The Plight Of The Honeybee Can Get Leg Up Through A Healthy Gut

When it comes to an animal’s health, it doesn’t get much more important than what is going on in its gut. Research has shown that bacteria in the intestinal microbiome assists in the digestion of nutrients, synthesizes vitamins, prevents infection, impacts the immune system and promotes the development of several organ systems, which include the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. Everything from humans to fish to gorillas rely on these wee organisms to survive.

One of those many animals are honey bees, except the state of their gut can affect us all.

Honey bees have often been called the “heroes of the planet.” The moniker comes not only because of their honey, which has shown many health benefits to us humans, but mostly because without bees, the world would in fact, be a whole lot worse off. According to a 2018 study by the University of California, honey bees “are the world’s most important single species of pollinator in natural ecosystems and a key contributor to natural ecosystem functions.”

Also researchers in Australia found that the venom from honey bees can rapidly destroy even the most aggressive breast cancer cells. The researchers at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research found that not only will bee venom kill 100{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of breast cancer cells, but can do it within an hour.

The U.S. agricultural economy is highly dependent on honey bees. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), honey bees made a little less than 163 million pounds of honey in 2016. With the cost of honey around $2.08 per pound at the time, that’s a value of a little over $339 million. However, this pales in comparison to the benefits to agriculture they create. The FDA states that bee pollination accounts for about $15 billion in added crop value.

Unfortunately, due to a menagerie of issues like climate change, disease-bearing parasites, poor nutrition and pesticides, we are losing honey bees at an alarming rate (however, some things are looking up as another study released this year by NASS showed that honey bee production was up 2{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} in 2019).

In 2017, researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, uncovered another cause of declining populations: antibiotics were negatively affecting their diverse microbiomes. Within a week of treatment with the commonly-used antibiotic tetracycline, twice as many bees in the treatment group were dead as compared to the control group. The study found that the healthy microbes which aid in the digestion and absorption of nutrients and keep harmful microbes at bay, were annihilated.

Antibiotics are used in beehives for much of the same reason as they are given to humans — to stop or prevent infectious diseases. While they do their job, the side effect of destroying the good bacteria in a bee’s gut has proven detrimental to their health.

Now a new study, published in Nature, provides a new solution to this problem: probiotics. Three strains of beneficial bacteria were introduced that could assist in counterbalancing bee gut health.

“One of the strains is an immunostimulatory, and helps strengthen the honey bee immune system by up regulating antimicrobial peptide expression in their guts and heads,” says Brendan Daisley at the Centre for Human Microbiome and Probiotic Research, Lawson Health Research Institute, in London, Ontario and a lead researcher in the study. “We found that this probiotic containing this immune stimulatory strain could help boost honeybee immunity and fight off pathogens. There are two other strains, one of them help against pesticide exposure, and one of them is a  Lactobacillus strain originally derived from healthy honeybee hives, so it’s kind of for microbiotic restoration.”

Daisley explains that a bee’s microbiome is incredibly important as it assists them digest their food, mitigate dietary toxins that are found in plants and helps them improve their immune system.

“With these (probiotics), we’re not only helping manage bees, we’re also helping reduce the spread of infection to other wild bee species and other insect pollinators as well. By targeting managed honeybees and improving their health, we’re reducing the environmental spread of infectious disease.”

One of the more pervasive — and nasty — diseases which affect honey bee health is American Foulbrood (AFB). This infectious disease is highly contagious and caused by a gram-positive spore-forming bacterium, Paenibacillus larvae. AFB has been known to affect honey bees for hundreds of years and is found all around the globe, though different genotypes predominate in different areas. AFB is considered by many to be the worst disease of honey bees, mostly due to its ability to remain infectious for decades, its propensity to infect an otherwise healthy hive, as well as its ability to spread easily between other colonies.

“This current study builds on a previous field trial of honey bee diseases,” says Raja Dhir, co-founder of Seed, whose Seed Labs division focuses on the health of bees through their microbiomes. Dhir also assisted with the recently published study. “The American variety of the foulbrood disease kills bees in the first several days of life. And it’s so infectious, and fatal, that if a beekeeper finds an outbreak they actually torch the entire hive by by protocol, even kill the bees that have the resilience to survive it.”

The new research has found that the technology of the new probiotic can lower the instances of this, and other, diseases without the antibiotics. This idea of naturally improving a bee’s health through the microbiomes in its gut opens up many possibilities for increase hive populations in the future says Dhir.

“The idea that you can intervene on the honeybee microbiota to restore these organisms that have a lot of beneficial function is an interesting new approach to improve the health of honeybee communities.”

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