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Bee vaccine could help insects survive as their population declines

A non-injection vaccine given to a queen bee could help an entire hive survive against fatal bacterial diseases.
Posted at 8:43 PM, Jan 17, 2023

The bee world is buzzing right now, and it's all thanks to a one-of-a-kind vaccine: a bee vaccine.

"We're excited about another opportunity to have healthier honeybees here in the city and around the country," said Naaman Gambill, managing partner at The Hive: Chicago's Beekeeping Supply Store.

Scientists with the Atlanta-based biotech company Dalan Animal Health have created a vaccine that protects honeybees from American foulbrood, which is a type of fatal bacterial disease that can spread quickly from hive to hive. 

"We have a better handle on how the disease is spreading," said Dalial Freitak, chief scientific officer at Dalan Animal Health. "It's a devastating disease. It affects the larvae, and in many countries, it's also a quarantinable disease. You discover it in your beehive, you actually need to quarantine your bees and you need to burn your hives."

But the vaccine probably isn't what one would expect.

"Our vaccine has nothing to do with syringes. It's an oral vaccine," Freitak said.

The vaccine is given to a hive's queen bee as food by mixing it in with royal jelly, a type of high nutrient substance produced by workers bees. Once vaccinated, the queen is able to pass along her immunity to her larvae.

"It's very similar like in humans, we have polio vaccine, which is also quite often given in sugar solution or in the sugar cube," Freitak said.

For the science community, the vaccine represents a huge breakthrough in understanding the immune system of insects, since they don't have antibodies to fight infections.

"That's why nobody has ever thought about vaccination before in insect systems, but we have shown that we can also vaccinate insects without [an] antibody-based system," Freitak said.

The vaccine comes at a time when bee populations globally are rapidly declining due to habitat loss, illness and pesticides.

"Insects are becoming more and more important in different aspects of human lives," Freitak said. "We are all eating vegetables and fruits, and a lot of those plants all depend on honeybee pollination. So actually, the well-being of honeybees means also well-being of humans."

For Gambill, it's crucial that bees are given the attention and health care they need.

"I tell people that if you want to be a beekeeper, you're going to be one part doctor, one part landlord," Gambill said. "People are now understanding a lot more the vital importance that bees play."

There are a couple signs to keep an eye out for when considering the health of a beehive, including the activity around the hive, deformed wings, as well as a shiny appearance to some of the bees themselves.

"Bees can't talk to us, so we have to infer and observe and do the best that we can to provide for them a healthy environment," Gambill said.

Gambill and his team help to manage over 300 hives around Chicago. He says they are always looking for symptoms that could indicate infections or pests in hives.

"Additionally, we're always looking out for Varroa mites, which is really kind of the main enemy number one in the beekeeping world, which will lead to a colony failing if that Varroa population is not held in check," Gabill said.

Having been granted conditional approval by the USDA, the company is now preparing to bring the vaccine to market once final approval is given. 

As for the future of honeybees, the team at Dalan Animal Health is hopeful their research will help inspire the next generation of scientists who could play a roll in protecting bees.

"Insects, they aren't something creepy crawly, but they actually are wonderful and very interesting organisms," Freitak said.

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