Bernadett Szabo / Reuters
Bees could soon get an ally in their fight against bacterial diseases – one of the most serious threats that pollinators face – in the form of an edible vaccine. This is the promise made by researchers in Finland, who claim to have made the first insect vaccine, with the goal of helping fight bee populations.
Scientists are targeting one of the deadliest enemies of the bees: the American plague, or AFB, an infectious disease that devastates the hives and can spread at a calamitous pace. Often introduced by nursing bees, the disease acts as larva-feeding bacteria – and then generates more spores, to further spread.
The idea of a potential new weapon to fight AFB has generated excitement in the beekeeping community, along with some skepticism about the claim of a vaccine – which remains in the testing phase. The news comes three years after the same researchers were acclaimed in Entymology Today, discovering the "key to bee vaccination".
Scientists Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela from the University of Helsinki claim that their new vaccine solves an irritating problem that researchers have faced in an effort to save bees from disease. Because the insect's immune system has no antibodies, they essentially do not have a "memory" to fight disease.
Freitak says she and her colleagues were able to circumvent this limitation, after realizing that Salmela's study of a protein called vitellogenin seemed complementary to her work, in which she discovered that insects exposed to bacteria were able to give an answer immune system to their offspring.
From the press release of the university:
"When the queen bee eats something with pathogens, the molecules that mark the pathogen are bound by vitellogenin, so vitellogenin transports these distinctive molecules into the queen's eggs, where they work as inducers for future immune responses."
"We have now discovered the mechanism to show that you can actually vaccinate them," Freitak said in a press release. "You can transfer a signal from one generation to another."
The Finnish team calls its PrimeBEE vaccine and says it can be delivered to the queen via a sugar pulp. Another plan would require beekeepers to simply order a queen that has already been vaccinated. While a website was created for that product, it does not list a price – or says when the vaccine could be commercially available.
The new vaccine is still being tested for safety, but it could represent a step forward in the protection of bees, a crucial link in the food chain. In the United States, their pollination is vital for many foods we eat, from apples and almonds to watermelons and courgettes.
When the infection occurs from an American phallus, each cell can accommodate millions and millions of spores. And because of the orderly cleansing practices of the bees, these spores spread further when the bees clean the cell. The disease can be treated with antibiotics, but no cure is available.
"It's a death sentence" for a beehive or a colony to diagnose the disease, says Toni Burnham, president of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance in Washington.
In D.C. and in Maryland, Burnham says "if a colony is diagnosed with AFB – regardless of the level of the infestation – it burns, each part burns, the bees are killed and the wood burns and there is more".
The concerns about American pandemonium are so serious, says Burnham, which is the main reason why his group is never recommending the purchase of used hives and other equipment.
"They extracted the 100-year-old samples from storage and were able to reinoculate the hives with the American spores," he says.
Besides the AFB, bees and other pollinators face a series of existential threats, from diseases and pests to insecticides. Researchers in Finland say they intend to use the same approach to combat other diseases.
"We hope that we can also develop a vaccination against other infections, such as European plague and fungal diseases," Freitak said in a statement. "We have already started the initial tests, the plan is to be able to vaccinate against any microbe."
If the vaccine works as planned by the Finnish team, it would be good news for beekeepers, farmers and pollinators who have witnessed one of the world's biggest insect fights in the last few decades.
"We have to help domestic bees, absolutely," said Freitak. "Even improving their lives would have a great effect on a global scale".
While acknowledging the other problems that bees face, he added: "If we can help honey bees to be healthier and if we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little. "