky. If you watch carefully, you can see honey bees drinking dog urine or the liquid oozing from fish guts and cow pies. Even slimy pond water has plenty of animal life in it, both dead and alive. Honey bees simply don’t have strict definitions for human concepts like “vegetarian.”
The source of the protein
Because honey bees have these flexible definitions, blood from an animal is probably not such a terrible thing in the bee diet. More to the point is whether bird blood is good for bees.
Although we often speak of the protein content of foods, it’s more telling to look at the amino acid content. Proteins are made from strings of amino acids. When an animal needs a certain protein, it can take the amino acids it ate and string them together to build the protein. Even more awesome, if an animal eats one protein, it can take it apart and re-string the amino acids to make a different protein—the one it actually needs. Conceptually, it’s a bit like Legos.
Animals can manufacture many of the amino acids they need, but some must be consumed. So when looking at a honey bee winter supplement, we need to consider the amino acids the bee can’t produce herself. These “must eat” amino acids are called essential. In other words, they are an essential part of the diet.
I don’t recall exactly how many amino acids are essential for honey bees, but I think it’s about 10. The manufacturers of winter supplements do a good job of making sure these are all well-represented in their products, so I don’t spend a lot of time checking up on them.
Contaminants are everywhere
Although I haven’t studied it, I’m sure bird blood is a fine source of amino acids. But still, you may question the unknown components.
For example, might it contain antibiotics? I’ve read that poultry are still fed antibiotics, especially in the first day or two of life. Could these become concentrated in the dry blood? And how about antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Some articles say antibiotic resistant-bacteria is common in poultry. Can the spores reside in dried blood? And if so, does it matter? I simply don’t know the answers to these questions, nor do I know if they are important.
However, I do know that the natural bee diet is loaded with contaminants. We know, for example, that pollen is laced with all sorts of pesticides. Are these more acceptable than whatever might be in poultry blood? Who knows? My point is simply that in our modern world, contaminants are everywhere. We can’t keep ourselves or our bees free from them. Instead, we manage. Evaluate. Decide.
A product for commercial bees
I admit my first reaction was “Yuck.” But after thinking about it for a while, I’m okay with it. Reports from those who’ve tried it are mixed. Some like it, some say the powder is too finely ground.
Purina was offering free samples to large operations—those with at least 1000 hives. To me, that indicates that commercial beekeepers are the target audience for this new product. I suspect that they knew commercial beekeepers would be more open to this particular protein source and, sure enough, that seems to be borne out when I compare comments from large operations (it’s fine) to hobbyists (it’s a terrible idea).
If it helps, why not?
Personally, I’m not going to run out and buy Hearty Bee, but I’m a hobbiest and tend to be a little soft in the head about my bees. But you never know. This could be a product that answers some of the health issues our bees are facing. If it helps honey bees, that’s a good thing. If it doesn’t, both beekeepers and manufacturers will move on to something else.
To me, it’s a bit disingenuous to fret about chicken blood while at the same time we ply or bees with formic acid and thymol, gas them with oxalic acid vapors, or spike their hives with commercial pesticides. Compared to that raft of chemicals, chicken blood is not even on the radar.
Honey Bee Suite