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Teeny Bee Probiotics Can Help Prevent Colony Collapse

Researchers found that probiotics helped protect against infection and heat stress.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Jun 20 2017, 10:00am

Image: Sarah Emerson/Motherboard

Beekeepers in the US reported a 33 percent loss of bees last year, according to preliminary survey results. It's part of an ongoing trend in which honeybees—which pollinate roughly a third of the food we eat—are disappearing. But a new study shows there might be a way to help curb this population decline: probiotics for bees.

Part of the declining bee numbers are due to colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon where worker bees suddenly vanish and abandon a hive. There are a lot of factors that contribute to diminishing bee populations, including climate change and habitat loss, but pesticides used to protect crops also play a role. A new study published Monday in Scientific Reports shows that strategically dosing hives with helpful probiotics can help the bees fend off the negative impacts of pesticides.

"You can't say pesticides are the sole cause, or even the main cause, [of bee loss]," said Gregor Reid, a microbiology professor at Western University in Canada, who lead the investigation, which was a preliminary trial. "But it clearly is one of the main factors."

The scientists used fruit flies, which are a well-established analog for bees—but are much less maintenance—to determine the impact of a common strain of pesticides called neonicotinoid insecticides. These pesticides are safe to use on food and protect against a broad range of crop-destroying bugs like locusts, aphids, and stinkbugs. But they have the unintended consequence of harming helpful insects like honeybees.

"If you ask the average farmer, they would rather not use these toxic chemicals. It's just that, in the moment, they're our only option," Reid told me. "We don't like it, but we have to take it right now, therefore is there something we can do that could protect the things in the ecosystem that are really critical?"

Reid and his team found that the fruit flies became more susceptible to bacterial infections when exposed to this common pesticide, partly because it disrupted their microbiome—the unique community of tiny bacteria that live in and on an organism. To try to counteract this, they treated the flies with a probiotic called Lactobacillus, a strain also commonly used in human probiotic products. The probiotics made the flies more hearty and resistant to infection, even after they were exposed to the pesticides.

Reid said he hopes this is just the first step in a wider effort to take a more holistic and natural approach to solving some of our food system troubles, including protecting our necessary pollinators, one teeny yogurt at a time.

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