Bees on the frontline of superbug fight
Bees are essential to the survival of our planet, yet their numbers have declined significantly over the past 20 years.
People are being encouraged to plant a variety of wildflowers, whether it is in their back gardens or in more unusual places such as the roofs of urban concrete buildings, ensuring that bee numbers don’t dwindle further and we create a pleasant urban environment in which to live.
Scientists at Cardiff University are playing their part. They are not only doing this to encourage the growth of the bee population, but by planting certain wildflowers whose nectar is present in antibacterial honey, they are hoping to find solutions to one of the world’s grand challenges, antimicrobial resistance.
Based in the University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, microbiology Professor Les Baillie and his team are using honey in an attempt to find new drugs to treat hospital infections caused by antibiotic resistant superbugs such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile.
Professor Baillie’s team is also working with a number of partners including the National Botanic Garden of Wales, St David’s Shopping Centre, Pollen8 Cymru, Wyevale Garden Centres, Cardiff University Schools Partnership funded by RCUK, and schools across Cardiff to plant bee-friendly flowers in a variety of locations across south Wales.
Working with the University’s Community Gateway project based in the Grangetown area of the city, Professor Baillie and his team have planted bee-friendly flowers in the grounds of Grange Pavilion, a former disused bowling pavilion and green.
On a cold crisp November morning, pupils from the local school, Grangetown Primary, met Professor Baillie at the Pavilion to find out more about why bees are so important and also quiz him about his research.
Professor Baillie had brought along an empty hive to show the children how it worked, a smoker, and some beekeeping suits for the children to put on.
He started by showing the children how the hive worked and what bees did to produce honey. The children were concerned about the future survival of the bees and quizzed Professor Baillie about colony disorder, the effect of pesticides and whether there was a possibility that bees could become extinct.
“No one knows what causes colony disorder. Some people think it is caused by insecticides. We use these to get rid of the insects we don’t want (but we need bees). The compounds that are used to treat the bad insects can also affect the good ones. They affect the bees' nervous system and their sense of direction. A bee has to find its way back to its hive. It is thought that pesticides used by farmers to treat their crops are killing bees. There has been a 60% decrease in the number of bees in the past 20 years. We need to increase the number of people that become beekeepers or to encourage people to grow plants that will encourage the bees.
“Bees hopefully won’t become extinct as the majority of the crops that produce our food need bees. The bees spread pollen from one plant to another and without that we have no food, so they are very important to us.”
The children were keen to find out how honey helps in the fight against antibacterial infections. One of the children had first-hand experience of this and recounted to Professor Baillie how when she had a sty on her eye, her mum had put honey on it to successfully treat the infection.
“Honey’s been used for thousands of years in many different parts of the world to treat things such as sore throats, wounds and infections, due to compounds present in the honey that kill bacteria. It was used by the Egyptians 4,000 years ago.
“Part of what we want to do in the University is find new antibiotics. If you get sick with a disease caused by an organism, you take drugs to make you better. The problem is all of those drugs are being used too much, people are treating themselves and the bacteria are getting clever and can no longer be killed by the drug. This means we need to find new drugs.
“For example, there are people in Cardiff who are interested in treating wounds; you have an infection on the back of your hand, you put honey on it and it gets better. We’re interested in the science behind that. We look at the honey and try and work out why it does what it does and understand it better,” Professor Baillie explained.
Finally the children asked which plants were responsible for the production of the antibacterial honey that Professor Baillie and his team are working on.
"Working with the National Botanic Garden of Wales we have identified the types of flowers whose nectar contains the antibacterial compounds which we have found in honey. As part of research undertaken by Dr Jenny Hawkins, we analysed 250 samples of honey provided by bee keepers from across Wales. From this collection we focused on 20 samples and were able to identify the plants visited by the bees by DNA sequencing plant-specific pollen which had been incorporated into the honey.
“For example, antibacterial compounds were present in honey produced in the back garden of a beekeeper from Tywyn in Gwynedd which killed a range of microorganisms including MRSA.
“Using this knowledge we are attempting to recreate this antibacterial honey by growing the Tywyn plants on the Cathays campus of the University and at sites across Cardiff. In addition to this targeted planting we have also
installed bee hives on the roofs of a number of University buildings and are working towards creating the first bee-friendly University in Wales.”
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Read the full interview
This is a shortened version of the full interview that features in the Winter 2016 issue of Challenge Cardiff, our research magazine.