Honeybees could be biomonitors for AMR spread, suggests paper

The insects can carry genetic elements of key AMR drivers in their digestive tracts

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Wednesday 06 September 2023

European honeybees can be an effective biomonitor for determining the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in urban neighbourhoods. A recent paper has found the insects can carry genetic elements of key AMR drivers in their digestive tracts.

AMR is the ability of bacteria and other microbes to resist the drugs used to inhibit or kill them. The paper was published in journal Environmental Science and Technology in July 2023. 

The dangerous rise of AMR could lead to up to 10 million deaths annually by 2050, a United Nations Environment Programme report released February 2023 found. This would be on par with the 2020 rate of global deaths from cancer.

A World Health Organization report in 2022 showed that over 50 per cent of life-threatening bacterial infections are becoming resistant to treatment. The numbers were this high even though many countries could not report data for 2020 due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

The global health body had called for more research to discover why AMR had increased and the extent to which infections are related to hospitalisations and antibiotic treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

European honeybees, or Apis mellifera, can be “crowdsourced” environmental proxy as they interact with contaminants in soil, dust, air, water and pollen while they forage, according to the scientists from Macquarie University, Australia. 

“Bees interact with human environments, so they are a really good indicator of pollution that may present of risk of harm to humans,” said first author Kara Fry from Macquarie University, reported news aggregator  

The researchers looked into the gut bacteria of 144 bees. Genetic elements called Class 1 integrons (intI1) were investigated as a universal AMR indicator. IntI1 was found to be pervasive across the urban environment, occurring in 52 per cent of the bees assessed. 

The researchers examined eight bees from 18 hives each belonging to citizen-scientist beekeepers across Greater Sydney. The authors found 80 per cent bees sampled across all hives were positive for one or more AMR targets. 

More integrons were expected to be found in more densely populated areas, according to the scientists. Instead, they discovered them all over the place, with higher concentrations near bodies of water like dams and lakes.

Bees only live for about four weeks, Fry further said. “So whatever you're seeing in a bee is something that is in the environment right now,” she said. 

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