The US Department of Agriculture has conditionally approved the first vaccine for honeybees in history. The new vaccine protects bees from a deadly disease known as the “American Foulbrood”. The news comes at a critical time when environmental degradation caused by encroaching climate change is threatening bees and other insect pollinators who are essential for the health of people and the planet.
The First Vaccine for Honeybees
Developing a vaccine for insects is no easy task and the difficulties lie in their immune system, which is quite different from the ones of mammals. For the latter, vaccine solutions work thanks to their ability to produce new antibodies. Insects, however, do not have an “immune memory” capable of recording information against a disease and reproducing it in the future.
In the early 2010s, two Finnish scientists, Heli Salmela and Dalial Freitak, began working on a scientific solution to this – so far insoluble – insect vaccine problem. After studying how diseases affect bees, the team developed a better understanding of how their immune memory works. Indeed, there is a possibility, through the queen of the hive, to transmit immunity against a disease to its offspring. The vaccine is inserted into the food brought back by the worker bees. In turn, the latter will transmit it to the royal jelly which is reserved for the hive’s queen. Once ingested, the queen will pass along the vaccine to all larvae and future bees.
Now the ball is in the hands of US-based start-up Dalan Animal Health. The company, co-founded by Freitak, was granted permission from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to market the vaccine for the next two years. According to the terms of the authorisation, the distribution must be limited in quantity to commercial beekeepers. Once the two-year period is over, the USDA will evaluate the results of the vaccine and could then give it a full right to commercialisation without restraints.
“Our vaccine is a breakthrough in protecting honeybees. […] We are ready to change how we care for insects,” said Annette Kleiser, CEO of Dalan Animal Health.
Is This the End of the Deadly Disease?
The American Foulbrood is a well-known and much feared disease among beekeepers worldwide. Indeed, the disease has many dreadful particularities. It is extremely contagious while slowly destroying all life in a hive and it is quite difficult to detect quickly enough to act upon it.
The American Foulbrood kill cycle has a pattern. As a spore, the disease is brought back into the hive by worker bees, where it rapidly spreads among larvae, killing most of them. The spore will then continue to spread in the hive as the corpses of the larvae attempt to be evacuated by the bees. Once all the inhabitants of the hive are infected by the disease, they will slowly be weakened until they all die. The destruction does not stop here as the disease often spreads to surrounding hives, either through other bees or through the tools used by beekeepers that move from one hive to another.
Until now, few solutions existed. At an early stage of the disease, beekeepers could try to use antibiotics in the hope that they would not be resistant to it. This had a low success rate. However, the best solution was often to set the hive on fire in order to prevent the disease from spreading further.
Why Do Pollinators Matter?
Bees are pollinators. In other words, these small insects actively participate in the fertilisation and therefore the reproduction of flowering plants. Pollinating insects, including beetles, butterflies, flies, and of course bees, are responsible for 75% of the reproduction of flowering plants and thus play a crucial role in food production and ecosystem preservation.
Despite their importance, human activities such as the use of pesticides and deforestation as well as climate change are compromising their existence. The Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a term used to designate the abnormally high mortality of these insects since 1998 in Europe and 2006 in the United States. This has led to the disappearance of one species of bees out of four worldwide since the 1990s.
The consequences of this disaster for biodiversity are constantly pointed out by scientists. For example, experts warned that larger species of bees are disappearing to make way for the smaller ones. Smaller bees show greater adaptability to global temperature changes. This is also the reason why many European species of bees migrate north to new ecosystems in order to avoid rising temperatures. The abandonment of their old environment will have consequences which are, for now, difficult to fully assess.
In this context, the creation of a vaccine for honeybees is a major turning point for their protection and paves the way for new solutions to protect all pollinators and insects.
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