A US biotech company has received conditional approval from the country’s Department of Agriculture for the first vaccine for honey bees, which scientists say could help control a range of viruses and pests that have decimated global populations. It is the first vaccine approved for insects in the United States, reports The New York Times.
Dalan Animal Health has developed a preventive vaccine that protects honey bees against American foulbrood, an aggressive bacteria that can spread quickly from hive to hive. Previous treatments included burning infected colonies and all associated equipment or using antibiotics.
Dalail Freitak, an associate professor in honeybee research at the Karl-Franzens University of Graz in Austria and chief science officer for Dalan, said the vaccine could help change the way scientists approach animal health.
“There are millions of beehives all over the world, and they don’t have a good health care system compared to other animals,” she said. “Now we have the tools to improve their resistance against diseases.”
The vaccine, which contains dead versions of Paenibacillus larvae, enters the bee in the form of food. The vaccine is part of the royal jelly, a sugary food that is given to bee queens. After they ingest it, the vaccine is deposited in the bees’ ovaries, providing immunity to the developing larvae when they hatch.
The first goal of the scientists was to combat the American foulbrood, a bacterial disease that turns the larvae dark brown and the hive emits a rotten smell. This disease was rampant during the 1800s and early 1900s in bee colonies in parts of the United States. Although the American foulbrood is not as destructive as the varroa mites that cause varroosis, the bacterium can easily destroy a colony of 60,000 bees.
The introduction of the vaccine comes at a critical time for honey bees, which are vital to the world’s food system but are declining globally due to climate change, pesticides, habitat loss, and disease.
Feeding on pollen and nectar, honeybees pollinate about a third of the food crops in the United States and help produce about $15 billion worth of agricultural products each year. Many beekeepers rent out their hives around the country to help pollinate almonds, pears, cherries, apples, and more.