A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Do bees poop in their honey?

March 23, 2010

Dear Straight Dope:

As a honey buff, I would like to know if bees poop in the honey they make.

SDSTAFF Doug replies:

A perfectly reasonable question, though I doubt many people worry about it.

Short answer: nope.

Longer answer: When your home is in an enclosed space, like a European honeybee nest is, sanitation and hygiene are crucial. The combs are where the bees store the honey they make and eat, and also where the colony's eggs are laid. If bees deposited their waste anywhere on or near the combs, they'd risk contaminating their food supply and infecting their developing offspring. Unsurprisingly, they don't take that risk. Instead they defecate outside the nest (assuming they're mature enough to fly), or they do it on some hive surface that's well away from the combs.

Such surfaces are often covered in propolis (plant resin, which can contain antimicrobial chemicals) and in small mites that make their living feeding on the hive's residue, including fecal material and mold. If you eliminate these mites from a bee colony, the nest often succumbs to mold overgrowth and the bees have to abandon ship. This makes it a difficult trick for beekeepers to combat harmful mites that carry bee diseases: it's hard to kill just the bad mites and leave the good mites alone. That's one reason managed beehives are so high-maintenance — the beekeeper has to compensate for deviations from the functioning of a natural colony.

It really wouldn't matter too much if bees did poop in the honey, though — at least not to us. Why? Most organisms carry microbes (including parasites and diseases) in their systems which are specific to their own selves, so consuming feces produced by members of one's own species is generally unwise. But eating the feces of some other, very distantly related animal is not nearly so risky; Pathogens rarely cross large taxonomic boundaries. There is nothing in bee poop that a human takes a risk consuming, and vice versa. Bees do in fact sometimes gather human feces for use as a building material, with no ill effects.

All bees eat is honey and pollen, and (for our purposes) that's all their poop contains. It's probably the least noxious poop in existence and quite safe to consume, at least when it's fresh.

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