The decline in bee populations around the world has had scientists scrambling for answers for years. The problem is that bees have been dying off at unprecedented rates in recent decades, which is devastating news for global agriculture and the health of our planet.
You see, the pollination bees provide is crucial for global food crops, but bees have been dramatically affected by the pesticides commonly used to improve food production.
Sadly, by trying to boost the amount of food we're producing, we've put one of the fundamental contributors to food production at serious risk.
But one team of researchers has found a promising possible solution: probiotics.
Beneficial Bacteria Helps Boost Bees' Immune Systems
In a recent study, Canadian researchers found that exposure to probiotics may help mitigate the impact of pesticides on honey bees' immune systems, which in turn increases their chances of survival.1
The study focused on how exposure to neonicotinoids––the most commonly used insecticide in the world, and a major component of many agricultural pesticides–– negatively affects the microbiomes of fruit flies. As they suspected, they found that fruit flies (and by extension, bees) experience negative changes in their immunity when exposed to neonicotinoids, making them susceptible to major health issues simply from being exposed to relatively small amounts of this chemical in the air.
What’s truly interesting is that when the fruit flies were exposed to Lactobacillus plantarum (a powerful probiotic organism), the effects of the neonicotinoids were greatly reduced. The fruit flies' immune systems were impacted by the probiotic by way of the microbiome, making them much less likely to experience negative changes in their immunity and increasing their chances of survival.
What's more, the study notes that it would be easy to administer the Lactobacilli through the use of pollen patties, which beekeepers already use to provide nutritional support and anti-pesticide effects to their hives.
Probiotics Are a Potential Game Changer for Bees––and for Us!
While the best road forward would be to find a way to sustainably produce foods without using neonicotinoid pesticides, it's unlikely that that's going to happen any time soon. However, if beekeepers are able to get probiotics to their colonies, they could boost their immunity and give them a fighting chance against pesticides.
This is particularly key given just how fast bee deaths are ramping up. Honey bee mortality levels have been in the 38% to 58% range in recent years, which is over two times higher than a sustainable level.1 A big part of this is a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, in which the worker bees of a colony simply leave the hive. Millions of colonies have been lost to colony collapse disorder in the past decade, and while the causes are still not totally clear, it is apparent that neonicotinoids play a role.2
The Math Is Simple: No Bees = Food Chaos
The effect of bees on our food source really can't be overstated. Bees are responsible for over a third of pollination of crops worldwide, and nearly 75% of food crops rely on pollination to grow.3 If you put it in economic terms, pollinators are responsible for keeping hundreds of billions of dollars worth of food crops growing.4 Plus, when bees decline in a region, the plants in that region also experience a decline. And as much as we try, there's simply no way to substitute the role that bees play in our food chain with alternative species or mechanical replacements.
What Can You Do?
While you may not have bees of your own that you can give probiotics to, you can still take important steps to support bees as they go about their crucial work.
1. Support local apiaries.
While beekeeping has declined as a hobby in the U.S. (the number of honey-producing hives has dropped by about half since the 1950s), there are still lots of local beekeepers out there who could use your support as they raise healthy bees. Consider buying some local honey next time you see a beekeeper at a farmer's market. You'll not only get a fantastic source of prebiotics and a great ingredient for a face wash, you'll be happy to know that you're supporting the hard workers that keep our food growing.
2. Get out in the garden.
Another challenge for bees is the rapid urban-scaping of previously wild areas. Bees need plants just as much as plants need them, so consider planting some bee-friendly varieties in your garden. Oregano, lavender, yarrow, clover, alfalfa, and echinacea are all great choices for both you and the bees––you'll get to enjoy the lovely smells and tastes of your new plants (not to mention all the health benefits that come with being outside), and you'll also be giving your local bees the chance to thrive. Just make sure to avoid using pesticides!
3. Buy organic whenever you can.
Besides being much better for your health, organic foods are also produced without the pesticides that are so damaging to bees, so try to buy organic produce whenever you can. Even better, choose local, seasonal organic food and support your community while supporting bees! Not sure where to start? Try finding a CSA or farmer's market in your area.
With advances in the applications of probiotics along with heightened awareness around protecting bee populations, there is so much hope to be had for our furry little friends who play an important role in the diversity of our internal microbiomes and the ecosystem at large.
1. Daisley, B.A., Trinder, M. McDowell, T.W., Welle, H., Dube, J.S. . . . Reid, G. 2017. Neonicotinoid-induced Pathogen Susceptibility is Mitigated by Lactobacillus Plantarum Immune Stimulation in a Drosophila Melanogaster Model. Scientific Reports 7(2703). doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-02806-w
2. Lu, C., Warchol, K. M., Callahan, R.A. 2014. Sub-lethal Exposure to Neonicotinoids Impaired Honey Bees Winterization before Proceeding to Colony Collapse Disorder. Bulletin of Insectology 67(1).
3. Moisset, B., Buchmann, S. 2011. Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees. Washington DC: USDA Forest Service and Pollinator Partnership.
4. Gallai, N. Salles, J-M., Settele., J., Vaissière, B.E. 2009. Economic Valuation of the Vulnerability of World Agriculture Confronted with Pollinator Decline. Ecological Economics 68(3). doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.06.014.
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.