Wonder What’s Really in Your Hive? Analysis via the USDA National Science Laboratory

By Lady Spirit Moon

I signed in and received my visitor’s pass, thinking “This is going to be another boring government tour with everyone talking over my head.” I was in for a pleasant surprise. Roger Simonds, Laboratory Manager, and I went into his office and talked about what, why and how the lab does what it does. Enjoying crime and forensic programs, I was thrilled to actually see a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer up close and personal.

I went to the USDA lab to have my beebread tested for the Cry1Ac protein found in GMO corn, otherwise known as BT corn. With my bees acting strange and a couple hives not having queens and just a few bees, I thought they may be a victim of CCD. My 2011 records indicate a major dearth from mid-June through mid-fall. All my girls had to feed on was the GMO corn grown between my two apiaries. Research on the internet, in particular by John McDonald, beekeeper and biologist, indicates BT corn may be interfering in the bees’ ability to learn. They leave the hive to forage and don’t remember how to get back.

According to their website, “The National Science Laboratory (NSL), www.ams.usda.gov, in Gastonia, NC is a full service laboratory testing facility assisting producers and stakeholders in meeting international regulatory requirements, domestic purchase specifications, and imported product testing requirements. NSL offers a wide range of food and fiber product testing, chemical, microbiological, bio-molecular and physical analyses of poultry and poultry products, egg products, dairy products, fish, meat and processed meat products, fresh processed fruits and vegetables, and domestic and imported tobacco, and other agricultural products.”

Roger says the Gastonia lab is a user-fee supported federal facility. Funding comes from fees received for chemical, microbiological, and bio-molecular testing services provided on a wide variety of agricultural products. It is an Agricultural Marketing Service program facilitating the efficient, fair marketing of U.S. agricultural products. People in all agricultural fields selling their products can send their products to the USDA lab to have it analyzed for pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc. The beebread I brought from my apiary was tested for 174 such chemicals.

Upon receipt, pesticide residue samples are prepared for analysis by a homogenization technique, usually by grinding with a high

speed food processor or mill. After the homogenization step, pesticide residue samples are processed using an official method that utilizes the solvents acetonitrile and toluene as well as other salts and sorbents to extract the pesticide residues from the sample material for subsequent analysis. Chromatographic and mass spectrometry instrumentation is utilized to identify and quantify pesticide residues present in the extraction of the sample.

Commodities such as poultry and eggs that are used in the USDA’s school lunch program are also tested for microbial contamination. The lab also tests for pesticides on other commodities like fruits and vegetables. They even test MREs for the military, known as K-Rations for old timers like me.

Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is a method that combines the features of gas-liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify different substances within a test sample. Besides what the lab tests for, other applications of GC-MS include drug detection, fire investigation, environmental analysis, explosives investigation, and identification of unknown samples. GC-MS can also be used in airport security to detect substances in luggage or on human beings. It can also identify trace elements in materials that were thought to have disintegrated beyond identification.

While showing me the GC-MS, Roger explained the polarities of oil and water. Beeswax is a non-polar substance, making it more like fat or oil. Coumaphos and Apistan are non-polar and can build up in the wax. Examples of household non-polar compounds include cooking fats and oils and petrol/gasoline. Therefore, most non-polar molecules are water-insoluble (hydrophobic) at room temperature. However, many non-polar organic solvents, such as turpentine, are able to dissolve polar substances. As a Master Herbalist, I use glycerin to combine oil and water or essential oils and alcohol. Lecithin can often mix oil and liquids.

Honey is a polar substance and it is thus more like water or has an “affinity” for other polar chemicals like water. Examples of common household polar molecules include sugar, for instance the sucrose sugar variety. Sugars have many polar oxygen–hydrogen (-OH) groups and are overall highly polar. Due to the polar nature of the water molecule (H2O) itself, polar molecules are generally able to dissolve in water. Oxalic Acid, Formic Acid, and Fumigilin are also polar chemicals. Honey is hygroscopic, meaning it draws water, and can also draw in polar chemicals. Since almost all synthetic pesticides are non-polar in nature, i.e. Coumaphos and Apistan, they tend to have an affinity for and accumulate in the non-polar wax rather than the polar honey. This is why, although we might observe an abundance of synthetic pesticide residues in wax, very few are observed in honey and when a residue is observed it is at a very low amount. The more polar “soft” organic acid miticides do have a higher affinity for honey than the non-polar synthetic miticides but they have little or no toxicity and already naturally occur in honey at low levels.

I worked in the corporate world for over 30 years and was genuinely impressed by the USDA staff’s professional, yet warm demeanor. Clearly, everyone enjoyed their work and it wasn’t long before we were telling stories, especially with Kendall and Craig, who handle all of the apiculture samples that come through the lab.

The Gastonia Lab is where you send hive products for testing; contact Roger Simonds to get a quote for the type of pesticide screening you need. They do a lot of testing on hive products. However, the lab did not have the equipment to test my beebread for the protein Cry1Ac found in BT corn.

You can email AMSLaboratoryDivision@ams.usda.gov for quotes and charges, usually done by the hour.

All they found in my sample was 3 PPB (parts per billion) Coumaphos, which is insignificant. It wasn’t even my frame but came with a nuc. Yep, I live in a pristine area.

Lady Spirit Moon is the Ambassador for the non-profit Center for Honeybee Research located in Asheville, NC. This year the Center has put in place two bee yards in which to do their research. Go to www.chbr.org to stay up with what we are doing and our events, sign up for our newsletter, and/or use our tax-deductible Donate button.

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