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When beekeepers observe that times are tight and honey is scarce inside the hive, they’ll occasionally feed their bees sucrose or high fructose corn syrup. But due to the rapidly dwindling bee populations, this practice has been questioned. A recent study published in Scientific Reports studied gene expression and diet in bees, and it found considerable differences in gene expression based on bee nutrition.

The experiment was done on foraging bees, which have fewer energy reserves and a higher metabolic rate than bees that are bound to hives. In theory, this would mean that foraging bees are extra sensitive to the specific type of dietary carbohydrate. They were fed diets of either sucrose, honey, or high-fructose corn syrup. Bees have an organ that stores energy called the fat body, which is similar in function to our livers.

As the researchers predicted, significant differences were found in gene expression depending on the type of carb. Bees fed honey showed much different gene expression in their fat body. Overall, the bees fed honey showed significant differences in hundreds of genes from the ones fed the other sugars.

The lead researcher was Dr. Gene Robinson (pun not intended), a professor of entomology and the director of the Institute of Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois. “Our results parallel suggestive findings in humans,” Robinson said. “It seems that in both bees and humans, sugar is not sugar—different carbohydrate sources can act differently in the body.”

It’s highly likely that bees fed honey are healthier than those fed sucrose or high fructose corn syrup—that the expressional differences caused by the latter two sugars are mostly negative. Bees are, after all, evolved to eat mostly honey—and not evolved for the other two sugars. Organisms thrive on foods that their metabolisms are designed to deal with, and their health generally suffers when they stray too far from their evolutionary experience. What is the human metabolism designed for? This is a complicated question for a different day. But one thing we’re not evolved to deal with is the mountains of added sugar (mostly in the form of high fructose corn syrup) that hundred of millions of people across the world are eating on a regular basis.

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