The vaccine, which will initially only be available to commercial beekeepers, targets foulbrood — a fatal bacterial disease of honey bee brood, one of the most widespread and devastating bee diseases, caused by the spore-forming bacterium.
There’s no doubt that honeybees are in trouble. In the US, bee colony loss rates have more than doubled since 2006, reaching a startling 30% (and more recently, up to 40%). Much of that is owed to our impact: pollution, habitat destruction, and pesticide use are all hurting bees, and if they’re not killing them outright, they’re making them more vulnerable in the face of parasites and diseases.
Foulbrood is one such disease that can wreak havoc among bee colonies. The disease has spread all around the world and in fact, it’s so widespread and dangerous that burning infected colonies is often considered the only effective measure to prevent the spreading of the disease. The newly-developed vaccine promises to curb that.
The vaccine was developed by biotech company Dalan Animal Health and was just granted approval by the Department of Agriculture. It uses a clever trick: it incorporates some killed bacteria into royal jelly — the honey bee secretion that is used in the nutrition of larvae and adult queens. The queen bee ingests it and gains immunity, passing it on to the bee larvae, which then have immunity to foulbrood as they hatch. Dalan’s research suggests that at the very least, the vaccine will increase survival rates from the diseases.
“Our vaccine is a breakthrough in protecting honey bees. We are ready to change how we care for insects, impacting food production on a global scale,” said Dr. Annette Kleiser, CEO of Dalan Animal Health.
“In a perfect scenario, the queens could be fed a cocktail within a queen candy – the soft, pasty sugar that queen bees eat while in transit,” said Keith Delaplane, an entomologist at the University of Georgia, who worked on the development of the vaccine. “Queen breeders could advertise ‘fully vaccinated queens.’”
The vaccine is non-GMO and can be used in organic agriculture, which will perhaps make it even more attractive to beekeepers. If the vaccine is successfully adopted, it could soon become available to private keepers as well. The company says they are also working on vaccines for other underserved types of animal agriculture, like shrimp and mealworms.
But with bees, the stakes are huge.
There is no cure for the disease, and in some parts of the US, the disease has been found in a quarter of hives. While the disease originated in the US, it also threatens populations in other parts of the world, spreading with ease.
“This is an exciting step forward for beekeepers, as we rely on antibiotic treatment that has limited effectiveness and requires lots of time and energy to apply to our hives,” said Tauzer Apiaries owner Trevor Tauzer, a board member of the California State Beekeepers Association, in a statement on the vaccine. “If we can prevent an infection in our hives, we can avoid costly treatments and focus our energy on other important elements of keeping our bees healthy.”
Pollinators like honey bees are responsible for a third of everything we eat, according to the USDA, but their numbers are plummeting. Pesticides, in particular, weaken the bees’ immune systems and make them more vulnerable in the face of threats. While some countries are introducing pesticide bans or limitations with good effects, overall, the picture is still bleak for honey bees. In addition to the direct threats mentioned above, scientists have also highlighted another long-term problem: the lack of genetic diversity.
Because of our current practices, and because bee numbers continue to drop, their genetic diversity is also suffering, which further amplifies their vulnerability. Giving bees a helping hand could be a godsend — particularly as this is the first-ever vaccine approved not just for bees, but for insects in general.
“In our study, we administered a killed bacterin orally to honey bee queens and observed up to a 50% increase in disease resistance in their offspring in the laboratory. Our vaccine can be classified as a breeder vaccine, in which case the vaccination is carried out via parental animals. To our knowledge, this was the very first insect vaccine trial and constitutes a turning point in disease management in insects,” researchers write in a study detailing the benefits of the vaccine.