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Maternal care provides lifelong health benefits to carpenter bees

Researchers at York University have discovered the profound influence of maternal care on the development, microbiome, and overall health of carpenter bees. 

Contrary to popular belief, most wild bees lead solitary lives. But among these solitary creatures, the carpenter bee stands out. These tiny bees nurture and care for their offspring like human mothers. 

Tremendous health benefits 

Maternal care provides tremendous benefits to the microbiome, development, and overall health of the young carpenter bees. It shields the bees from harmful pathogens during crucial stages of development. 

In fact, the absence of maternal care results in an alarming increase in pathogen loads. The researchers found that 85 percent of these pathogens were fungi, while 8 percent were bacteria. 

Developmental changes 

Such an imbalance drastically affects the bees’ microbiome, which is vital for their health. It impacts not just their immune system and gene expression but can lead to developmental changes in their brain, eyes, and even behavior. 

One notable fungus, Aspergillus, induces the lethal stonebrood disease in honey bees, turning them into mummified versions of their former selves.

Focus of the study

During the course of the study, researchers closely observed the carpenter bees through four distinct developmental stages, starting from the larvae stage. 

The team compared and contrasted the effects of the presence and absence of maternal care on these stages.

Overall health

The experts report that a lack of maternal care in the later stages of life causes a diminished microbiome in carpenter bees, which raises their vulnerability to diseases and adversely affects their general health.

The research also highlighted how gene expression or suppression, and the regulation thereof, combined with disease loads and maternal care, play a pivotal role in affecting the bee’s microbiome and overall health.

“We are documenting the shifts in development, the shifts in disease loads, and it is a big deal because in wild bees there is a lot less known about their disease loads. We are highlighting all of these factors for the first time,” said senior author Sandra Rehan, a professor in York’s Faculty of Science.

Critical early stages

Being single mothers, carpenter bees construct one nest annually within the core of deceased plant stems. Here, from spring to fall, they give birth and look after their young diligently. 

However, any factor disrupting the mother from tending to her offspring, such as excessive pruning during spring or fall, escalates the risks of nest predation and parasitism, with dire consequences for the young.

“We found really striking shifts in the earliest stages, which was surprising as we didn’t expect that stage to be the most significantly changed,” said study lead author Katherine Chau. 

“Looking at gene expression of these bees you can see how the slightest dysregulation early in development cascades through their whole formation. It is all interconnected and shows how vital maternal care is in early childhood development.”

Study implications 

This research emphasizes the importance of maternal care in the wild bee’s life and the broader implications it holds for their development and overall health. 

“It is a complex paper that provides layers of data and shows the power of genomics as a tool,” said Rehan. “It allows us to document the interactions between host and environment. I think that is the power of this approach and the new technologies and techniques that we are developing.”

Rehan hopes the research will give people more insight into the hidden life of bees and their vast differences, but also similarities. 

“Often people see bees as a monolith, but when you understand the complexity of bees and that there are wild bees and managed bees, people are more likely to care about bee diversity.”

The study is published in the journal Communications Biology

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