Do bees in urban settings eat differently than their country counterparts? With increased urbanization and fewer places to forage naturally, would the city slickers feast more readily on processed-sugar junk foods than on the nectar of flowers?
Those were the questions underpinning a new study out of North Carolina State University just published in the Journal of Urban Ecology.
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To get some answers, N.C. State researchers gathered worker honey bees from colonies in both urban and rural areas within 30 miles of Raleigh, N.C. All told, they collected bees from 39 colonies – 24 run by beekeepers and 15 that were wild.
To gauge how much of the bees' diet came from processed sugars vs. flower nectar, the scientists studied them for their levels of carbon-13, an isotope whose presence in their bodies would indicate how much human food each bee was taking in.
It turned out that the scientists were in for a surprise.
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The researchers say they turned up no evidence that urban bees had consumed more processed sugar than their rural counterparts.
"Basically, bees are relying on flowers in cities and are not turning to human foods to supplement their diet," Clint Penick, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
"This is good news for urban beekeepers," he said. "The honey in their hives is mostly coming from flower nectar and not old soda, which is what we originally guessed."
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The finding, the research team wrote, "suggests an important role for urban flowers and green spaces in maintaining healthy pollinator populations in cities."
Penick said further study would be needed to test if their results would apply to cities much larger than Raleigh, which is mid-sized, at just under 440,000 residents.