Why beewolves don't worry about antibiotic resistance

February 15, 2018, 8:34 a.m.
A female beewolf (Philanthus basilaris) at its nest entrance
Photo: Martin Kaltenpoth/Johannes Gutenberg University

Antibiotics may have transformed medicine in the 20th century, but the opponents — infectious diseases — are constantly adapting and becoming tougher to beat.

Beewolves have been using antibiotics a lot longer than we have, and they haven't had that problem. Neither wolves nor bees — beewolves are solitary digger wasps that produce an antibiotic cocktail that hasn't changed in 68 million years. And it still works just fine.

These wasps drag paralyzed bees to their underground nests for their young to feed upon once they hatch. After feasting for a bit, these larvae then hibernate in a cocoon. While they're hibernating, the larvae are vulnerable to a fast-growing fungus in the soil. Without some sort of defense mechanism, the species would've likely died out centuries ago.

Their secret was unearthed in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to a team from Johannes Gutenberg University and the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, beewolves breed bacteria in their antenna and then rub the bacteria on the walls where their larvae will hibernate. Silk from the cocoons mixes with the bacteria and the result is a protective layering that wards off the fungi.

Despite the formula not changing since the Cretaceous Period, the mixture is strong enough to stop a variety of fungi. Scientists think that the key to the cocktail's success is that the bacteria's enzymes aren't particularly selective with what they bind to, resulting in a number of substances that can be modified in different ways. It's essentially the broadest spectrum antibiotic, and it keeps the fungi on its toes because it doesn't have a chance to adapt.

The beewolves' lifestyle also prevents the fungi from adapting. Beewolves live in small populations and often relocate. Pathogens don't have a chance to spread to, or even within, other populations, as they can with humans.

Related on MNN: 7 species with "superpowers" thanks to evolution and invasion