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These probiotics for bees are designed to boost insect immune systems

As bees continue to face a long list of challenges to their survival, perhaps giving them some helpful bacteria could help prevent their collapse.

These probiotics for bees are designed to boost insect immune systems
[Photo: Seed Labs]

This winter, some bees in Ontario will be given a pancake-like patty of yeast, soy flour, and a simple syrup to eat before the bees retreat to their hives in sub-zero temperatures. This type of early-winter snack is often used in beekeeping to help boost the hive’s nutrition when little food is available, or after winter to boost the hive’s activity. But these patties are different: Created by SeedLabs, a division of the startup microbiome company Seed, they also include a blend of probiotics designed for honeybees.

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Just as there’s evidence that certain doses of some strains of probiotics in yogurt can boost human immune systems, the company says that probiotics may also help bees stay healthier in the face of disease and pesticide exposure. After testing its product in fruit flies, SeedLabs is now testing it with bees.

[Photo: Seed Labs]
“The probiotics seem to be able to enhance the immune response,” says Gregor Reid, the company’s chief scientist and an early pioneer in microbial sciences (he led a World Health Organization panel that wrote the first official definition of “probiotics”). “Pesticides don’t necessarily kill the bees–although they clearly can–but they do damage their immune response, and then allow pathogens to kill the bees. So by enhancing the immune response, we’re hoping that that will be very beneficial.”

The probiotics may also be able to help reduce pesticide exposure directly. The company is using three species of Lactobacillus, microorganisms that naturally live in bees’ guts. One, L. rhamnosus, can bind to insecticides like chlorpyrifos and parathion so the bees absorb less of the chemicals. Another kind of Lactobacillus called L. plantarum can stimulate the bee’s immune system so that it can better respond when it’s exposed to pesticides. A third, L. kunkeei, can help young bees resist a pathogen that causes a disease called foulbrood that can kill off hives. In an experiment in May, the researchers found that two beehives treated with the probiotics survived an attack of pathogens that wiped out non-treated hives.

“If these pathogens are brought into the hive and the resiliency isn’t passed down to young, immature, developing honeybees, then it’s very dramatic in terms of the effect they can have on the population dynamics of the entire hive,” says Raja Dhir, co-founder and co-CEO of Seed.

[Photo: Seed Labs]

Honeybees face an increasing amount of stress, coming from neonicotinoid pesticides, mites that infect them with disease, other pathogens, long journeys across the country as they travel to farms, and bad diets as they feed on flowers from single crops like almonds and eat sugar in the winter. (In the pollination business, around 2 million colonies of bees traveled on semi trucks to California this year to pollinate the almond crop alone.) Natural habitat, and the biodiversity of wildflowers, also continues to decline. Studies suggest that the combination of all of these factors makes it harder for bees to survive–and it means that beekeepers keep spending more to keep their hives going.

Beekeepers sometimes use antibiotics in hives, but a recent study suggests that antibiotics might cause more harm than good (as in humans, antibiotics kill off beneficial microbes in bees). Probiotics could potentially make honeybees more resilient. They could also potentially help wild bees, many of which risk extinction. “Our research also turned out that a single hive can colonize an area of around 100 square kilometers,” says Dhir. “So you can imagine a solution that’s very cost effective and sustainable for reintroducing these microbial strains back into areas where wild bees are known to populate.” Honeybees can also infect wild insects with diseases like foulbrood, so reducing disease in managed hives can help in the wild.

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The researchers are currently testing the probiotics with bees in Canada and California to prove the benefit before it expands to larger field trials (in California and other locations, the patties may not be needed in the winter, but can be used to supplement nutrition in places where natural habitat and flowers are disappearing; the probiotics can also be applied directly to other food sources or to the hive itself). “We’re trying to do it as fast as possible, but the emphasis is on doing it properly and making sure the results are good,” says Reid.

Seed is working on several applications for microbes, including a plastic-eating bacteria that could be used to break down plastic shopping bags. But the company wanted to focus on honeybees for one of its early products because of the importance of the animals, both in producing food for humans and in natural ecosystems. “Where you can have the biggest impact is on keystone species, where small actions can ripple across ecosystems at large,” says Dhir. “That’s why we wanted to start with the honeybee. It’s why the science that supports this is moving at a speed where we think we can get this out in the next couple of years into honeybee populations across the world.”

The company’s patents for the probiotics will be royalty-free and available to any beekeepers that want to use them.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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