Honeybees – A Sampling Tool for Urban Microbiomes?

Urban areas are home to a variety of microbial ecosystems, yet our understanding of the diversity and complexity of these communities is limited. Recent research has suggested that honeybees may provide an effective sampling tool for urban microbiomes.


In this blog, we will explore the background, results, and potential applications of this research. 


Read on to learn more.


A recent piece from National Geographic highlights the use of honeybees to identify the unique microbiota of specific cities and other environments. Honeybees and their microbiome have attracted much research attention due to their global decline, but this article samples the debris in honeybee hives to determine the composition of the microbial communities in cities they are located in. 


The recent article, published in the Environmental Microbiome Journal, has found that DNA material found in the debris of honeybee hives reveals each city may have a unique microbiome. 


By analyzing debris at the bottom of honeybee hives in cities around the world, including New York, Sydney, Melbourne, Venice, and Tokyo, scientists were able to identify a unique genetic signature for each location. 


This method has the potential to make city-wide microorganism monitoring much easier and less expensive.


According to the article in National Geographic, the research of Dr. Elizabeth Héneff and colleagues was inspired by a honeybee incident in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where bees raided a nearby maraschino cherry factory and produced bright-red honey. 


This event made the scientists think that sampling honeybees, which swarm in different locations in cities, may be more effective than collecting individual swabs from a plethora of different urban surfaces. 


Consequently, the researchers launched a pilot study to examine what other substances New York’s honey bees were bringing back to their hives, and discovered a diverse array of genetic data, most of which came from the hive debris.


By sampling honey, dead bees, and debris from beehives in cities around the world, scientists have identified fungi, yeast, and bacteria commonly found in each unique environment. For example, in Venice, the hive debris was dominated by fungi commonly found in rotting wood, which is abundant in the waterlogged city.


Meanwhile, samples of hive debris from Tokyo were loaded with a strain of yeast used in soy sauce fermentation, and DNA from a pathogen that causes cat’s scratch fever was also found in some of the samples.


Through their daily foraging, honeybees sample the soil, water, air, and everything in between, and the debris created by honeybees in urban areas is “a really interesting way to go about sampling the environment,” according to Dr. Lewis Barlett working at the University of Georgia.


Although more research is needed to determine if honeybees can be used to effectively detect diseases in cities, this method of sampling debris at the bottom of honeybee hives has the potential to revolutionize city-wide microorganism monitoring. 


Nonetheless, honeybees are multicellular organisms which harbor their own microbiome and have their own mechanisms to interact with their environmental microbes. Genetic variation in the bees may also lead to variation in their microbiome, microbial interactions and microbiomes sampled in their hives. 


Consequently, sampling urban microbiomes through bees has still some biases to overcome. In this context, mapping urban microbiomes from different surfaces still remains meaningful, regardless of its laborious nature.

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Barış Özdinç

Barış Özdinç analyzes microbiome research with his educational background in genetics and evolution. As a research analyst for CosmosID, he combines metagenomics and data analyses to identify microbial biomarkers in disease cohorts and evaluate microbiome research tools. His work involves curating microbiome data and creating interesting microbiome content for newsletters and blog posts. Barış Özdinç received his bachelor’s degree in genetics and master’s degree in biodiversity, evolution, and conservation from University College London (UCL). Currently, he lives in Istanbul, Turkey, where he lives with his cat, Delight, and mentors female students in their STEM career pursuits.