City Bees Forego Fast Food To Feed On Flowers

May 20, 2016

New research from N.C. State indicates most honeybees prefer nectar from flowers, even in areas where sugary liquids are readily available.
Credit David Tarpy

Urban beekeeping is a growing trend, but some scientists have worried bees in the city might turn to processed sugars for food.

N.C. State researcher Clint Penick was inspired to study urban bee diets by reports of bees feeding on soda, syrup, or even half-empty lattes.

“In cities, there's been a lot of anecdotal reports that bees are actually feeding on our foods, our old soda and sugar syrup in litter or in garbage bins,” Penick said.

To investigate this, Penick compared the diets of honeybees around the Triangle by analyzing carbon isotopes in rural and urban bee populations. To his surprise, he found bees in mid-size cities like Raleigh and Durham aren't drawn to sugary sodas. Instead, they get the bulk of their food from flower nectar. 

“We found no evidence that bees in the downtown areas were eating human food,” Penick said. “In fact, they were eating basically the same amount of flower nectar that bees would be consuming in these forested areas.”

This is good news for urban beekeepers, as it means their bees are healthier, and the honey they produce is not likely to be contaminated with residue or bacteria from garbage.

It also shows there are enough flowers in mid-size cities like Raleigh to support flourishing hives, according to Penick, though researchers have yet to determine if that holds true for larger cities with less green space.

Ultimately, he said the findings should encourage more urban beekeeping, and more planting of pollinator-friendly flowers and trees.

The research was published in the Journal of Urban Ecology.