Scientists Put Bees on the Menu

A study proposes eating pollinators as a sustainable protein source.
(Photo: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)
May 11, 2016· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The next great food crop for small farmers could be...bees?

That’s right, bees. Those little black-and-yellow insects could be a valuable, nutritious, and sustainable food source, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Asia-Pacific Entomology. The study found that bees at all stages of their lives are high in protein, while bee larvae and pupae also contain high levels of fatty acids, carbohydrates, and amino acids. Larvae and pupae also lack wings and exoskeletons, making them easier to prepare.

The paper concludes that harvesting bees not only would provide a sustainable food source, but also could create new income streams for beekeepers, who already sell honey, royal jelly, and other bee products. The bees could be sold whole or ground into powder to be added to other foods, especially during times when bees were not pollinating or producing honey. This, the researchers wrote, would turn bees into a year-round cash crop instead of one that could only generate profit during certain times.

All this might seem a bit unusual to Western taste buds, but bees are a dietary staple in many parts of the world, including Korea, where the study originated.

The study also ties into a growing trend toward eating crickets and other insects as valuable and sustainable sources of protein and nutrients. Insects, many researchers have said, could provide more food at a lower carbon cost than beef or other meats. A 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations includes bees among a long list of edible insects—including moths, beetles, and stinkbugs—that could be important for meeting the world’s need for food and food security. That report didn’t mention edible bees, but it placed high value on honey and other hive products.

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How does the idea of edible bees fit into a world where bee populations have become increasingly threatened? Beekeepers in the United States lost 44 percent of their hives over the past year, according to a study released this week by the Bee Informed Partnership. Well, this study focused on a widespread bee species called the Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica), which probably isn’t at risk. “I'm most concerned about our non-Apis pollinators, in terms of extinction risk,” said Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “I don't think that there is any indication that the honeybee is likely to go extinct, although commercial beekeepers have seen dramatic colony losses in the past couple of decades.”

Still not convinced? The website Girl Meets Bug, which is devoted to edible insects, notes that bee larvae “taste much like mushroomy bacon” and that roasted adult bees can be ground “into nutritious flour.” Author Daniella Martin’s recipe page notes that she primarily eats drone larvae, which have no role in pollination. Interestingly enough, she adds a few drops of honey to her bee larvae recipe, bringing the whole idea full circle.