Saving the Honeybees with Microalgae

Microalgae could provide a strong, sustainably produced artificial diet for honeybees. Photo by Vincent Ricigliano

by Georgia Jiang, ARS Office of Communications

What do honeybees eat? The usual answer to this question is nectar and pollen. However, malnutrition in honeybees — a major reason why they’re growing more susceptible to pathogens, parasites, and pesticides — is a growing issue in the world of agriculture. This problem is exacerbated by habitat loss, climate change, decreases in flowering plant diversity, and the rise of crop monoculture, all of which have contributed to the loss of pollen sources that usually keep honeybees well-fed.

Fortunately, Agricultural Research Services (ARS) scientists with the ARS Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, LA, have discovered another option on the honeybee menu: microalgae.

According to Vincent Ricigliano and Michael Simone-Finstrom, different species of microalgae possess nutritional profiles that parallel that of pollen, making the algae an ideal substitute. This is an especially important finding for commercial beekeepers, who rely heavily on pollen replacements to feed their bees on a large scale.

“Although there are currently several artificial pollen diets available, they don’t always contain adequate levels of essential macronutrients (such as lipids and proteins), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and antioxidants,” said Dr. Ricigliano. “These artificial diets try to incorporate a variety of ingredients like soy, corn gluten, yeast, egg, or milk protein, but they often fail to provide the nutrition needed by honeybees to thrive. On the other hand, microalgae are extremely rich in helpful compounds like amino acids, which are crucial for protein synthesis, immune function, and overall colony growth.”

In their research, Drs. Ricigliano and Simone-Finstrom concluded that bees that consumed microalgae diets grew to larger sizes, had more healthy bacteria in their guts because of the algae’s prebiotic qualities, and were generally more vigorous than honeybees that consumed other pollen alternatives.

Dr. Ricigliano believes that there are many species of microalgae that have the potential to improve honeybee health in different climates and seasons.

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