Honey bees may soon eat their way to safety from disease, thanks to new developments from the University of Helsinki. Researchers Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela are now using edible sugar patties to create the first vaccines for bees. As pollinator populations decline globally, this is good news for bee colonies who face the threat of widespread bacterial diseases.
Through this vaccine, which they’re calling PrimeBEE, Freitak and Salmela have found a way around a roadblock in insect immunological research. Insect immune systems lack antibodies so they can't have immunological memory, which is what happens when mammals are exposed to pathogens.
To accommodate this immune weakness, Freitak and Salmela are putting the vaccine into edible sugar patties—which will then be eaten by the queen bee—in order to take advantage of a protein called vitellogenin that functions in egg development. Freitak wrote in an email to MUNCHIES, “The vaccine will consist of a specific mixture of components and incorporate aspects of the pathogen that will elicit an immune response.”
When the queen eats the sugar patty containing the vaccine, the vitellogenin binds to that information from the pathogen and carries it into queen's eggs. “This information on the immune response-eliciting aspect of the pathogen is then passed on to the next generation and will enable them to develop higher resistance against the disease,” Freitak told MUNCHIES. She added that, although the percentage of the next generation that will be protected by the vaccine depends a lot on the size and the dosing, “our aim is to provide protection for the entire hive.”
The mechanism behind the vaccine was identified three years ago, but the vaccine is just now being tested in the laboratory as the researchers prepare for regulatory approval.
Most pressingly, Freitak and Salmela are hoping to use the vaccine to target American foulbrood, a disease that infects and kills bee colonies. A fear of beekeepers worldwide, American foulbrood has been called the most destructive disease in its class by the United States Department of Agriculture. In a recent interview with NPR, Toni Burnham, president of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance, called the disease a “death sentence” for hives and colonies.
Because American foulbrood is spread by way of bacterial spores, any infected bees, honey, or equipment can spread the infection. Its spores are particularly hardy and long-lasting, too: Burnham told NPR that 100-year-old samples pulled from storage could still pose a risk for infection. Able to live in extreme cold and heat, the spores can only be killed by burning or irradiating any elements that have been exposed to the infection.
“If a colony is diagnosed with AFB—regardless of the level of infestation—it burns. Every bit of it burns; the bees are killed and the woodenware burns, and it’s gone,” Burnham told NPR.
Diseases like American foulbrood have contributed to the shocking decline in pollinator populations over the past few decades. Over 25 years, the number of managed bee colonies in Pennsylvania had decreased by more than half, found a 2006 report. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, almost half of all American beehives died. In late 2016, seven kinds of bees native to Hawaii were declared endangered.
This large-scale decline could have devastating effects on agriculture worldwide, given that pollination-dependent plants make up around 35 percent of global crop production, according to the New York Times.
Freitak acknowledged that there's a lot more affecting bees than American foulbreed alone, but sees the vaccine as a small step towards progress. “Of course, the honeybees have many other problems as well: pesticides, habitat loss and so on, but diseases come hand in hand with these life-quality problems,” she said in the press release. “If we can help honey bees to be healthier and if we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit.”
As far as when and how beekeepers might be able to procure the vaccine, Freitak told MUNCHIES in an email, “It is too early to say right now, but it definitely will take a few years.”