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Gut bacteria sheds light on honey bee health

In ARS News

by Kim Kaplan

Bacteria in the gut of young honey bees may provide clues about the impact parasites have on bee health. That and other experimental findings were published by U.S. Department of Agriculture‘sAgricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Because young honey bees don’t have gut bacteria, entomologist Jay Evans and post-doc Ryan Schwarz at ARS’ Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, and University of Texas at Austin professor Nancy Moran conducted tests to determine the impact different combinations of a common bacterium and a common parasite had on honey bee health. The scientists hypothesized that increasing the gut bacterium would make the bees more resistant to the parasite, but instead it lead to surprising results.

“This was 180 degrees opposite of our original hypothesis,” said Schwarz. “We suspected introduction of the bacterium would promote a resistance to the parasite, but the opposite occurred.”

Other findings from the research include,

  • If the gut of the young bees were colonized by parasites and/or by an unusually large number of the gut bacterium, they would have a much different gut make-up (microbiome) in later life than normal bees.
  • Bees treated with combinations of the bacterium and/or parasites showed greater key detoxification gene activity when placed in a stressed (low-protein diet) condition. This is significant as these genes affect a bee’s ability to breakdown foreign molecules, including insecticides.
  • Bees with greater parasite infestations might spend more time in the hive as workers and thus increase the likelihood of parasite transmission within the colony and impact the ability of the bees to gather food.

These results highlight how shifts in the bees’ gut make-up might play a crucial role in the health of the honey bee colony.

“Bee keepers need to be more mindful of what goes into their hives whether antibiotic, probiotic, or parasite,” said ARS entomologist Jay Evans. “Eight types of bacteria usually inhabit a bee’s gut. It’s clear that more research is needed in order to gain a better understanding of these microbes and their impact on bee health.”

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