BEE SHOP – Keeping life sweet: protecting the purity of one of our oldest foods
Honey has been a part of human life since ancient times. Cave paintings in Valencia,
in Spain, suggest that humans hunted for honey at least 10,000 years ago. Ancient
Egyptians used honey to embalm the dead, and traces have even been found in the
tomb of Tutankhamun.
For all this, honey in the 21st century faces some serious threats – in spite of a range of European and national regulations designed to control its quality.
Increasing environmental pollution, together with the widespread use of chemicals in agriculture, is affecting the nectar foraged by honeybees, putting the honey itself at risk of pollution. At the same time, the use of chemicals to treat honeybee diseases puts honey at risk of contamination by toxic substances.
It was to address these threats that the BEE SHOP project was set up in 2006, bringing together nine leading European honeybee research groups. With nearly € 2 million of funding provided under the Food Safety and Quality theme of the EU's 6th Framework Programme, the project was designed to pool the expertise of the research groups across a range of specialist areas including honey quality, pathology, genetics and honeybee behaviour.
The overriding aim of the consortium was to ensure honey quality by reducing the potential sources of contamination, whether these arose from bees foraging in nectar contaminated with insecticide, or from the chemicals used to treat honeybee disease.
In the words of BEE Shops' co-ordinator, Professor Robin Moritz of Martin-Luther-University in Halle, Germany: "Since there is an increase in honeybee diseases, novel chemotherapies have been developed. Typically, most bees are susceptible to diseases, but there may be strains that are less susceptible and we are in search of these."
Against this background, one of BEE Shops' most ambitious intentions was to start the process of completely eliminating the need for chemicals to treat and control honeybee disease.
One innovative result of the project's work was the development of molecular tools for the selection of disease resistant colonies – an advance made possible by the completion of the sequencing of the honeybee genome. Since individual genes control specific disease resistance in honeybees, the ability to select stock, together with methods to control mating, should now enable this ambition to be realised.
In parallel with this, BEE-SHOP researchers also identified behavioural and physiological mechanisms in bees, in order to help control the way in which they forage for nectar and so avoid contaminated nectar sources. Other initiatives included the investigation of pathogens affecting honeybees – in particular their virulence and their transmission pathways, as well as the resistance levels of different honeybee strains.
By significantly adding to our understanding of honeybees' behaviour, disease patterns and genetic characteristics, the three and a half year BEE SHOP project undoubtedly made a major contribution to the goal of preserving the quality of European honey. This is of direct benefit not only to all consumers, but also to Europe's honey producers.
Thanks to BEE SHOP, the future one of the oldest foodstuffs known to humanity looks secure. For Europe's honeybees, honey producers and consumers, life will continue to be sweet.