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Gary E. Frank headshot

Honey Bees May Soon Take Probiotics to Improve Their Health

In the largest field trial of its kind, Seed Health's probiotic blend for honey bees improved the insects' immune resilience against environmental stressors like infectious diseases and pesticides.
By Gary E. Frank
A beekeeper holds honeycomb with honey bees on it.

A probiotic blend can enhance honey bees’ immune resilience against environmental stress, according to a recent study. Based on the largest field trial of its kind, the microbial science company Seed Health recently announced the findings of an independent study showing the efficacy of its LX3 probiotic blend for honey bees.

The potential benefit is sorely needed as nearly half of the honey bee colonies in the United States died in 2022 — the second-highest death rate on record. The importance of honey bees to global food supplies can’t be overstated: They pollinate more than 100 of the crops humans consume, including nuts, vegetables, berries, citrus and melons.

Honey bee populations are experiencing such high mortality rates due to infectious disease, pesticide exposure, climate change and habitat loss, said Brendan Daisley, a fellow with Seed Health's SeedLabs project. 

“We can’t address all of the diseases, and we can’t address all of the causal factors, but we hope to address two of them with a probiotic approach,” said Daisley, who is also a postdoctoral researcher at Western University and the University of Guelph. “The reasons why probiotics make sense for addressing the infectious disease component and the pesticide component is that we’ve shown that probiotics can increase detoxification of pesticides and increase honey bee immunity toward infectious diseases.”

Why probiotics for honey bees?

Similar to the effects of antibiotic overuse in humans, extensive use of neonicotinoid pesticides — insecticides chemically similar to nicotine that impact the bug’s nervous system — disrupts the delicate microbiome balance in honey bees. This weakens their digestive system, damages their immune function, and heightens their susceptibility to infectious diseases. When these effects are compounded by disease-carrying parasites, pests, and climate change-induced alterations in weather patterns and habitat, the result is a precipitous decline in honey bee populations.

In 2018, Seed Health established its environmental research offshoot, SeedLabs, to develop new ways to use bacteria to boost biodiversity and help ecosystems impacted by human activity to recover. That same year, SeedLabs engineered the BioPatty, a pollen patty that includes three probiotic strains scientifically proven to enhance honey bees’ immune response, increase resistance to infections, and mitigate the detrimental effects of toxic pesticides. 

Testing probiotics in the hive

The latest 24-week field trial evaluated the effects of this probiotic blend when delivered as the BioPatty and as a new spray-based formula. The latter was designed to address any concerns over probiotic viability and enable the distribution throughout a hive.

The probiotics were given to more than 30 hives in a pathogen-dense region of California for a month. Both the spray and the patty resulted in benefits to honey bees that correspond with overall colony health, according to the study. 

Both delivery systems got the probiotics to the hive effectively, but which method was used affected bee health differently, Daisely said. 

“The spray-based probiotic nearly completely eliminated all signs of fungal disease, whereas the BioPatty wasn’t able to reduce fungal diseases as effectively,” Daisley said. “The main benefit of the patty that we determined is that the BioPatty was better at improving nutrition in honey bees.”

The field trials showed that the spray was “uniquely effective” against pathogens that target the larval bee offspring, and it reduced levels of harmful plant-sourced fungi. Whereas the patty, in addition to providing a nutrient benefit to the bees, enriched health-associated microbes in the adult bees, reduced levels of a  disease-causing fungus and significantly increased the amount of healthy bee larvae. Both the spray and patty reduced the pathogens responsible for causing the deadly diseases European foulbrood and American foulbrood.

Either method of delivering the probiotic may be used, depending on the intended results, said Raja Dhir, co-founder and co-CEO of Seed Health. “Considering the distinct advantages of each method, a combined approach could be valuable,” Dhir told 3p. “Further field studies are ongoing in Canada, and we hope to determine the advantages of using both methods in the future.”

Looking ahead: An open-source solution for honey bee probiotics 

Seed Health filed a patent for the LX3 probiotic blend with the intent of allowing beekeepers and farmers around the world to open-source the methods for their own hives. 

“We believe innovations to support the health of our shared planet shouldn’t be proprietary,” Dhir said. “With our probiotic blend now further validated in the largest field trial of its kind, we are committed to ensuring its accessibility. By open-sourcing our formulation, we aim to offer beekeepers innovative solutions to incorporate probiotics into their regimens, helping to improve honey bee health and safeguard the future of the bees.”

Image credit: Anete Lusina/Pexels

Gary E. Frank headshot

Gary E. Frank is a writer with more than 30 years of experience encompassing journalism, marketing, media relations, speech writing, university communications and corporate communications. 

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