Unique honey bee (Apis mellifera) hive component-based communities as detected by a hybrid of phospholipid fatty-acid and fatty-acid methyl ester analyses

PLoS One. 2015 Apr 7;10(4):e0121697. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121697. eCollection 2015.


Microbial communities (microbiomes) are associated with almost all metazoans, including the honey bee Apis mellifera. Honey bees are social insects, maintaining complex hive systems composed of a variety of integral components including bees, comb, propolis, honey, and stored pollen. Given that the different components within hives can be physically separated and are nutritionally variable, we hypothesize that unique microbial communities may occur within the different microenvironments of honey bee colonies. To explore this hypothesis and to provide further insights into the microbiome of honey bees, we use a hybrid of fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) and phospholipid-derived fatty acid (PLFA) analysis to produce broad, lipid-based microbial community profiles of stored pollen, adults, pupae, honey, empty comb, and propolis for 11 honey bee hives. Averaging component lipid profiles by hive, we show that, in decreasing order, lipid markers representing fungi, Gram-negative bacteria, and Gram-positive bacteria have the highest relative abundances within honey bee colonies. Our lipid profiles reveal the presence of viable microbial communities in each of the six hive components sampled, with overall microbial community richness varying from lowest to highest in honey, comb, pupae, pollen, adults and propolis, respectively. Finally, microbial community lipid profiles were more similar when compared by component than by hive, location, or sampling year. Specifically, we found that individual hive components typically exhibited several dominant lipids and that these dominant lipids differ between components. Principal component and two-way clustering analyses both support significant grouping of lipids by hive component. Our findings indicate that in addition to the microbial communities present in individual workers, honey bee hives have resident microbial communities associated with different colony components.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / microbiology*
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism*
  • Microbiota / physiology*
  • Phospholipids / metabolism*


  • Fatty Acids
  • Phospholipids

Grants and funding

This work was supported by National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture, under ID number WISO1321, and National Science Foundation grant MCB-0702025. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.