Could a Vaccine Save Our Honey Bees?

The decline of our pollinators, and in particular our honey bees, has been well documented, with colonies experiencing winter die-offs of almost one third every year.

This kind of loss has been put down to various factors, from neonicotinoid on farms to warming global temperatures that are putting our bees under more and more stress. One other key problem facing our bees is infection, and specifically a bacterial pest known as American foulbrood.

What is American foulbrood?

Despite its name, American foulbrood can occur in many places outside of America, including throughout Europe and the UK. The disease is caused by a bacteria known as Paenibacillus larvae, which gives off some troublesome spores. These spores enter bee colonies in food that nurse bees feed to developing bee larvae.

Once in the body of the developing bee, the spores then infect the bee larvae’s tissues and begin to multiply at an alarming rate. When the bee larvae is sealed into its chamber to go through its developmental process, the virus usually overtakes the bee, and it dies.

If this wasn’t bad enough, Paenibacillus larvae spores are remarkably resilient and can withstand extremes in temperature, meaning that they can continue to blight a colony for many years. There are some preventative measures, but many hinge on antibiotics use, which is no longer broadly viable thanks to rising bacterial resistance.

But now, scientists at the University of Helsinki have released the results of a first-of-its kind trial into an edible vaccine designed to save honey bees from this microbial infection, and it could be a much needed boost at a critical time for bee conservation.

A Vaccine for Bees? Here’s How that Works

There’s one major problem when it comes to vaccinating bees: they don’t have an adaptive immune system that can create antibodies. That means our usual methods of either introducing a de-fanged live version of a disease or using a dead variety will not trigger the same kind of auto-immune response we would see in mammals. Essentially, insect bodies don’t have the capacity to create a “memory” of diseases they are exposed to post-gestation.

So, the Helsinki researchers had to think outside the usual frameworks and get creative. While individual bees do not have this pathogen response, previous research has shown that there is one process in a bee’s life that can impart this kind of protection, and it hinges on a special protein known as vitellogenin.

If a queen bee eats something that contains a pathogen, her vitellogenin proteins will effectively collect the signatures of those pathogens, sort of like making a list of bad people to look out for. When the queen bee then lays her eggs, the vitellogenin in her eggs still has that list, and this appears to then create an immune response.

This creates a window of opportunity to vaccinate bees, and that is what the Helsinki researchers have sought to test.

Dalial Freitak, who observed the immunity transfer process in moths and later joined the Helsinki team characterizes the findings: “So they could actually convey something by eating. I just didn’t know what the mechanism was. At the time, as I started my post-doc work in Helsinki, I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honeybees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk and I was like: OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another.”

The team then created a vaccine they have dubbed PrimeBEE, which they have tested by feeding it to queen bees through a sugar patty suspended in a hive for up to ten days. Once the queen bee has eaten the PrimeBEE, she will carry the pathogen signature of American foulbrood, though this does not harm her. She then gives birth to bees in her colony that are all also carrying this signature and therefore inoculated against American foulbrood.

To be clear, there are many hurdles to jump through before this can become a marketable treatment. For one thing, we would have to see the vaccine work over several years to gauge how effective it is, though the initial uptake looks promising.

Another thing, and perhaps a major potential roadblock, is proving this does not harm honey’s market viability. Does the vaccine change the colony’s honey, and if so can we prove that change is innocuous and safe for human consumption?

Nevertheless, this fascinating piece of research is exciting beekeepers around the world who believe that innovations like this—so long as they are affordable—could allow them to finally get ahead of bee decline and save our vital pollinators.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

34 comments

heather g
heather gabout a month ago

Bees are increasingly in trouble and its good to hear that scientists are working on one possible solution. Another would be getting rid of Monsanto!

SEND
Christine Stewart
Christine Stewartabout a month ago

save he bees

SEND
Daniel v
Daniel vabout a month ago

when ever humans get involved .a bigger mess is created ! especially creating vaccines and genetically modifying everything we can, stop Monsanto, pesticides .today world even honey as become a GMO food .thank you FDA !for screwing up the heathiest product .we should just try to restore a little more balance in nature. If not nature will eventfully and get rid of the cause. Humans

SEND
Shae Lee
Shae Leeabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing.

SEND
Angeles M
Angeles Mabout a month ago

Interesting! Gives hope. Thank you

SEND
Joan E
Joan Eabout a month ago

Hope this turns our well for bees and all who depend on them for much of our food supply.

SEND
Frances Bell
Frances Bellabout a month ago

Never mind the honey market viability. What about other effects on the hive, the colony, potential pests? I'm all for finding a solution to save the bees but there's a lot that needs to be considered to ensure we're not creating a bigger mess - we've done it too many times before.

SEND
Sue H
Sue Habout a month ago

Hopeful!

SEND
Ruth R
Ruth Rabout a month ago

Good idea that I hope succeeds. But what can be done to protect bees from the varroa mite that has been decimating them in this country?

SEND
Carole R
Carole Rabout a month ago

What a mess we have made. I don't know if more human intervation will help or hinder.

SEND