honeybee hives, historic building

Given that bacterial diseases are one of the more serious threats facing them, honey bees might be getting the ally they need to fight and win—a one-of-a-kind edible vaccine. At least, that’s what a team of researchers from Finland is promising with the first-ever insect vaccine aimed specifically at helping struggling honey bee populations. The vaccine proposed by these researchers targets American foulbrood (AFB), a serious infectious disease known for devastating hives and spreading at catastrophic rates. Introduced typically by nurse honey bees, AFB works when bacteria feed on bee larvae and generate more spores, causing the disease to spread even more.

According to scientists Heli Salmela and Dalial Freitak with the University of Helsinki, this new vaccine seems to solve a frustrating issue researchers have been facing while trying to save honey bees from AFB and other diseases. Because the immune systems of bees and other insects lack antibodies, they basically lack the ability to “remember” how to fight diseases. Per Freitak, her team got around this limitation after realizing that Salmela’s studies of the protein vitellogenin complemented their work—they found that insects exposed to certain bacteria could pass elevated immune responses on to their young.

“When the queen bee eats something with pathogens in it, the pathogen signature molecules are bound by vitellogenin. Vitellogenin then carries these signature molecules into the queen’s eggs, where they work as inducers for future immune responses,” Freitak said. “Now, we’ve discovered the mechanism to show that you can actually vaccinate them. You can transfer a signal from one generation to another.”

This vaccine has been dubbed “PrimeBEE,” which Freitak’s team says can be administered to a hive’s queen via sugar patties. Another proposal would see beekeepers pre-ordering queens who’ve been vaccinated already once the vaccine becomes commercially available. While it’s still going through safety tests, the vaccine may represent a serious breakthrough when it comes to bee protection. The declining pollinators face many threats, from parasites, pesticides, to colony collapse disorder, and Freitak’s team plans on using a similar approach to fight these other diseases and ailments.

“We hope that we can also develop a vaccination against other infections, such as European foulbrood and fungal diseases. We have already started initial tests,” Freitak said. “The plan is to be able to vaccinate against any microbe.” If their vaccine operates as expected, Freitak believes it will be a very welcome piece of news for farmers, beekeepers, and pollinator advocates, who’ve watched this crucial insect struggle for decades. “We need to help honey bees, absolutely,” Freitak said. “Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale.”

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