Jan 18th 2018

Solution to Bee Population Woes Includes Probiotics

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As a health-conscious consumer, you’re probably aware of the buzz around probiotics. But did you realize that live yogurt might soon be on the menu in bee hives? The global bee population is under attack and scientists recently found that probiotics might be just the thing to help the insects recover.

Decline of the Bees

Carpenter bee pollinating (Wikimedia Commons)

Beekeepers have noticed declining bee populations around the world since the late nineties. But in 2005, apiarists began reporting losses at a more frequent rate — opening hive after hive to find whole colonies dying at once. Researchers and farmers alike began to worry about the loss of these social insects.

As major crop pollinators around the world, bees are an invaluable species. Bees play a major role in agriculture, both for food and fiber crops. As essential pollinators for plants such as oranges, apples, cotton, lima beans and canola, the European Union estimated their value at around 153 billion Euros in 2005. In North America, bees are responsible for pollinating over a third of the foods you eat. The state of North Carolina estimates that — averaged over five years — honey bees “directly accounted for approximately $96 million in annual fruit and vegetable production (67.9%) and approximately $186 million in total annual crop productivity (24.5%).”

Colony Collapsers

But why should the global bee population suddenly take such a hit? Upon noticing the decline, bee researchers swung into action. Still, nothing seemed clear. Finally, after a number of studies, scientists narrowed the collapsing bee population puzzle down to three main factors:

  • Infection: Infection is often a cause of sudden death throughout a population. Bees, as hive animals, are susceptible to a range of pathogens. When scientists looked at affected hives, they found higher levels of parasitic Varroa mites. While these mites don’t actively kill their hosts, they weaken the bees by feeding off them. They also carry viruses that affect larval development by causing wing deformation or early death.
  • Loss of habitat and supporting food plants: With changes in agriculture and the effects of climate change, habitats all over the world are changing. Simply put — bees need flowers. They need the pollen and nectar as food to survive and rear larvae.
  • Insecticides and fungicides: When researchers analyzed hives that had collapsed, they found high levels of chemicals commonly used as pesticides and fungicides by the agricultural industry. A group of these sprays known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, seemed the worst culprits.

In the end, there isn’t a final and definitive answer; researchers have found that all of these factors combine to weaken the insects. Studies show that bees exposed to the neonics exhibit less resilience to infections and dietary stress. They didn’t live as long as unexposed bees and also show behavioral changes. These changes impacted hive life since affected bees were less likely to perform vital cleaning or hygiene activity that keeps a hive healthy. Exposure to neonics also seriously impacted flight, with exposed bees foraging less for food or struggling to navigate their way home.

Probiotics for Bee Microbiomes?

Along with breeding Varroa-resistant strains and reducing pesticide use, bee specialists are finding that there are ways to help the bee population resist the stresses of modern living. Most recently, research in fruit flies shows that carefully selected probiotics can benefit the insects. When exposed to the neonic pesticides, the flies showed changes in their microbiota or bacterial flora and were more likely to die of infection or heat stress. However, when treated with probiotics, the challenged flies lived longer and resisted infection. The researchers found that the probiotic lactobacilli stimulated the insect’s immune system. Since fruit flies have a similar immune system and carry the same bacterial populations, it’s possible that this kind of support could help bees too.

Not Just the Bees but the Birds, Fish and Beasts of the Field

Research into probiotics shows there is potential for the live bacteria to help in other areas of animal health, especially for species used in food production. Traditionally, farmers have used antibiotics as growth promoters to accelerate cost-effective animal rearing. However, in order to avoid the dangers of developing antibiotic resistance, the farming industry is now looking for alternatives such as in-feed probiotics. A 2016 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization summarizes the potential benefits of probiotics for the food industry and global food security.

  • Food Conversion: Ruminants such as dairy cattle rely on their rumen microflora for getting energy from feed. Since probiotics change the gut bacterial content, they can be used to make food digestion and conversion more efficient by altering the rumen contents. Animals would need less feed to produce meat and milk, for example.
  • Growth Rate: Poultry grows faster with in-feed probiotics, producing better quality meat in a shorter rearing time. The same is true for beef cattle and pig production.
  • Infection Control: There’s also some evidence that probiotics could help farm animals resist infection and producers are already moving toward this and other strategies to reduce antibiotic usage.

In the future, probiotics may be an important feature of global agriculture and food security.

As for bees and live yogurt? Yes, it is a possibility — apiarists already support bee colony health by placing pollen patties in the hive as a nutritional snack for busy workers.

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