Worth buzzing about: Urban Honeybees are gathering data on city health

The technique would be a fitting tool alongside other measures to assess the microbial diversity and health of cities and honeybees.
Deena Theresa
A honeybee hive frame.
A honeybee hive frame.


Cities and urban landscapes are not just homes to humans, but to microbial communities present in the soil, air, water, and buildings. Microbial landscapes differ from one city to the next, and understanding them could provide a plethora of information on human health. They could help improve city design, urban planning, and human health.

But, sampling this microbiome was a tedious task. Until now.

In a study published in Environmental Microbiome on March 29, scientists recommend employing the humble, urban honeybee, to gain better insights into the microbiome of the cities in which they forage. Turns out, since honeybees are known to look for food daily up to one mile from their hives, they can also help gather samples of microorganisms from their hives.

Diverse genetic data was found in debris at the bottom of the hive

As part of a pilot study, Elizabeth Hénaff and colleagues sampled materials from three hives in New York and found diverse genetic information, including environmental bacteria, in the debris found at the bottom of the hives. Samples of hive debris from Melbourne, Venice, and Tokyo, revealed that each location has a "unique genetic signature" as seen by honeybees, a press release said.

While fungi from wood rot and date palm DNA dominated the genetic data in Venice, the sample in Melbourne contained Eucalyptus DNA. The sample from Sydney showed plant DNA and genetic data from a bacteria that breaks down rubber(Gordonia polyisoprenivorans). Tokyo samples included plant DNA from Lotus and the wild soybean, as well as the soy sauce fermenting yeast Zygosaccharomyces rouxii

Interestingly, the authors also found genetic material for Rickettsia felis (‘cat scratch fever’), a pathogen spread to humans via cat scratches. "These findings indicate the potential of this as a surveillance method but are currently too preliminary to suggest that this is an effective method of monitoring human diseases," the release said.

The authors also found bee-related microorganisms, whose presence indicates a healthy hive, in the debris. They also found bee pathogens such as Paenibacillus larvaeMelissococcus plutonius, or the parasite Varroa destructor. According to the team, these findings indicate that debris could also be used to assess the overall health of the hives.

The study concludes by stating that honeybee hive debris collected by bees provides a clear snapshot of the microbial landscape of urban environments. They would be a fitting tool alongside other measures to assess the microbial diversity and health of cities and honeybees.

Study Abstract:

Background: Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas with, according to the United Nations, nearly 70% expected to live in cities by 2050. Our cities are built by and for humans, but are also complex, adaptive biological systems involving a diversity of other living species. The majority of these species are invisible and constitute the city’s microbiome. Our design decisions for the built environment shape these invisible populations, and as inhabitants we interact with them on a constant basis. A growing body of evidence shows us that human health and well-being are dependent on these interactions. Indeed, multicellular organisms owe meaningful aspects of their development and phenotype to interactions with the microorganisms—bacteria or fungi—with which they live in continual exchange and symbiosis. Therefore, it is meaningful to establish microbial maps of the cities we inhabit. While the processing and sequencing of environmental microbiome samples can be high-throughput, gathering samples is still labor and time intensive, and can require mobilizing large numbers of volunteers to get a snapshot of the microbial landscape of a city.

Results: Here we postulate that honeybees may be effective collaborators in gathering samples of urban microbiota, as they forage daily within a 2-mile radius of their hive. We describe the results of a pilot study conducted with three rooftop beehives in Brooklyn, NY, where we evaluated the potential of various hive materials (honey, debris, hive swabs, bee bodies) to reveal information as to the surrounding metagenomic landscape, and where we conclude that the bee debris are the richest substrate. Based on these results, we profled 4 additional cities through collected hive debris: Sydney, Melbourne, Venice and Tokyo. We show that each city displays a unique metagenomic profle as seen by honeybees. These profles yield information relevant to hive health such as known bee symbionts and pathogens. Additionally, we show that this method can be used for human pathogen surveillance, with a proof-of-concept example in which we recover the majority of virulence factor genes for Rickettsia felis, a pathogen known to be responsible for “cat scratch fever”.

Conclusions: We show that this method yields information relevant to hive health and human health, providing a strategy to monitor environmental microbiomes on a city scale. Here we present the results of this study, and discuss them in terms of architectural implications, as well as the potential of this method for epidemic surveillance.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board