Prior to the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, infections were treated by medicinal folklore. For example, the colonial-era Native American folk healer Joe Pye used plants to treat diarrhea, typhus, kidney stones, and fevers. These plants in the composite flower family are now known as Joe-Pye weed. Today’s photo is Joe-Pye weed blooming in the damp, marshy ground surrounding Peace Farm lakes.
Antibiotics are substances produced by fungi, algae, and bacteria that inhibit the growth of bacteria. With their wide-spread introduction in the 1940s, they were described as “wonder drugs.” While antibiotics initially provided effective control of bacterial infections, their effectiveness is often short lived. Strains of bacteria quickly become resistant to antibiotics. A New York Times report with important implications for beekeepers may be viewed at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/01/science/01gene.html. The report describes an analysis of 30-thousand-year-old bacteria recovered from Canada’s Yukon permafrost. The bacteria proved to be resistant to antibiotics. The researchers find that antibiotic resistance is widespread, and it is a natural phenomenon that existed long before the modern medical use of antibiotics. They find that the ancient bacteria contained all of the major genes that enable today’s bacteria to resist antibiotics. The researchers describe the evolution of two classes of genes: ones that make antibiotics and ones that provide resistance to antibiotics. One researcher states, “Antibiotic resistance is part of the natural ecology of the planet….” Another describes the ease with which resistance can appear. They also warn of problems caused by the overuse of antibiotics in poor countries and by farmers who regularly feed antibiotics to farm animals to induce faster growth. The result is the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria in both animals and farm workers. Another concern is the communities of bacteria that live in the human gut. These bacteria passed from mother to child over thousands of generations may be degraded by antibiotics. The continued use of antibiotics by beekeepers attempting to prevent American foulbrood leads to resistant strains of this bacterial disease.