Western University researching bee health

Concern over the health and longevity of bees has grown over the years.

“They get exposed to all kinds of things. First of all, monoculture crops. That is not necessarily the most nutritious thing for them,” said Western University biology Professor Graham Thompson.

Exposure to humans, and especially industrial and commercial farming operations, has a negative effect on bee populations, Thompson added.

“The bees are kept very close to each other and it spreads around. And of course, they’re exposed to pollutants and pesticides, even insecticides,” said Thompson.

The widespread pesticide use and diminished floral diversity in the environment have contributed to the worsening susceptibility of honeybees to infectious diseases, threatening their support of adequate pollination of food crops.

Researchers at Western have shown certain probiotic bacteria can be used to help ward off disease and promote overall hive health.

“We find that if we feed them certain probiotic bacteria, that we can help the bees with their health, their immunity, and also complement their behavior to make them little bit better foragers, which helps nurse the queens and ultimately make more honey, said Thompson.

The project started in 2018 to find a more feasible and sustainable way to promote healthy honeybees.

“Right now, most workers treat their hives with antibiotics to prevent infectious disease,” said Brendan Daisley, a former PhD student at Western and now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Guelph. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative side effects associated with treating hives with antibiotics, including the development of resistance, and off-target health effects due to the drugs harming beneficial microbes, in addition to the pathogens of interest. We need different solutions to improve honeybee health, especially in a sustainable way, and we believe probiotics could be a feasible option.”

A similar study that was conducted in California has shown a direct link to the health of bees, but also to other pollinators.

“Honeybees physically interact with these other wild insects every time they land on a flower pad, right? So they’re exchanging microbes each time, and they all have an effect on one another. So by improving, you know, microbial balance in honeybees, managing honeybees, we can potentially improve the health and population of wild pollinators as well,” said Daisley.

The end goal of this work is to develop a product that can go to market and provide apiaries and bee keepers a way to make bees stronger without the use of antibiotics.

The Western campus is home to several bee hives being used in the study, while another cluster of hives is kept in the Niagara region.

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