Could Probiotics Help Honey Bees?
The honey bee is one of our most vital insect pollinators, responsible for nearly a third of our global food crops. But widespread pesticide use—along with climate change, disease, and habitat loss—has contributed to a reduction of honey bee populations at an alarming rate.
Meet the honey bee.
The honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) is one of our most vital insect pollinators, responsible for nearly a third of our global food crops¹—from avocados to coffee to blueberries, and even cotton.
But widespread pesticide use—along with climate change, disease, and habitat loss—has contributed to a reduction of honey bee populations at an alarming rate.2 If honey bees go extinct, this could trigger ripple effects of global consequences.
A short list of crops that honey bees pollinate.
So, what’s impacting the bees?
Pesticides, pathogens, and habitat loss are three key challenges contributing to a decline in honey bee health. These factors not only affect immune function,³ olfactory⁴ and foraging⁵ behaviors, reproductive vitality,⁶ and nutrient processing,⁷ but also contribute to an increased susceptibility to viral and parasitic infections (like Paenibacillus larvae and Melissococcus plutonius, the pathogenic bacteria responsible for American and European foulbroods, respectively⁸), and reduced exposure to nutrient diversity.
Probiotics—live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host—may be best known for their applications in human gastrointestinal health, but their potential goes far beyond the gut, and far beyond our human bodies.
Dr. Gregor Reid, a member of our Scientific Board, came up with the hypothesis, “Probiotics aren’t just for humans. If you could use beneficial microbes to stimulate the immune response or attack the pathogens that are infecting the hives, then maybe we can help save the bees.”⁹
Seed’s Scientific Board Member, Dr. Gregor Reid, and SeedLabs Fellow, Dr. Brendan Daisley
Beneficial bacteria offer an intriguing new approach to supporting honey bee health and longevity.
Dr. Reid’s team, including lead researcher and SeedLabs Fellow, Dr. Brendan Daisley, identified a cocktail of three probiotic strains (Lactiplantibacillus plantarum Lp39, Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus GR-1, and Apilactobacillus kunkeei BR-1.) that had demonstrated (in fruit fly models)10,11 the potential to improve innate immune response, provide resistance against infection, and support insect resilience to toxic pesticides.
For American foulbrood specifically, existing measures largely rely on antibiotic treatment, which tends to be helpful in the short term but ineffective in the long run, and can contribute to resistance and recurrence. Beneficial bacteria offer an intriguing new approach to supporting honey bee health and longevity.
The BioPatty™, formulated with these three strains, was the first delivery method for this probiotic formulation, which utilizes a familiar format for beekeepers who routinely supplement their hives with “pollen patties”.
Image of the BioPatty™
In a 2019 study12 published in the ISME Journal, Dr. Daisley demonstrated the potential of the BioPatty™ in supporting honey bee colonies against American foulbrood. Hives that were administered the BioPatty™ showed a significantly lower pathogen load (in both adult bees and in larvae) than those without. The field trial observations were reproduced through laboratory-controlled experiments, indicating that this 3-strain probiotic could improve honey bee survival towards P. larvae infection, directly inhibit P. larvae cells in vitro, and modulate innate immunity when an infection was experimentally triggered.
Further field trials indicated that “microbial-based therapeutics may offer a simple but effective solution to reduce honey bee disease burden, environmental xenobiotic exposure, and spread of antimicrobial resistance.”
The team has since developed the probiotic blend in a novel spray-based delivery format. In a study recently published in the ISME Journal, independent researchers from the University of Guelph, Western University, and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) observed its long-lasting benefits to honey bees that correspond with shifts in immune signaling, microbiota composition, pathogen infestation, and overall colony size. Building on previous work, the findings reinforce the promise of microbes to support at-risk ecosystems impacted by human activity and the climate crisis.
If we can decode the relationship between microbes and the natural world, then we can develop long-term applications to realize their potential—not only for human health, but for the greatest challenges facing our collective home.
Note: In 2021, Dr. Daisley and Dr. Reid published a bee-associated microbiota database called BEExact to share with the wider scientific community to encourage comparative cross-analysis. You can read the paper here and access the GitHub support page here.
- Klein, A. M., Vaissière, B. E., Cane, J. H., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Cunningham, S. A., Kremen, C., & Tscharntke, T. (2007). Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 274(1608), 303–313. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2006.3721
- Goulson, D., Nicholls, E., Botias, C., & Rotheray, E.L. (2015). Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers. Science, 347(6229), 1255957. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1255957
- Brandt, A., Gorenflo, A., Siede, R., Meixner, M., & Büchler, R. (2016). The neonicotinoids thiacloprid, imidacloprid, and clothianidin affect the immunocompetence of honey bees (Apis mellifera L.). Journal of insect physiology, 86, 40–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinsphys.2016.01.001
- Yang, E. C., Chang, H. C., Wu, W. Y., & Chen, Y. W. (2012). Impaired olfactory associative behavior of honeybee workers due to contamination of imidacloprid in the larval stage. PloS one, 7(11), e49472. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0049472
- Yang, E. C., Chuang, Y. C., Chen, Y. L., & Chang, L. H. (2008). Abnormal foraging behavior induced by sublethal dosage of imidacloprid in the honey bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Journal of economic entomology, 101(6), 1743–1748. https://doi.org/10.1603/0022-0493-101.6.1743
- Chaimanee, V., Evans, J. D., Chen, Y., Jackson, C., & Pettis, J. S. (2016). Sperm viability and gene expression in honey bee queens (Apis mellifera) following exposure to the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid and the organophosphate acaricide coumaphos. Journal of insect physiology, 89, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinsphys.2016.03.004
- Schmehl, D. R., Teal, P. E., Frazier, J. L., & Grozinger, C. M. (2014). Genomic analysis of the interaction between pesticide exposure and nutrition in honey bees (Apis mellifera). Journal of insect physiology, 71, 177–190. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinsphys.2014.10.002
- Ansari, M. J., Al-Ghamdi, A., Nuru, A., Ahmed, A. M., Ayaad, T. H., Al-Qarni, A., Alattal, Y., & Al-Waili, N. (2017). Survey and molecular detection of Melissococcus plutonius, the causative agent of European Foulbrood in honeybees in Saudi Arabia. Saudi journal of biological sciences, 24(6), 1327–1335. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjbs.2016.10.012
- Daisley, B. A., Pitek, A. P., Chmiel, J. A., Al, K. F., Chernyshova, A. M., Faragalla, K. M., Burton, J. P., Thompson, G. J., & Reid, G. (2020). Novel probiotic approach to counter Paenibacillus larvae infection in honey bees. The ISME journal, 14(2), 476–491. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41396-019-0541-6
- Trinder, M., McDowell, T. W., Daisley, B. A., Ali, S. N., Leong, H. S., Sumarah, M. W., & Reid, G. (2016). Probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus Reduces Organophosphate Pesticide Absorption and Toxicity to Drosophila melanogaster. Applied and environmental microbiology, 82(20), 6204–6213. https://doi.org/10.1128/AEM.01510-16
- Daisley, B. A., Trinder, M., McDowell, T. W., Welle, H., Dube, J. S., Ali, S. N., Leong, H. S., Sumarah, M. W., & Reid, G. (2017). Neonicotinoid-induced pathogen susceptibility is mitigated by Lactobacillus plantarum immune stimulation in a Drosophila melanogaster model. Scientific reports, 7(1), 2703. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-02806-w
- Daisley, B. A., Pitek, A. P., Chmiel, J. A., Al, K. F., Chernyshova, A. M., Faragalla, K. M., Burton, J. P., Thompson, G. J., & Reid, G. (2020). Novel probiotic approach to counter Paenibacillus larvae infection in honey bees. The ISME journal, 14(2), 476–491.