Bee Vaccines: Saving Pollinators One Queen at a Time

Bee Vaccines: Saving Pollinators One Queen at a Time

Good news from scientists for our planet’s poor beleaguered bees! The United States Department of Agriculture has approved a first-of-its-kind vaccine for the little pollinators, to protect them from American foulbrood disease, which results from a bacterial infection and can take out entire colonies in one swoop. 

The science behind the vaccine is fascinating: Insects don’t have an immune system like that of mammals, where, say you or I can be injected with an inert flu virus, and our systems develop antibodies to fight the real live flu when it shows up later. So most researchers didn’t think that vaccine-like intervention into honeybee health was possible. Enter the folks at the University of Helsinki and Dalan Animal Health, who observed a kind of immunity passing from queen to offspring a few years ago, and tried to puzzle it out.

“[Professor Dalial] Freitak and colleagues discovered a key egg-yolk protein called vitellogenin was the transport mechanism for trans-generational immunity in insects. This foundational discovery laid the groundwork for a novel kind of insect vaccine, and the team’s first target was honeybees.

Over the following years the researchers developed a vaccine to target a disease called American Foulbrood. The disease is caused by Paenibacillus larvae bacteria and once it takes hold in a bee population often the only option is to completely destroy the colony. The vaccine works by binding inactive bacterial cells to the vitellogenin protein so when it is consumed by a queen it can be directly transferred to her larvae.

‘The vaccine is incorporated into the royal jelly by the worker bees, who then feed it to the queen,’ a statement from developing company Dalan Animal Health explains. ‘She ingests it, and fragments of the vaccine are deposited in her ovaries. Having been exposed to the vaccine, the developing larvae have immunity as they hatch.’”

With USDA approval of the vaccine and widespread rollout, scientists, farmers, and bee enthusiasts are looking forward to getting foulbrood disease under control. This successful proof of concept may also mean other vaccines, for bees and other insects, will quickly follow—wouldn’t it be terrific if we could vaccinate mosquitoes against malaria?? Not only would we be taking care of some of the smallest cousins we share our Earth with, but taking care of ourselves as well. To borrow an arachnid metaphor, such is the Web of Life!