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Superorganism Spotlight: Brendan Daisley, PhD, on Why He Gives Probiotics to Honey Bees

5 minutes

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Here, we’re speaking with microbiologist and SeedLabs Fellow Brendan Daisley, PhD, on his work developing probiotics for the health and longevity of 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. Dr. Brendan Daisley’s research focuses on how beneficial microorganisms can help support agricultural processes and global food security through improving the health of important pollinator insects, such as the honey bee.

Continue exploring conversations about the fascinating world of bacteria and the vital role they could play in saving our planet here

If you were meeting someone at a party, how would you describe the work you do?

“I study the microbes that are inside the intestinal tracts of honey bees, and how they can be modulated for health outcomes. Similar to humans, the intestinal tract of honey bees is colonized by a broad range of commensal microbes that play important health roles. When these microbes are disrupted (e.g. from chemical exposures), honey bees become susceptible to many different types of diseases. So we’re trying to reacquire microbial balance in honey bees to ensure their health in the context of agricultural uses and also environmental sustainability.

“When you look at pesticides and other agrochemicals being sprayed on our food products, a big component that isn’t being evaluated is how those agrochemicals are impacting microbes, and specifically the commensal microbes found in animal hosts, and the cascade effects that can have over generations. It ultimately led me to study how probiotics can affect the absorption of these agrochemicals—can they metabolize them so that they don’t pose a threat to human health anymore? 

“Then, there was a logical transition to honey bees, because honey bees are highly exposed to agrochemicals, just given their lifestyle and because beekeepers position their hives close to agricultural crops for pollination purposes. The more I started looking at the microbes associated with honey bees, the more overlaps I saw between humans and honey bees, especially in the context of how much we rely on microbes for our health.”

What does a world without bees look like? 

“It’s a less green world, a world with fewer flowering plants. It’s a lot less vibrant. But ultimately, a world without bees leads to a world with a lot less food. If bees disappear, crops disappear, which ultimately leads to food insecurity. That’s what we’re trying to prevent by maintaining the health of honey bees. The work that we do is trying to improve honey bee microbial balance, which will then impact the greater pollinator assemblage through physical contact at flower patches. It’s a radiating effect. By ensuring honey bees are healthy, it helps ensure that native pollinators are healthy as well.”

Ultimately, a world without bees leads to a world with a lot less food.

Dr. Brendan Daisley

How are you supporting the health of honey bees with probiotics? 

“We’ve been studying three strains. One of the strains is for improving immune function, or resistance to pathogens. Another strain is designed specifically for metabolizing pesticides, or preventing their absorption. And the third strain is a natural honey bee symbiont. It was derived from healthy honey bees, and it’s there for purposes of microbiota restoration. Those are the three components, and they address different aspects of honey bee health, tackling the problem from multiple angles. 

“Overall, we’ve found that these three strains can improve honey bee health in several ways. In honey bee field trials, we’ve shown that the supplementation of these three strains in the BioPatty can improve resistance to American Foulbrood disease, which is a deadly disease to honey bees and can cause rapid colony loss. These three strains also restore the microbiota and help reduce the damage associated with antibiotic exposure. Often, beekeepers will treat their hives with antibiotics to prevent things like American Foulbrood disease. We’ve shown that if you supplement the hive right after antibiotic exposure, it can mitigate a large majority of the deleterious effects that antibiotic exposure causes. We’re currently working on commercialization of these strains so that people can acquire them, since there’s nothing like this on the market.”

A research team member collecting beehive samples for analysis during a field trial.
A research team member collecting beehive samples for analysis during a field trial.

How can supporting honey bees with probiotics help combat the effects of climate change?

“Bees are interesting because they physically come into contact with so many things in their ecosystem. They’re a vector for so many microbes—both good and bad. From an evolutionary standpoint, honey bees evolved to pollinate plants. We know this; it’s been studied for a long time. Now we’re just beginning to learn how they can also play a really important role in maintaining a homeostatic microbiome in plants and also within plant communities. So bees have an impact on all different aspects of plant life around them. This can have a radiating effect on multiple levels and ensure a healthier diverse floral environment. And if we’re talking about climate change, more green is better.”

How can people support the health of honey bees?

“The most helpful thing individuals can do is growing and maintaining flowering plants, which are a food source for bees. If they don’t have pesticides sprayed on them, that gives honey bees access to a toxin-free food source. Other than that, it’s important to educate and inform ourselves about the problem. I wrote a review paper last year on deteriorating microbiomes in agriculture, and it talks about how none of the >90,000 pesticide formulations that are currently on the market are regulated or assessed for their impact on microbial life. When looking at an insecticide’s off-target effects on honey bees, they just look at the honey bee tissue itself. So they think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t kill the honey bee after 15 days, let’s just give it a check mark and put it into commercial production.’ But the insidious long-term effects on microbes are really the devastating thing, and can lead to transgenerational effects on honey bee health outcomes.”

What’s giving you hope?

“Science. At the end of the day, I believe that we’ll figure it out. You have to think of how far we’ve come. Just a hundred years ago, we weren’t even considering microbes at all. We didn’t know anything about the human microbiota; we didn’t connect how microbes can lead to different health outcomes. The pace at which science is advancing and our knowledge is expanding is immaculate. I think that we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to connect all of the dots and put the puzzle together, and hopefully be able to reverse some of the damage we’ve caused and make a more sustainable plan going forward. And I believe that that’s probably going to come in the form of learning how to manage microbial populations better.”