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What Bacteria Imbalance in Honeybees Means

November 29, 2016

Bee Colony Collapse, Honey, Honey Bees

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has come across a direct link between honeybee health and bacteria. A team of scientists and their collaborators studied the effects of each bee’s diet and the bacteria that can be found inside their digestive system.

A honeybee's diet consists of two things: nectar and honey. Both are produced and collected from flowers—the nectar is a sweet water while pollen is more of a protein packed powder. Combined, honeybees’ diet of nectar and pollen allows them to produce honey for their entire hive. The process is crucial for survival, but it can also be a route to cross contamination and a source of harmful bacteria.

Teams of USDA scientists tested the diets of bees and the levels of bacteria found in their intestines. Caged honeybees were put on a diet of either fresh or aged pollen and supplements. After a week, the team euthanized and dissected the bees to identify the various bacteria communities that had colonized in their digestive tracts. The team also compared the bees’ physiology and what effects the diet might have on their growth and development.

The honeybees that were given fresh pollen and supplements were better off than the bees who were fed aged pollen and supplements. The bees that were given the fresh diet suffered fewer deaths and had better energy levels and development as well as lower levels of gut pathogens. Studies also revealed that the pollen lasted longer than the supplements.

The bees that consumed aged supplements had bigger nurse glands—glands that enable honeybees to make the royal jelly needed to feed the queen and her larvae as well as ensure survival for the colony. The bees’ larger glands could be in response to the royal jelly they lacked in their developmental stage as well as their exposure to bad bacteria. The aged diet also caused bees to experience a significant loss in flight muscle. Poor development like this can increase early mortality rates in bees. The flight muscle weight helps determine their transition from nurse bee to forager. If bees are unable to fly, their food supply becomes harder to collect, and it can affect their ability to increase their lifespan.

With further research, new supplement formulas and better practices can be created to improve the health of honeybees and their diets, improving their lifespan and the development of their colonies.

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