The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently granted a conditional license for a vaccine aiming to protect honey bees from American foulbrood disease, an infection caused by the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae that weakens and kills honey bee colonies and currently has no treatment. This vaccine – developed by the U.S. biotech company Dalan Animal Health – raises hopes for a new and powerful weapon against a disease that routinely ravage colonies that are highly important for food pollination.
“Our vaccine is a breakthrough in protecting honey bees,” said Annette Kleiser, the chief executive of Dalan. “We are ready to change how we care for insects, impacting food production on a global scale.”
In parts of the U.S., the foulbrood disease has been found in over a quarter of honey bee hives. Since there is no cure for this disease available yet, beekeepers usually destroy and burn infected colonies and administer antibiotics to stop further spread.
“It’s something that beekeepers can easily recognize because it reduces the larvae to this brown goo that has a rancid stink to it,” explained Keith Delaplane, an entomologist at the University of Georgia who worked together with Dalan for the vaccine’s development.
This groundbreaking vaccine works by incorporating some of the bacteria into the royal jelly fed by worker bees to the queen. After ingesting the vaccine-laced jelly, the queen will gain some of the vaccine in its ovaries and the developing bee larvae will have immunity to foulbrood as they hatch.
“In a perfect scenario, the queens could be fed a cocktail within a queen candy – the soft, pasty sugar that queen bees eat while in transit. Queen breeders could advertise ‘fully vaccinated queens,” Delapane said.
Since the U.S. is highly dependent upon managed honey bee colonies to assist food pollination – with bee hives frequently transported around the country to help pollinating a variety of crops, ranging from almonds to blueberries – the development of this vaccine is a major step forward for boosting agricultural production. Scientists hope that this medical breakthrough could be used to create vaccines for other bee-related diseases, such as the European strain of foulbrood.
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