UCR professor discovers bacterial connection between wild bees and flowers

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Quinn McFrederick, assistant professor of entomology at UCR, recently uncovered a close relationship between wild bee and flower microbiomes, as well as the importance of microbiomes in overall bee fitness, or the ability to pass on genes. Using this discovery, he hopes to elucidate changes in the gut microbiome of wild bees in response to environmental changes for the purpose of conservation and protection of the declining bee population.

Between 2006 and 2013, an estimated 10 million beehives have been decimated by an affliction known as colony collapse disorder, a disease that causes the death of a majority of the worker bee population within a hive. According to a U.N. Report, “out of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated.” Describing this very problem, McFrederick expressed his concern with our dependence on honeybees, saying in an interview with UCR Today, “We are putting all of our eggs in one basket … what if this collapses?”

Other recent literature and research substantiates this worry, claiming that our reliance on honeybees for commercial pollination is “a risky strategy, especially given major threats to the health of managed honey bee colonies.” And according to McFrederick, this threat makes it even more crucial for scientists to understand another type of pollinator known as the wild bee.  

McFrederick’s research focused on the gut microbiome of wild bees, or the collection of bacteria living in an organism’s digestive tract. A great deal of research has been devoted to studying the role of the gut microbiome in humans for its importance in the maintenance of our health. Robert Knight, professor of pediatrics at UCSD and co-founder of the American Gut Project, is widely considered to be the grandfather of microbiome research in humans. McFrederick emphasized that the gut microbiome is of particular interest in the wild bee since the microbiome is important for host health and because of its role in nutrition and defense against diseases. He added that the goal of studying the microbiome is to “learn how to leverage microbes to improve bee health.”

McFrederick collected flowers and wild bees in Riverside and Texas, and analyzed the gut microbiomes of both samples. However, some flowers were isolated to see how the resulting microbiome would change. Bags were placed over the plants, and the flowers were removed, all in an effort to physically separate the wild bees and flowers, thereby deterring the bees from visiting the flowers. It was shown that after analyzing the microbiomes on “bagged” flowers and flowers that were in contact with the wild bees, the types of bacteria were the same, suggesting that flowers “act as hubs of transmission of these bacteria between bees” and that bacteria may be transferred from flower to flower via airborne agents. Additionally, McFrederick found that the bacteria Lactobacillus was found on all bee and flower samples, a type of bacteria he believes aids bees in preserving nectar and pollen.

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