Commercial beekeepers in the United States will soon have access to a vaccine that could save their hives from the most devastating disease bees face today.
The drug was designed by biotechnology company Dalan Animal Health to ward off American foulbrood (AFB), a contagious disease caused by spore-forming bacteria Paenibacillus larvae.
IIncorporated into the diet of worker bees in a hive, the oral vaccine is transferred into “royal jelly” which is given to the queen.
The pathogen has only one known host: bee larvae. Once it infects a hive it is notoriously difficult to eradicate. The only effective way to permanently get rid of bacteria is to set everything on fire: the hive, the tools and the bees themselves.
Any spores that don’t burn can remain viable for 70 years or more, ready to infect the next colony that comes along. Tragically, the bacteria can overcome an entire hive in as little as three weeks, leaving beekeepers little time to react.
In 2022, Dalan sponsored a placebo-controlled trial on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine with excellent results. Not only did the drug protect the workers and the queen from death from AFB disease in testing, but it also conferred immunity on the next generation by working in the king’s ovaries.
The US Department of Agriculture will issue a two-year conditional license for Dalan’s bee vaccine, but there’s a good chance the treatment will be extended for public use beyond that time.
Over the next two years, Dalan will distribute a limited amount of the vaccine to beekeepers in the United States. After that, if all goes well, beekeepers may have direct access to the vaccine.
“This is an exciting step forward for beekeepers, as we rely on an antibiotic treatment that has limited efficacy and requires a lot of time and energy to apply to our hives,” said Trevor Tauzer, beekeeper and board member of the California State Beekeepers Association, in a report.
“If we can prevent infection in our hives, we can avoid expensive treatments and focus our energy on other important things to keep our bees healthy.”
The worldwide decline of honey bee populations is a serious problem in our modern world. In the United States alone, intensive farming techniques, harmful pesticides and climate change, among other factors, have led to a 90% drop in bee populations since 1962, leading to what appears to be a “global pollinator crisis”. .
This incredible loss not only puts natural ecosystems in a vulnerable position, but it also endangers a third of the world’s food supply and the basic nutrition of our own species.
A recent study from Harvard University, published in December last year, found that improper pollination reduced the overall yield of fruits, vegetables and nuts by 3-5%.
As a result, many people will struggle to access healthy food options, resulting in an estimated 427,000 additional deaths from poor health.
Interestingly, in the models used by the Harvard researchers, low-income countries would lose significant revenue as crop yields decline, potentially by as much as 30% of their total agricultural value.
But it was people in middle- and high-income countries who showed the greatest health effects, likely due to the nature of the current global food system where wealthier countries tend to import nutrition.
“This study shows that doing too little to help pollinators is not only harmful to nature, but to human health as well,” says Harvard environmental health scientist Matthew Smith.
A vaccine that protects them could also protect us.
The pollination crisis study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.