(Written by Julia Jacobs)
At a time when some beekeepers are struggling to keep their colonies alive and pollinating, the prospect of a vaccine for honeybees has offered a flicker of hope.
The scientists behind the project say the vaccine is designed to protect honeybees from microbial diseases that can decimate bee populations. If the technology can be adapted to fight a multitude of infections, experts hope it can provide one solution for the array of problems facing bees, which pollinate about one-third of food in the United States.
The work that honeybees do for people — pollinating food as they gather pollen and nectar for themselves — is estimated to produce about $15 billion worth of crops in the United States each year.
“This is a very new way of thinking about how we can help bee health,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist with the University of Maryland. “As a proof of concept, this is really exciting.”
The crisis that inspired calls to “save the bees” is multilayered. Bee experts like to sum up the crisis with the “4 Ps”: parasites, poor nutrition, pathogens and pesticides. Beekeepers in the United States lost an estimated 40 per cent of their honeybee colonies in one year, according to data from April 2017 to April 2018 kept by Bee Informed Partnership, a consortium of universities and research laboratories.
Dalial Freitak, one of the scientists behind the vaccine, said she hoped it can make bees more resilient in a perilous environment. Because of regulatory hurdles, such as safety testing, it will be years before a vaccine hits the market, Freitak said.
Unlike vaccinations for humans, the one for bees does not involve needles. Rather, it is edible in the form of a sugar solution that honeybees are attracted to.
Based on the prototype, the product — marketed under the name PrimeBEE — involves vaccinating a queen bee and sending her to the beekeeper, said Freitak, who is now an associate professor in honeybee research at Karl-Franzens University of Graz in Austria.
The beekeeper would then introduce the vaccinated queen bee to the hive, heralding a new generation of bees with immunity to the disease.