A fair share for the bees

The complexities of honey.
Jacob Schor ND, FABNO

A new study that identified new compounds in honey that help bees fight infection, adds to our understanding of honey's complexity and may help explain honey bee collapse syndrome.

Honey has many properties unexplained by its basic ingredients, glucose and fructose. This new study identifies the action of a chemical that helps bees fight infections and deal with environmental toxins.

In the April 29th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May Berenbaum reported, “… that constituents found in honey, including p-coumaric acid, pinocembrin, and pinobanksin 5-methyl ether, specifically induce detoxification genes.” That is exposure to these chemicals turns on the genes in the cell that regulate the elimination of toxic compounds. These chemicals are found in flower nectar and in the pollen and propolis. Honey bees collect and store flower pollen along with flower nectar, which they concentrate and process into honey.

This is significant as it is common practice to feed honeybee's sugar water after the honey is taken from their hive by the beekeeper. Sugar of course is cheaper than honey. Feeding sugar may have its drawbacks. Without these little chemicals from the honey, the bees may be more susceptible to poisoning from pesticides used to treat the field that they are pollinating. Adding one of these chemicals, p-coumaric acid to a sucrose diet increased the breakdown of coumaphos, a chemical used to kill mites in bee hives, by approximately 60%. [1]

Bees fed sugar solutions may not be able to break down pesticides as effectively as those living on honey. Bees encounter a lot of pesticides in their workday. A 2010 survey found bees are exposed to 121 different pesticides.

P-coumaric acid is found primarily in the pollen that bees collect for food and propolis that bees to gather to use as "construction glue." P-coumaric acid up-regulates all classes of detoxification genes as well as select antimicrobial peptide genes.

These details bring up a list of interesting thoughts.

First, this may explain colony collapse disorder. As the practice of feeding commercial bees sugar syrup has become widespread, bees have become more susceptible to a range of infections and pesticides. Perhaps we need to leave them a bit more honey and pollen? Perhaps we can still steal all their honey if we add some of these chemicals into the sugar syrup?

Being the self-absorbed species that we are, we must ask “What's in it for us?” There must be some way that we can use this knowledge for our own benefit. Pollen and propolis have a long history of medical use of course, as does honey. Does p-coumaric acid have a similar effect in people as it does in insects?

Ferguson reported in 2005 that p-coumaric acid has the ability to affect cytochrome p450 1a enzymes and down regulate cox-2 enzymes. These actions are comparable to curcumin in strength. It has been proposed that the actions of p-coumaric acid may explain why diets high in plant foods, good sources of this substance, reduce risk of colon cancer.[2]

A 2011 paper from south Korea tells us that topical application of p-coumaric acid prevents melanogenesis from ultraviolet radiation. That's fancy talk for preventing sunburn. Application of a cream containing p-courmaric acid twice a day for a week reduced redness by a third and subsequent pigmentation by 77%.[3] It shouldn't surprise us that extracts made from honeybee propolis have a similar impact, protecting against UV damage.[4] Thus we might consider p-coumaric as a possible treatment for skin hyperpigmentation disorders. [5] Propolis extracts are reported to prevent skin cancer formation in mice smeared with carcinogenic chemicals. [6]

Of course this leads to wondering if this stuff that seems to target melanocytes and has anticancer action could possibly be useful in treating melanoma?

A 2006 report tells us that, at least in rats, p-coumaric acid blocks gluconeogenesis, that is inhibits the liver from making glucose and raising blood sugar levels. [7] That's interesting. Makes one wonder if this will help in diabetes? In a study that measured the blood sugar lowering action of cranberries, p-coumaric acid, along with quercetin, were the two major polyphenols present in the berry and it is assumed one or both may be responsible for the sugar lowering action.[8]

Anti-diabetic action? From honey? Well honeybee collected pollen and propolis to be more exact. But honey does contain p-coumaric acid and this may in part explain the positive effect honey has on diabetes that we described last winter. Some of you will want that citation. I believe it was Abdulrhman 2013.[9]

One thing leads to another and we must question what p-coumaric acid is really doing that it has so many interesting effects.

Well just this past March Yoon et al reported that p-coumaric acid is an AMPK activator. For those of you who don't memorize these sorts of words, this is big news. AMPK activation of late feels like the Holy Grail of cancer care. This is what the diabetic drug metformin triggers. [10] If AMPK is activated then we could expect some other similar effects to metformin. Will p-coumaric acid also be useful in treating metabolic syndrome?

It looks like it. A March 2013 reported propolis was useful in treating insulin resistance in rats. [11]

So where does this all leave us? Obviously we should have a new appreciation for bee pollen and propolis. Perhaps this information provides a way to prevent colony collapse disorder. The commercial approach might be to enrich the sugar water bees are fed with p-coumaric acid. A more wholesome and attractive method might be to simply leave the bees their fair share of their own honey to eat. What will they call it on the label? Fair-share honey?


1. Mao W, Schuler MA, Berenbaum MR. Honey constituents up-regulate detoxification and immunity genes in the western honey bee Apis mellifera. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Apr 29. [Epub ahead of print]

2. Ferguson LR, Zhu ST, Harris PJ. Antioxidant and antigenotoxic effects of plant cell wall hydroxycinnamic acids in cultured HT-29 cells. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2005 Jun;49(6):585-93.

3. Seo YK, Kim SJ, Boo YC, Baek JH, Lee SH, Koh JS. Effects of p-coumaric acid on erythema and pigmentation of human skin exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2011 Apr;36(3):260-6.

4. Cole N, Sou PW, Ngo A, Tsang KH, Severino JA, Arun SJ, Duke CC, Reeve VE. Topical 'Sydney' propolis protects against UV-radiation-induced inflammation, lipid peroxidation and immune suppression in mouse skin. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 2010;152(2):8

5. Biol Pharm Bull. 2011;34(3):420-5.
Dimeric cinnamoylamide derivatives as inhibitors of melanogenesis.
Criton M, Le Mellay-Hamon V.

6. Mitamura T, Matsuno T, Sakamoto S, Maemura M, Kudo H, Suzuki S, Kuwa K, Yoshimura S, Sassa S, Nakayama T, Nagasawa H. Effects of a new clerodane diterpenoid isolated from propolis on chemically induced skin tumors in mice.
Anticancer Res. 1996 Sep-Oct;16(5A):2669-72.

7. Constantin J. Metabolic effects of p-coumaric acid in the perfused rat liver.
J Biochem Mol Toxicol. 2006;20(1):18-26.

8. Pinto Mda S, Ghaedian R, Shinde R, Shetty K. Potential of cranberry powder for management of hyperglycemia using in vitro models. J Med Food. 2010 Oct;13(5):1036-44. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2009.0225.

9. Abdulrhman M, El Hefnawy M, Ali R, Abdel Hamid I, Abou El-Goud A, Refai D Effects of honey, sucrose and glucose on blood glucose and C-peptide in patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2013 Feb;19(1):15-9.

10. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2013 Mar 22;432(4):553-7. doi: 10.1016/j.bbrc.2013.02.067. Epub 2013 Feb 26.
p-Coumaric acid modulates glucose and lipid metabolism via AMP-activated protein kinase in L6 skeletal muscle cells.
Yoon SA, Kang SI, Shin HS, Kang SW, Kim JH, Ko HC, Kim SJ.

11. Aoi W, Hosogi S, Niisato N, Yokoyama N, Hayata H, Miyazaki H, Kusuzaki K, Fukuda T, Fukui M, Nakamura N, Marunaka Y. Improvement of insulin resistance, blood pressure and interstitial pH in early developmental stage of insulin resistance in OLETF rats by intake of propolis extracts. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2013 Mar 22;432(4):650-3.