The world’s first vaccine for honeybees has been approved in the US, designed to protect these helpful critters from American foulbrood disease caused by Paenibacillus larvae.
The vaccine, which has just received approval from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), was developed by the US biotech company Dalan Animal Health. Instead of injecting the individual bees with a shot, which would no doubt prove troublesome, the vaccine comes in the form of dead bacteria that are mixed into the food consumed by worker bees.
The vaccine is then digested and transferred to the glands that produce royal jelly, the nutrient-rich secretion that’s fed to queens. The queen ingests the laced jelly and fragments of the vaccine are transferred to her ovaries and developing eggs. Having been exposed to the inactive bacteria, the developing larvae emerge from their eggs with immunity against American Foulbrood.
American Foulbrood can be catastrophic for honeybee hives. It's a highly infectious disease introduced to the hive by drifting bees from nearby colonies carrying spores of the bacteria. These spores are extremely tough and can remain viable for many years on contaminated equipment. They are also extremely resilient against extreme weather conditions and many chemicals that would kill off other bacteria.
Once the disease enters a hive, it will kill off young larvae, which are most vulnerable to the infection. Dead larvae will then spurt out spores that spread to the rest of the hives, sweeping through the rest of the colony. Heavy infections can severely weaken the colony and wipe out the entire hive.
Prior to Dalan’s vaccine, there was previously no safe and sustainable solution for the prevention of this disease. Now, thanks to the recent approval by the USDA, commercial honeybee keepers will be able to use the vaccine on their hives.
“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,” Trevor Tauzer, owner of Tauzer Apiaries and board member of the California State Beekeepers Association, said in a statement.
“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," he added.
The technology doesn’t involve genetically modified organisms, says Dalan, and can be used in organic agriculture.
Beyond honey, bees are relied upon for food pollination. According to the FDA, around one-third of the food eaten in the US comes from crops pollinated by honey bees. This is why the global decline of bees and other pollinating species is so concerning. There are many drivers behind this collapse – from climate change and destruction of habitat to the overuse of pesticides – but diseases like foulbrood are also a major factor.