A biotech company in Georgia has received conditional approval from the US Department of Agriculture for the first vaccine for honey bees, a move scientists say could help pave the way for control of a range of viruses and parasites that have decimated the global population. It is the first vaccine approved for any insect in the United States.
The Athens, Georgia-based company Dalan Animal Health has developed a prophylactic vaccine that protects honeybees from American foulbrood, an aggressive bacteria that can spread rapidly from one hive to another. Previous treatments have included the burning of infected colonies and all associated equipment or the use of antibiotics. Diamond Animal Health, a partner manufacturer with Dalan, holds the conditional license.
Dalail Freitak, associate professor of honey bee research at Karl-Franzens University of Graz in Austria and scientific director of Dalan, said the vaccine could help change the way scientists approach animal health.
“There are millions of hives around the world and they don’t have as good a health system as compared to other animals,” he said. “We now have the tools to improve their disease resistance.”
Before you start imagining a tiny syringe being inserted into a bee, the vaccine, which contains dead versions of the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae, comes in the form of food. The vaccine is incorporated into royal jelly, a sugary feed fed to queen bees. Once they ingest it, the vaccine is then deposited in their ovaries, giving immunity to the developing larvae as they hatch.
Scientists have long speculated that insects couldn’t acquire immunity because they lacked antibodies, the proteins that help many animals’ immune systems recognize and fight off bacteria and viruses. Once scientists figured out that insects can actually acquire immunity and pass it on to their offspring, Dr. Freitak set about answering the question of how they did it. In 2015, she and two other researchers identified the specific protein that causes an immune response in offspring and realized they could cultivate immunity in a population of bees with only one queen.
Their first goal was to fight American foulbrood, a bacterial disease that turns the larvae dark brown and causes the hive to smell putrid. The disease was rampant during the 1800s and early 1900s in bee colonies in parts of the United States. While American foulbrood isn’t as destructive as varroa mites, the bacterium can easily wipe out colonies of 60,000 bees.
The introduction of a vaccine comes at a critical time for honeybees, which are vital to the world’s food system but are also in global decline due to climate change, pesticides, habitat loss and disease.
“There’s no such thing as a silver bullet, but there is a toxic stew of causality, and some of that includes new diseases and some old and familiar ones,” said Keith Delaplane, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia and director of its program. on bees, which provided research foundation for Dalan. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
By pollinating food as they feed on pollen and nectar, honey bees pollinate about one-third of food crops in the United States and help produce an estimated $15 billion worth of crops in the United States each year. Many beekeepers rent out their hives across the country to help pollinate almonds, pears, cherries, apples and other types of produce.
At least three quarters of flowering plants require the assistance of pollinators, including bees, butterflies and moths, to produce fruit and seeds.
Chris Hiatt, who raises bees in North Dakota and California and is the president of the American Honey Producers Association, participated in the vaccine trial over the summer with about 800 queen bees in North Dakota.
“For beekeepers, you just don’t want to rely on antibiotics,” which most beekeepers give once a year or when there are flare-ups, he said. “Antibiotics can kill some of the beneficial microbes. This has the potential to add other things as well.
Annette Kleiser, chief executive of Dalan, called the vaccine “a huge step forward”.
“Bees are livestock and they should have the same modern tools to care for and protect them that we have for our chickens, cats, dogs and so on,” Ms Kleiser said.
Conditional approval provides a mechanism for companies to expedite vaccine approvals if they demonstrate that there is a high, unmet need in the market, Ms. Kleiser said.
“The agency understands that these new tools are needed in the market to help change practices,” Ms. Kleiser said, adding that the USDA had recommended the company follow a conditional path “to get it out to market.” as quickly as possible.”
Ms Kleiser said the company needed to show evidence of “safety, purity and certain degrees of effectiveness” to get approval, and that she planned to continue collecting data as it applied for full approval. Dalan also hopes to use the American plague vaccine as a blueprint for producing vaccines for other diseases affecting honey bees.
“When we started, there was no regulatory pathway,” he said. “No one has ever developed a vaccine against insects. They’re wild animals flying around,” compared to domesticated livestock and pets with vaccination protocols. He added, “We really hope to change the industry now.”
Dr. Delaplane, the University of Georgia entomologist, agreed.
“One day,” he said, “we may have a cocktail that solves a lot of bees’ problems – that would be the holy grail.”