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Beekeepers in Red Hook, Brooklyn are experiencing a bittersweet dilemma. Instead of producing honey, their bees are secreting an overly saccharine and metallic-tasting, glowing red liquid.
When the beekeepers sought help for this problem from a local apiculturist, it was discovered that the “honey” was laced with Red Dye No. 40, a dye used in maraschino cherry juice. Further investigation revealed that the bees were foraging for food in a local maraschino cherry factory a few miles away from their hives, and rejecting the food sources provided for them by their keepers. Instead, they were feasting on syrup from the factory that contains high-fructose corn syrup and red dye, which is likely the cause of the red-colored honey that the bees have been yielding.
It seems natural, by now, for humans to prefer the unnatural, as if we ourselves had been genetically modified to choose artificially flavored strawberry candy over strawberries, or crunchy orange “cheese” puffs over a piece of actual cheese. But when bees make the same choice, it feels like a betrayal to our sense of how nature should work. Shouldn’t they know better? Or, perhaps, not know enough to know better? A fellow beekeeper sent samples of the red substance that the bees were producing to an apiculturalist who works for New York State, and that expert, acting as a kind of forensic foodie, found the samples riddled with Red Dye No. 40, the same dye used in the maraschino cherry juice.
“Bees will forage from any sweet liquid in their flight path for up to three miles,” Mr. Coté said. While he has not yet visited the factory, he said that the bees might be drinking from its runoff, and that solving the problem “could be as easy as putting up some screens, or providing a closer source of sweet nectar.” Could the tastiest nectar, even close by the hives, compete with the charms of a liquid so abundant, so vibrant and so cloyingly sweet? Perhaps the conundrum raises another disturbing question: If the bees cannot resist those three qualities, what hope do the rest of us have?