U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
By Remy Tumin
The New York Times
A biotech company in Georgia has received conditional approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first vaccine for honeybees, a move scientists say could help pave the way for controlling a range of viruses and pests that have decimated the global population. It is the first vaccine approved for any insect in the United States.
The company, Dalan Animal Health, which is based in Athens, Ga., developed a prophylactic vaccine that protects honeybees from American foulbrood, an aggressive bacterium that can spread quickly from hive to hive. Previous treatments included burning infected colonies and all of the associated equipment, or using antibiotics. Diamond Animal Health, a manufacturer that is collaborating with Dalan, holds the conditional license.
Dalail Freitak, an associate professor in honeybee research at Karl-Franzens University of Graz in Austria and chief science officer for Dalan, said the vaccine could help change the way scientists approach animal health.
“There are millions of beehives all over the world, and they don’t have a good health care system compared to other animals,” she said. “Now we have the tools to improve their resistance against diseases.”
Before you start imagining a tiny syringe being inserted into a bee, the vaccine, which contains dead versions of the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae, comes in the form of food. The vaccine is incorporated into royal jelly, a sugar feed given to queen bees. Once they ingest it, the vaccine is then deposited in their ovaries, giving developing larvae immunity as they hatch.
Scientists long assumed that insects could not acquire immunity because they lacked antibodies, the proteins that help many animals’ immune systems recognize and fight bacteria and viruses. In 2015, Freitak and two other researchers identified the specific protein that prompts the immune response in the offspring and realized they could cultivate immunity in a bee population with a single queen.
Their first goal was tackling American foulbrood, a bacterial disease that turns larvae dark brown and makes the hive give off a rotting smell. The disease ran rampant during the 1800s and the early 1900s in bee colonies in parts of the United States. Although American foulbrood is not as destructive as varroa mites, the bacterium easily can wipe out colonies of 60,000 bees.
The introduction of a vaccine comes at a critical moment for honeybees, which are vital to the world’s food system but also are declining globally because of climate change, pesticides, habitat loss and disease.
By pollinating food as they feed on pollen and nectar, honeybees pollinate about one-third of the food crops in the United States and help produce an estimated $15 billion of crops in the U.S. each year. Many beekeepers lease their hives across the country to assist in pollination of almonds, pears, cherries, apples and other types of produce.