Jan 5, 2023 - Science

USDA approves world's first vaccine for honeybees

A queen Carniolan honey bee, center, climb on the frame of a hive owned by Bureau County Honey Co. near Hennepin, Illinois, U.S., on Thursday, July 3, 2014.

A queen Carniolan honeybee, center, climbing on the frame of a hive near Hennepin, Illinois. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has granted a conditional license for a vaccine that helps protect honeybees from a deadly bacterial disease, U.S. biotech firm Dalan Animal Health announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: Dalan has developed the world's first vaccine for honeybees in an effort to stop the spread of American foulbrood disease, caused by Paenibacillus larvae bacterium, which can weaken and destroy hives, per the Guardian.

  • The U.S. and other countries have seen declines in bee colonies, which play a vital role in agriculture.

Zoom in: "One-third of the global food supply relies on pollination, and healthy commercial hives are essential to secure high crop yields," Dalan noted in a statement.

  • "However, honeybees are plagued by American Foulbrood, with previously no safe and sustainable solution for disease prevention. Overt clinical cases of American Foulbrood are notifiable in the USA and Canada, and the only treatment method relies on the incineration of bees and infected hives and equipment."

How it works: The vaccine containing killed whole-cell Paenibacillus larvae bacteria is administered by mixing it into queen feed that's consumed by worker bees, according to Dalan.

  • "The vaccine is incorporated into the royal jelly by the worker bees, who then feed it to the queen," Dalan said. "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."
  • Studies showed vaccinated queens were more resistant to infection and it provided immune protection for their offspring.

What they're saying: "This is an exciting step forward for beekeepers, as we rely on antibiotic treatment that has limited effectiveness and requires lots of time and energy to apply to our hives," said Tauzer Apiaries owner Trevor Tauzer, a board member of the California State Beekeepers Association, in a statement on the vaccine.

  • "If we can prevent an infection in our hives, we can avoid costly treatments and focus our energy on other important elements of keeping our bees healthy."

What we're watching: Dalan said it plans to develop vaccines for "other honeybee diseases and underserved industries, such as shrimp, mealworms, and insects used in agriculture."

  • Ramesh Sagili, a professor of apiculture at Oregon State University, who wasn't involved in the research behind the Damal vaccine, told Popular Science magazine when the last honeybee vaccine study was published in October that he was keen to see how immunity would hold up in the long term for the bees.

The bottom line: "Bees are under great threat from the combined effects of climate change, intensive agriculture, pesticides use, biodiversity loss and pollution," per UN Food and Agriculture Organization chief José Graziano da Silva.

  • The absence of bees would pose a threat to crops that rely on pollination, global food security and human nutrition, Graziano da Silva notes.

Go deeper: A commonly used pesticide can harm bees

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