Our lab’s latest paper, co-authored by Elsa Youngsteadt and Holden Appler, was published today in PLOS ONE. We examined pathogen pressure and immune response in managed and feral honey bee workers from hives located in urban* and non-urban environments. We found some very interesting results, and as science usually goes, we now have a lot more questions.
The urban bees we examined in the study, regardless of whether they were feral or managed, had higher levels of the fungal pathogen Nosema ceranae and Black Queen Cell Virus. We also tested the survival of urban bees in the lab and compared it to their more rural neighbors. Survival for bees in the most urban environments was three times lower than for those in the most rural environments.
Given the stress factors that urban settings present to foraging bees (such as pollution and higher temps), it’s easy to imagine that a compromised immune system in the urbanites might be the culprit. Kinda like when you get super stressed and stay up all night cramming for that big exam (or partying) and find yourself with a cold a few days later. But, our data didn’t support this idea; we didn’t observe a stronger immune response in rural bees relative to urban bees. Something else seems to be contributing to the higher pathogen pressures we saw in the urban bees.
We hypothesized that that ‘something else’ could be urban factors working in favor of the pathogens, making them more abundant or easier to transmit between honey bee workers from different hives. Higher frequency of worker visits at scarce urban food sources could increase the likelihood that bees will pick up diseases from their environment (think the public water fountain or the notorious buffet line). The fungal pathogen in question, N. ceranae, has also been shown to benefit from the warmer temps we see in cities.
This study sets the stage for so many more questions. If urban environments indeed enhance pathogen survival and change the way diseases spread through honey bee populations, is this a red flag for native bee species that share floral and other resources in these cramped urban landscapes? Is urbanization harming them too? Could pathogens jump from honey bees to native bees because they are more abundant or doing better in the city environment? April Hamblin and Margarita López-Uribe are looking into some of these questions and trying to tease out the effects urban living has on our neighborhood native bees.
Check out the paper for some more interesting findings not covered here, and stay tuned for more to come in the native bee department.
*the level of “urban-ness” for each hive was determined using the amount of impermeable surface (concrete, pavement, etc.) in the typical radius a worker bee flies from the hive, 1500 m.