Roll Up Your Sleeves Honey Bees, Vaccines Are Coming

bee, vaccine
The western honey bee (Apis mellifera) has so many challenges stacked against it — a vaccine to fight American foulbrood is a welcome advance. Flickr

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You might have heard about how honey bees (Apis mellifera) are doing poorly these days. It's different, though, from the situation many of the world's vulnerable creatures find themselves in — a small, obscure Amazonian tree frog, for instance, or even a gorgeous polar bear. We want them to thrive and live their lives, but are we willing to change our lifestyles to make it happen? We'd like to think so, but maybe not. The plummeting honey bee colony situation is a bit different, because if honey bees aren't flourishing, neither are people and, eventually, people won't eat as a result.

Honey bees do this amazing trick where they go around collecting pollen and nectar from plants, and in the process, they disperse pollen from one plant to another, making it possible for them to bear fruit. Honey bees aren't native to most of the places they live — over the course of human history, humans have carried the insects as luggage from their native range in Southern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, to ecosystems all over the planet. At this point, they are the most successful pollinators in the world. And you know what needs to be pollinated? Our crops. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates they pollinate about $15 billion worth of apples, peaches and almonds each year in the United States alone.

So, when U.S. beekeepers lose 40 percent of their colonies, as happened in 2017, to what beekeepers call the "4 Ps" — poor nutrition, pesticides, pathogens and parasites — we 21st-century humans not only take notice, we start frantically trying to fix the problem. And there's no silver bullet remedy, of course, but the most promising immediate solution seems to be figuring out a way to prevent microbial disease. That's where bee vaccinations come in.

In vertebrates like us, vaccines work through stimulating the immune system to make antibodies against a particular disease. The vaccine immunizes the individual. Since invertebrates like bees don't make antibodies, scientists have long thought immunizing them would be impossible, but a 2015 study discovered that bees transfer immunity to their offspring through a protein called vitellogenin, an ingredient in their egg yolk. Vaccinating a bee wouldn't help that bee, but if you vaccinated the queen of a hive — the only female that reproduces — she could pass her immunity on to her children and grandchildren through her eggs.

The new vaccine will treat for American foulbrood (AFB), a highly infectious disease that quickly devastates hives. It's in the testing phases and most likely headed for bee boxes near you. And don't worry, it doesn't require a tiny doctor's chair and an itty bitty needle to deliver the vaccine — the queen bee can drink the medicine in a little sugar water and pass it along to her offspring.