Probiotics to the rescue

As the world’s most important single species of pollinators, honey bees perform many ecosystem functions. They are critical to the global food supply. 

Honey bee populations are declining at alarmingly high rates here in Ontario and around the world. 

“If the bees disappear, humanity is in big trouble” states Dr. Gregor Reid, Lawson researcher and professor at Western. He is also the leading scientist for the study. “Imagine walking into the grocery store and a third of the food wasn’t there. That is what would happen.”

Pesticide exposure, infection and habitat loss are the main factors suspected to be causing the decline in honey bee populations. Pesticides in particular make infections more severe and exacerbate the consequences of nutritional deficiencies in habitat loss – making those problems even worse.  

Researcher holding part of the hive from the honey bees

Since current industrialized agricultural practice rely on pesticides to maintain high crop volume, their complete removal from the equation is not currently feasible. 

“We need an alternative solution that interferes with this process where high level of pesticides cause issues like infections and habitat loss to have more severe consequences for the honey bees,” says Dr. Reid. “Supplementing honey bees with probiotic bacteria is that solution, we believe.” 

“It may sound overly dramatic to state the research will ‘save the world’s honey bees’, but that is the goal, and other groups around the world are trying to follow this lead.”

The group of researchers from Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University are supplementing honey bees with a nutritional food item containing three carefully chosen strains of beneficial or probiotic bacteria to improve the overall health of the hive and specifically address infection and nutritional needs. 

Group of researchers working on the honey bee probiotics project

From left: Graduate students Anna Chernyshova, John Antonio Chmiel and Brendan Daisley are working on the honey bee probiotics project with Drs. Gregor Reid and Graham Thompson. 

“We are creating what we call a BioPatty. In addition to normal nutrient substances, we infuse it with a select recipe of probiotics,” explains Dr. Graham Thompson, the regional bee expert and professor at Western University who helped set up the field-testing site and manages of the honey bee hives. “Our goal is to make the bees healthier and their immune system more vigorous. This helps them stay efficient and do their important jobs, and not be so vulnerable to the stressors of living in an urban and industrial world.”

The team’s previous scientific findings in a fly model, showed that these bacterial strains could reduce the toxic effects of pesticides and increase resistance towards infection. In May 2018, they moved their research from the lab and into the field thanks to OMAFRA funding, and started to test their BioPatties in a local apiary. 


American Foulbrood caused by the pathogen Paenibacillus larvae, attacked the hives. This is one of the most serious honey bee diseases. Infection outbreaks nearly always lead to complete colony collapse and loss of the hive.  “But the hives that were given the probiotics were the only ones not to be destroyed, so that was an encouraging early result,” says Brendan Daisley, a PhD student with Dr. Reid who was involved with the development of the research and coordinates sample processing and data collection. 

“These results have far-reaching implications as American Foulbrood, despite its geographically-suggestive name, infects honey bees worldwide. It causes a tremendous financial burden to apiary owners and famers alike, who rely on honey bees directly or indirectly as a means of livelihood,” explains Daisley. 

The probiotic approach might reduce the need for antibiotics that are so commonly used in many apiaries. 

This work is taking place in London, Ontario and the study will continue over the next three years. Going forward, the researchers are planning to work with collaborators in a number of other countries around the world to determine the feasibility of large-scale implementation of probiotics for honey bees. 

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