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Bees seeking bacteria: How bees find their microbiome April 14, 2020 10.19pm AEST

The Conversation

n late summer last year my doctor prescribed a monthlong course of antibiotics for an infection. Medicines like antibiotics are great at wiping out bacterial infections. The problems is that these drugs don’t differentiate between eliminating the “good” bacteria that may benefit our health and the “bad” bacteria causing infection. I was absolutely miserable and suffering from an upset stomach and lack of appetite, until I started taking probiotics. After a few weeks of probiotics that replenished my microbiome - the bacteria in your gut that break food down into nutrients - I felt like myself again.

The next week I was in my study sites in Seattle’s public parks, surrounded by native bees. I had been so miserable without a diverse microbiome; I found myself wondering about the organisms I study. My project began with a simple question: Where do insects get their microbiome?

Insect pollinators are responsible for a huge proportion of plant pollination worldwide, including an estimated third of agricultural crop pollination. Chemicals such as pesticides and fungicides harm both honey bees and wild native bees. Recent studies are revealing the potential benefits of the bee microbiome for maintaining the health of these pollinators and mitigating viruses and disease.

As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, I study the associations between microorganisms and native bees across a variety of flowering landscapes. Little is known about which microorganisms are associated with native bees so my goal is to identify which bacteria are commonly acquired by native bees in western Washington.

Where does the microbiome come from?

The microbiome is a diverse community of microscopic organisms that live in and on the human body and provide a variety of health benefits. The bacteria present in your gut have been linked to defense against and the development of gastrointestinal cancer. These microbes are critical for absorption of nutrients in infants during the months following birth. They are also essential to help breakdown food into vitamins and amino acids.

Taking probiotics, eating yogurt with added cultures, or eating fermented foods can replenish your gut microbiome with bacteria. Human infants gain beneficial microbes through breastfeeding, boosting infants’ ability to digest milk and solid food.

While there has been a lot of research focusing on the human microbiome, little is known about the bee microbiome.

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