IU researchers focus on improving bee health

Researchers are studying the ways in which stressors affect honey bees, especially nutrition, and how providing nutrition to developing bees can help alleviate that stress.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In a quiet field outside Bloomington, Indiana University researchers check on their honey bees.

“So what we’re looking for right now is brood, and that’s the developing larvae,” Audrey Parrish, IU Ph.D. candidate and researcher said.

On a hot July day, Parrish joined Dr. Irene Newton, a professor of microbiology and bioinformatics at Indiana University, on site as they monitored the health of their bee colony.

“Oh, look at that pollen basket feeder,” Parrish pointed out, looking at the honey bees.

Parrish and Newton are studying ways that stressors affect honey bees, especially nutrition, and how providing food for developing bees can help alleviate that stress.

“We are interested in identifying microbes that are associated with bees and that can serve as probiotics. Probiotics are bacteria that you can give to an organism or a person and that can provide benefit in any specific context. People have probably heard of the probiotics in yogurt that help us with digestion and nutrition, so we want to identify the microbes that are associated with bees that might provide certain benefits and figure out how best to deliver them in agricultural context,” Newton said.

“Imagine you’re developing a larva and you get the food that your housemates provide you, but unfortunately they don’t have very good resources. They do their best to feed you, but you can only do so much with the material you have and it’s important to get strong during this period,” Parrish said. “So what the bacteria that are present in this niche do is transform the food that you get from your roommates into something more nutritious, so that despite the difficulties with your nutrition, you will still be able to grow and mature in the bee you should be.”

Honey bees are critical to getting food from farm to table. The USDA reports that honeybees are behind one out of every three bites of food we eat.

But the population has been in serious decline since the colony collapsed for decades.

“They’re really the most important pollinator in agriculture globally, they’re the organisms that will pollinate all the important fruits, nuts and vegetables that people love,” Newton said. “So without the bees around, we really wouldn’t have these foods in our grocery stores.”

Newton said they’re interested in identifying microbes for bees that can serve as probiotics for the bees’ diet and supply them with — and they’ve identified one that could help.

“So this organism that we found, Bombella apis, is the microbe that resides in the digestive tract of the queen. The queen is the most important member of the colony, she is the only reproductively capable member, she is responsible for laying all those eggs to raise the next generation of bees. She is the only one able to maintain the strength and numbers of the colonies, so her health and longevity are critically important to the colonies,” Newton said.

There are different strains and varieties of Bombella apis, and their team is working to identify the best ones to provide for the larvae in these bee colonies, offering early-stage feeding to reduce stress and help populations.

“Our goal is basically to create a panel of good Bombella isolates that will protect bees from these colonies in the environment and help naturally complement bee resistance,” Newton said.

“It seems like a pretty easy fix,” Parrish said. “It’s even as easy as that we could give you Bombella apis and you can put it in sugar water and put that sugar water outside the colony and the workers will bring that sugar water. Bombella will make it into the important niches most likely because they feed it to all the larvae as soon as they get it.”

“We are very keen to develop this as an intervention for beekeepers,” Newton said. They’ve created a company that can help them commercialize their research so they can use it to help honeybees not only survive, but thrive.”

“Giving them supplements that will not only improve the health of their colonies, but won’t cost them any extra time is quite innovative. And that’s something we’re really excited about,” Parrish said.

This help for honey bees will not only affect their critical populations, but it could also help our own food supply down the road, according to Newton.

“If we can strengthen and increase bee populations, then that will definitely be reflected in the price we pay for our food at the grocery store,” Newton said.

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