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IU Study: Microbe In Guts Of Honey Bees Could Protect Hives From Fungal Diseases

An image of hundreds of honey bees.

More than 40% of honey bee colonies in the U.S. die every year — threatening the nation’s food security. (FILE PHOTO: Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

Indiana University researchers have found a helpful microbe (Bombella apis) in the stomachs of queen bees and their larvae that can fight deadly funguses. Researchers hope this discovery will eventually lead to medicine that can protect the honey bees that Indiana farmers rely on.

More than 40% of honey bee colonies in the U.S. die every year — threatening the nation’s food security. The queen is important to the colony's survival.

IU graduate student Delaney Miller is the lead author of the study. She said researchers are now looking to find the exact molecule in the microbe that fights fungal diseases. This discovery could eventually lead to a medicine that can help worker bees or other innovations. 

“So there’s the potential — once we identify the structure of this metabolite — that it could be developed as a pesticide for agriculture that we know would not be damaging in any way to the pollinators," Miller said.

Several insecticides meant to kill pests on farms also harm honey bees and other pollinators. Irene Newton is an associate professor of biology at IU. She said this discovery could also help humans too, like an anti-fungal medicine or something that could prevent food from spoiling.

Just like a farmer might treat their cows or pigs, some beekeepers will treat their bees with antibiotics to prevent diseases. But IU researchers said overusing these antibiotics could be killing off this helpful microbe. Newton said we see something similar in people. If you take antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection:

“Simultaneously, you will also kill off a lot of your normal microflora. And this leaves you susceptible to opportunistic pathogens that can really take hold and lead to long term serious effects," she said.

Newton cautions the team hasn't confirmed that antibiotics harm these antifungal microbes in field trials, but the team's data indicates the microbes are sensitive to tetracycline — a common antibiotic for bees. 

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

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