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Honeybees can shed light on the health of cities

A groundbreaking study published in the journal Environmental Microbiome suggests that urban honeybees could hold the key to unlocking insights into the microbiomes of cities around the world, providing valuable information about both hive and human health. As cities are designed for human habitation, they also host a myriad of other living species. 

Understanding this diverse landscape is crucial for urban planning and human health. However, sampling the microbial landscape in a way that covers vast urban areas can be labor-intensive and challenging.

Lead researcher Elizabeth Hénaff and her team delved into the potential of honeybees to help gather samples of microorganisms across cities. Honeybees are known to forage daily up to one mile from their hives in urban environments. 

The researchers conducted a pilot study in New York, where they sampled various materials from three hives. They discovered diverse genetic information, including environmental bacteria, in the debris accumulated at the bottom of the hives. 

Further samples of hive debris from Sydney, Melbourne, Venice, and Tokyo revealed that each location possesses a unique genetic signature as seen by honeybees.

In Venice, the genetic data was predominantly composed of fungi related to wood rot and date palm DNA. Melbourne’s sample was dominated by Eucalyptus DNA, while the Sydney sample showed little plant DNA but contained genetic data from a bacteria species that degrades rubber (Gordonia polyisoprenivorans). Tokyo samples included plant DNA from Lotus and wild soybean, as well as the soy sauce fermenting yeast Zygosaccharomyces rouxii.

The experts also identified genetic material from the hive debris for Rickettsia felis (‘cat scratch fever’), a pathogen spread to humans through cat scratches. Although these findings highlight the potential of using this method for surveillance, they are currently too preliminary to suggest its effectiveness in monitoring human diseases.

Moreover, the hive debris contained bee-related microorganisms, likely originating from honeybee parts present in the debris. Based on 33 samples from hives across the four subsequent cities, the authors found known bee microorganisms indicating a healthy hive. In some cases, bee pathogens such as Paenibacillus larvae, Melissococcus plutonius, or the parasite Varroa destructor were detected. These findings suggest that debris analysis could also be employed to assess the overall health of honeybee hives.

In conclusion, the study demonstrates that honeybee hive debris offers a snapshot of the microbial landscape of urban environments. This innovative approach could be used alongside other measures to assess the microbial diversity and health of cities and honeybees alike, helping researchers better understand the complex interactions between humans, bees, and urban ecosystems.

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