Friday, January 6, 2012

A Story about Bees

My little family traveled to be with our extended families for Christmas, which meant a 650-mile drive to Illinois. We've done this drive for years (decades!) and I don't mind it at all. I appreciate the subtle beauty of the Midwestern landscape, and the drive is somewhat meditative. This year, once we arrived at our destination, there were some things I needed to take care of, one of which was to stock up on honey.

I know that seems sort of strange, to travel so far in order to get honey. But I like honey and I like knowing where it came from, especially after the news about fake and possibly dangerous honey on our grocery shelves (here's a list of the brands that were found to have no pollen, which allows the source, and therefore the quality, of the honey to be determined). My sister used to keep bees, and she gave her hives to friends, Carolyn and Fred, who are fellow members of the Illinois Beekeepers' Association, when she got out of the beekeeping business. So we stopped at those friends' house one day during our visit and I sat at their kitchen table and watched Carolyn decant the different types of honey into various sizes of honey bears, ranging from the tiniest 2-ounce gift bears to the hefty 8 ouncers. She gave me a taste of the dark and earthy buckwheat honey while I admired the light coming through the pale gold wildflower and amber clover honeys.

As I was tasting the honey and deciding on what to purchase, Carolyn told me about the fields and field lanes where the bees got their pollen.  She recounted that she and Fred kept a hive in a neighbor's yard for years because of the proximity to certain flowering trees - even though that neighbor is allergic to bees. There had been no wayward incidents and the hive industriously kept doing its thing and coexisted peacefully with the neighbor. Recently, though, the neighbor called and asked Carolyn to remove her hive ASAP. The bees had become unpredictable and aggressive, and the neighbor was worried that they would sting her.

For a hive to change behaviors so drastically was strange, so Carolyn and Fred did a little investigating and found that a farmer had planted a field of buckwheat nearby. The bees were traveling to the field, feasting on the nectar from the buckwheat flowers, and returning to their hive all buzzy and aggressive. Apparently buckwheat, even though it is an attractive source of nectar for honeybees, makes  bees more than a little cranky, which makes them difficult to be around.

It was a good story about the provenance of the food I was purchasing, but it got me thinking about how we seem to know more about how food affects the behaviors of animals and insects - or at least we're more respectful of it - than we know about how food affects the behaviors of people.

Of course, no one ever suggested giving buckwheat-crazed bees a stimulant to reduce their hyperactivity and irritability. No, the solution was to move the hive away from the buckwheat. Horses and alfalfa have the same type of bad synergy. Some horses become hyperactive and willful if they eat too much of the protein-laden alfalfa, and a 1,200-pound animal is not something you want to be willful. So people with horses know to limit the amount of alfalfa their horses eat. No one thinks it's a good idea to give the horse strong medicines to reduce the negative behaviors. Just remove the offending food and get on with it.

Years ago, when I realized that artificial colors and flavors amped up my kids (and gave me headaches), I thought for certain my newfound knowledge would be embraced by fellow parents as well as the administration of the progressive preschool my kids attended. I envisioned the word would spread like a winter cold through a roomful of three-year-olds and that soon, the entire school would have guidelines for clean and healthy snacks. Oh, what a wonderful world that would be!

Obviously, I was pretty idealistic, but I really thought this group of super-educated parents would want to know what those petroleum products were capable of doing to their kids' health and behavior. But few parents wanted to hear about the positive changes we were all feeling from a better diet and even fewer parents went out of their way to learn more or support us by bringing in safe snacks. As the years rolled on and some of my kids' friends received diagnoses of ADD or ADHD or anxiety or whatever, I would offer some resources to the parents then let it go. Because to a person, they thought either that nutrition could not affect behavior or even if it did, it would be more difficult to change their diets than to allow their kids to take medications whose long-term effects are still not known.*

So why do we know more about how diet affects the behaviors of animals than we do of children? Perhaps we value animals more? Preposterous, you might say. But actions speak louder than words. I've never heard of bees being medicated for their buckwheat buzz, or horses given stimulants so that they can continue to eat alfalfa. But I've seen plenty of kids prescribed medications without their foods, cosmetics, or household chemicals being evaluated to see if they are contributing to the problem. I just find that so strange.


Want to learn more about diet/behavior links? Here are some good sources:
  • The Feingold Association of the United States. Probably the oldest organization focusing on the link between what we eat and our behaviors, the Feingold Association maintains a website with loads of information and supporting research. 
  • Kelly Dorfman, MS, LND, aka the Nutrition Detective, and her book, "What's Eating Your Child?" Dorfman uses her clinical skills and years of experience to help families figure out the connection between what the kids are eating and their mystifying symptoms. 
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest maintains a food additive database and the research behind those additives. 
  • This previous HealthTwisty post that contains links to research and highlights the discrepancy between the foods we have in the United States and the cleaner foods available in other countries.

* This is not to say that there are not true cases of ADD or ADHD that reflect a brain chemistry issue. For those individuals, medication can allow them to focus and attend and realize their potential, and can be a wonderful thing. But many cases of food intolerances or allergies masquerade as inattention, anxiety, or hyperactivity, especially in young children.