London researchers discover probiotics may help insects fend off infections

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It turns out probiotics, those beneficial bacteria popularized by yogurt ads, might have health-boosting effects for pesticide-battered bees too, a new London-based study suggests.

Researchers at Western University and the Lawson Research Institute, testing fruit flies in their lab, exposed some of the insects to neonicotinoids – a controversial seed treatment often blamed for killing bees.

“It turns out the pesticide does in fact kill the fly quicker and we think it’s because it affects their immune response,” said Gregor Reid, director of the Canadian Centre for Human Microbiome and Probiotic Research at the Lawson institute.

“Bacteria that might not normally harm the fly then goes on to kill them.”

But when the exposed bugs were given a lactobacilli probiotic, not unlike ones found in some human food, the flies fended off infections better, the researchers found.

“It helps them counter the pathogens that would normally kill them. It means that they live longer,” he said.

“It comes back to the benefits of certain types of bacteria and using those benefits to help either humans or society and the ecosystem that we live in.”

Reid said fruit flies are a good model for bees but is hoping to expand his study to the pollinators in the future – a complicated and expensive experiment that would require a special netted enclosure and the co-operation of a beekeeper.

Reid has applied for funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to make it happen.

In the meantime, Reid isn’t suggesting beekeepers start feeding their hives probiotic yogurt. Though more research is needed, in the future, specific beneficial bacteria strains could be introduced to colonies to help protect bees.

“When they come across the pesticide, hopefully this helps counter the negative effect,” he said.

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