Could probiotics protect honey bees from pesticides? Western University researchers say maybe

A new study from Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University has found that a specific strain of probiotics has the potential of improving immunity among insects to the toxic effects of pesticides.

The study used fruit flies, which are affected similarly by pesticides, have very similar immune systems and share many common microbes present in their microbiota – the collection of micro-organisms found in each insect.

READ MORE: How the pesticide believed to be killing the bees could be affecting humans

Honey bees are critical to agriculture, pollinating over a third of the global food crop, but populations have been steadily declining worldwide. The government of Ontario reported that in the province, 340 beekeepers reported an abnormally high number of bee deaths, with over 70 per cent of dead bees testing positive for residue of neonicotinoid insecticides, the most common pesticide.

“The demise of honey bees would be disastrous for humankind. A current dilemma in agriculture is how to prevent bee decline while mitigating crop losses,” says Dr. Gregor Reid, director of the Canadian Centre for Human Microbiome and Probiotic Research at Lawson, and professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

“We wanted to see whether probiotics could counter the toxic effects of pesticides and improve honey bee survival.”

READ MORE: Ontario court dismisses farmers’ appeal over ban on pesticides linked to bee deaths

The study, performed by trainees at St. Joseph’s Hospital in London, found that the survival rate among fruit flies exposed to a similar amount of pesticides as honey bees would be improved significantly in the field when the fruit flies were administered with lactobacilli, a specific strain of probiotic.

The probiotic stimulates the immune system through a pathway that insects use to adapt to infection, heat and other stresses.

“While cessation of pesticide use would be ideal, farmers currently have little alternative to obtain the yields that keep their businesses viable,” says Reid.

“Until we can cease using pesticides, we need to find ways to protect humans and wildlife against their side effects. Probiotics may prove as an effective protective intervention against colony collapse disorder.”

The researchers hope to further study how this process would play out in the field on honey bees in Ontario.



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