I spent several hours over the last couple of days surfing the internet, looking for interesting things to write about. Nothing rocked my boat though until I came across an article about the microbiome of honey bees.[i]
Yeah, I know it doesn’t sound all that exciting at first but bear with me for a moment. It turns out that queen bees have much longer lifespans than do workers (weeks for workers but years for queens), and the reason for this appears to be the different microbes living in their guts. (ah ha!) And of course, as every one of us is getting older by the day, I reckoned the article was worth a read.
Researchers at the University of Arizona examined the connection between gut bacteria, food, aging, stress and longevity in bees by comparing aging workers to aging queens. They found that as worker bees age, their gut microbiomes shift toward more and more unhealthy bacterial species, while the queens continued to host healthy microbiomes. Like worker bees, aging humans too lose beneficial species like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, and instead, have increases in unhealthy Proteobacteria species. Aging humans and worker bees lose the bacteria that produce short chain fatty acids, which is crucial for good health. (I’ve written about this several times before. For example, you can read more about it here and here.)
Another interesting finding: bees carry a nutrient storage molecule called vitellogenin in the fat and blood. It acts as an antioxidant, immune booster and suppresses inflammation. Queen bees continue to have high levels throughout life while in worker bees, levels start to taper off within a few days. Why? Well, apparently the queen bee is fed only Royal Jelly , which is “…the bee’s equivalent of breast milk, supporting beneficial bacteria and containing antimicrobial peptides. The study suggests that royal jelly, which enhances the growth of queen-specific gut microbes, sets the queen on a trajectory toward a much longer life by shifting her gut microbiome away from that of the common worker bee. Workers, on the other hand, rely mostly on pollen as their staple food.”[ii]
So eating a healthy diet that feeds good bacteria leads to an many-fold increase in life, in bees. Except that…it’s not just bees. Remember that recently, I wrote about how improving the biome also enormously lengthens the lives of fruit flies.
And how about us humans? There is a large and growing body of research that shows that a healthy biome leads to healthy aging. Considering the ever-growing number of age-related diseases (like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) that are associated with unhealthy biomes, making a concerted effort to maintain gut biome health throughout your life seems like a really good idea.
p.s. Like human/Like bee: how is this for a crazy coincidence? As I was getting ready to post this, I spotted an article entitled, “These probiotics for bees are designed to boost insect immune systems.”[iii] Between pesticide use, bad diets (pollinating only single crops, for example), shrinking natural habitats and so forth, honey bees are struggling to survive these days. A start-up company is developing a probiotic product (and its patent will be royalty free and available to all beekeepers) to boost honey bees’ abilities to detoxify and to strengthen their immune systems.
[i] Kirk E. Anderson et al. The queen’s gut refines with age: longevity phenotypes in a social insect model, Microbiome (2018). DOI: 10.1186/s40168-018-0489-1