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Researchers Recognize Organism That Shields Honey Bees From Contagious Contaminations
Honey bees are the most economically important agricultural pollinators on Earth, but their populations have been in decline for decades. At Indiana University, researchers are investigating how to use the honey bee’s natural microbiome to keep them healthy, which has implications for food security and the agricultural industry.
In a paper published June 8 in the journal mBio, IU scientists identified a specific bacterial microbe that protects bees from fungal infection. The microbe is found in key colony environments such as queen guts and developing larval bees, as well as in honey and pollen.
An average of 40% to 50% of honey bee colonies in the U.S. dies annually. Pests, pathogens, nutritional stress, pesticide use, and agricultural practices—such as the use of antibiotics—are likely causes of the declining survival rates. The ripple effect is a food security issue. It’s estimated that one of every three mouthfuls of food in the U.S. depends upon pollination from bees. The negative effects would be particularly stark for popular crops such as fruits and tree nuts.
Queens do not live as long as they used to, with 55% of colonies going into the winter with a new queen. This adds a significant cost to beekeepers and increases the risk of colony loss over the winter.
The microbiome, or the community of microbes that lives with an organism, can have a dramatic influence on host health. Newton’s lab discovered that one specific microbe-associated with queens and larval bees—Bombella APIs—inhibits the growth of fungi. Newton and her colleagues began studying B. APIs over six years ago after finding that it is a significant part of the queen gut microbiome.
Very little is known about fungal-microbiome interactions in the honey bee colony, but Newton’s research suggests that Bombella APIs may alter fungal disease dynamics in honey bee populations.
The addition of Bombella APIs, however, could protect bees from these opportunistic pathogens.
The common practice of treating honey bees with antibiotics may alter the beneficial microbes present, including Bombella APIs.
If populations of the protective microbe are reduced, it may make bees more sensitive to fungal infection.
The next step for the researchers is to identify the antifungal molecule itself. Newton is currently collaborating with Marcy Balunas at the University of Connecticut to discover what the antifungal compound may be.