In recent years, honey bees have been bombarded by a number of threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, and diseases like the mysterious and devastating Colony Collapse Disorder. As it becomes more apparent that the loss of these tiny but important creatures would have a devastating effect on our world, researchers have been working on ways to keep the insects alive and pollinating the fruits and nuts humans and animals so love to eat.
One of the most recent advances researchers have made is a new type of vaccine for honey bees. While vaccines aren’t a new idea for people or their pets, they present a particular challenge for honey bees and other insects because their immune systems are different from ours (and because, let’s face it, giving injecting thousands of honey bees with vaccines one at a time would be an unpleasant and nearly impossible challenge).
Traditional vaccines work by injecting a dead or weakened virus into the body of a human or animal. The human or animal’s immune system then creates antibodies to fight the virus, and those antibodies protect against future contact with the same disease. Honey bees, however, do not create antibodies; their immune response to intruders is different from ours.
Biologist Dalial Freitak of the University of Helsinki has been studying insect immune systems and has found that a moth who is exposed to a certain type of bacteria (usually via ingestion) can pass on a resistance to that bacteria to its offspring. She believed that the same thing might happen with bees, so she partnered up with Heli Salmela, also of the University of Helsinki, who was working on a similar project with the bee protein vitellogenin.
“We need to help honey bees, absolutely. Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale,” Freitak said in a press release. “Of course, the honey bees have many other problems as well: pesticides, habitat loss and so on, but diseases come hand in hand with these life-quality problems. 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 bit.”
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Together, Freitak and Salmela used the vitellogenin protein to create an immune response in honey bees that would protect them against an infectious disease known as American foulbrood (AFB), which is harming bee colonies all over the world. When a colony gets AFB, it has to be destroyed.
“It’s a death sentence,” said Toni Burnham, president of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance in Washington, D.C. “If a colony is diagnosed with AFB — regardless of the level of the infestation — it burns. Every bit of it burns; the bees are killed and the woodenware burns, and it’s gone.”
Freitak and Salmela’s vaccine, called PrimeBEE, involves feeding sugar patties laced with foulbrood bacteria to queen bees. Their vitellogenin protein then combines with the bacteria and is passed along to her offspring, which enables their immune systems to recognize the pathogen and respond to it.
The vaccine is not available yet for commercial use, but it has shown great promise in testing. Researchers are hopeful that the same technique that is preventing honey bees from contracting American foulbrood could also be used with other bee pathogens, thereby protecting honey bees from many of the diseases that threaten their populations.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?