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Tale as Old As Time: Bacteria and the Bee

Posted in Food Safety on June 7, 2018

Modern monoculture farming, commercial forestry, and gardeners have good intentions. But they could unknowingly make it harder for the honeybees to store their food and fight against the diseases, according to a new study.

There are a lot of changes on the land by these agents and due to their activities: like large areas of monoculture grassland used for grazing of the livestock and coniferous forests being cut down for timber production. Both are affecting the diversity of the microbiomes that were previously rich in resources. These changes in the microbiomes are affecting the long-term food supply of honeybees, the study reveals.

And without honeybees, we have no crops.

With no crops, we have no food.

Get where I am going here?

Studying Bees and Bacteria

Scientists at Lancaster Environment Centre and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) of Lancaster University observed and carefully examined the mix of bacteria (called a “microbiome”) of the “bee bread” – which is the long-term supply for food that is stored within the hive for young bees.

The researchers at the university used a combination of two technologies – namely denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis and Illumina MiSeq DNA sequencing to identify and discern the microbial communities of around 500 “bee bread” samples. These samples were collected from a total of 29 honeybee hives across Northwest England. The data was collected and compared to the land use information available. The details on the land use were collected from the UK Land Cover Map, produced by CEH, so it was able to provide high resolution and accurate information on the use of that particular area of land.

“Bee Bread”: What is it? How is it made?

Bees collect pollen, nectar, and many other substances from the plants and transform them into honey, beeswax, and other things. Honey is able to serve as a stable source of energy for the beehive and wax provides a sturdy and moisture proof structure for their home. Another substance that acts as a source of survival and nourishment for the bees. This is the “bee bread.”

“Bee bread” is nothing but a long-term source of food for different species of bees, including the honeybee. According to apiary experts, this substance is mostly made from the pollen gathered by the bees and stored in the empty comb cells. These are granulated and mixed with nectar and other digestive fluids that are then sealed with drops of honey.

Study Results

The results of the study clearly pointed out that the “bee bread” within hives that were close to agriculturally improved grasslands (made up of single grass varieties) and those that were near coniferous woodland had less bacterial diversity than the hives that were near habitats consisting of more plant variety such as coastal landscapes, broadleaf woodland, and rough grasslands. This means that landscapes that have been touched or modified by humans have fewer species of bacteria than natural, untouched ones.

The researchers on the study also found out that some of bacteria present in the “bee bread” (like bifidobacterium and lactobacilli) are the same good bacteria that are found in some of the bioactive yogurts we humans eat.

Maybe bees are more like us than we think?

Why is the ‘Good’ Bacteria Important to the Bee?

Bees need a diverse community of bacteria in order to turn fresh pollen into a long-term food solution. They also need a wide range of bacteria to fight off infectious disease and kill pathogens that harm them. Apart from all these benefits of the good bacteria, they also act as a preservative for the “bee bread” within the hives. In absence of a diverse microbiome, the “bee bread” becomes more susceptible to mold and decay. This can cause a food shortage for the hive, and some very sad honeybees.

When the bees forage for the food, they are picking up different strains of bacteria from plants and this, eventually, becomes a part of the “bee bread” within the hive. Lead author of the study, Lancaster’s Dr. Philip Donkersley, mentioned that the purpose of the study is to show that, even in a small geographical area, there is quite a wide variance in the “bed bread” microbiome. Meaning there are many different types of bacteria contributing to the bee diet. According to him, this is most certainly because “bee bread” is a composition of pollen from different plants

It was initially believed that monocultures, such as timber forests and grazing lands, were not good for the pollinators – as there would be a shortage of food continuance for them throughout the year. However, the study has proven that changes in land use might also be having some indirect harmful effects on the microbiota of the “bee bread.” This means that, with less diversity of plant life, there is a lesser diversity of bacteria for the bees to use to make their food.

Implications

Nutrition that is derived from the “bee bread” has a direct effect on the health of the bees. The study has clearly showed that there is an indirect link between the landscape composition and the fitness of the bees. Healthier bees tend to have more bacterially diverse “bee bread” to eat. This biodiversity allows the bees to essentially develop good immunity.

In addition to these results, scientists also found out that hives that are located near urban area are also affected. These tend to have less biodiversity, and as you would have guessed it, less healthy bees.

What Can You Do to Help Our Fuzzy Friends?

Many people believe that if they plant a wide variety of plants in their backyard, they are helping the bees.

Lancaster’s Dr. Philip Donkersley recommends that you stick to native plants. He commented that “these plants reduced diversity in the bacteria of the ‘bee breads’ near the urban environment.” This suggests that there is an increased population of non-native plants in urban gardens. This trend could surely be affecting the ability of the bee to get a wide variety of microbiome for their “bee bread.”

Sadly, gardeners who are trying to help the bees and their microbiome by growing a range of pollinator friendly flowers (that originate from other places around the world) need to consider that they are planting non-native species to the area. And these plant species may not be as good for the microbiome of the “bee bread” as the plants that are native to that particular area. Native bees, their forage plants, and the bacteria within the “bee bread” have evolved together. The bacteria from the pollen that the bees pick up from the non-native plants may not be as useful for the hives as those from the native plants. In fact, it may do just the opposite of what the good-intentioned gardener was hoping to do.

Unsure of what plants are native to your area? Your neighborhood plant nursery or this handy NativePlantFinder may be just the ticket for you… and our fuzzy honey-making friends.

By: Pooja Sharma, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)