The world’s first vaccine for bees has been approved

The first-ever vaccine for bees has been approved in the United States: it will provide immunity against American foulbrood, a highly contagious disease.

  • The United States Department of Agriculture has approved the first-ever vaccine for bees.
  • It gives bees immunity against American foulbrood, a highly aggressive and contagious disease.
  • Protecting pollinator insects is a priority because the health of ecosystems and our food security depend on them.

Some hopeful news has come from the United States about the future of bees, vital pollinator insects that often fall victim to contagious diseases. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given conditional approval for the first-ever vaccine for bees.

bees
Bees are a crucial species for the conservation of biodiversity © iStockphoto

How the vaccine for bees works

The vaccine was developed by US biotechnology company Dalan Animal Health and is manufactured by Diamond Animal Health. It provides immunity to honeybees against American foulbrood, a highly aggressive and contagious disease. In simple terms, a dead version of the bacteria responsible for the disease (Paenibacillus larvae) is incorporated into the royal jelly that worker bees feed to the queen. Thus, the vaccine is deposited in the queen’s ovaries and immunity is transmitted to the developing larvae.

“There are millions of beehives all over the world, and they don’t have a good health care system compared to other animals,” says Dalail Freitak, associate professor at Karl-Franzens University in Graz, Austria and chief science officer for Dalan. “Now we have the tools to improve their resistance against diseases.” According to the company, this first vaccine could act as a model for many others.

Why we need to vaccinate bees

American foulbrood, as the name suggests, was first identified and studied in the United States. However, it is now widespread throughout the world. It’s a bacterial disease that affects honeybee larvae, especially those just one or two days old, which take on a dark colour and a viscous consistency, before dying and leaving the walls of the cell covered in highly contagious dark scales. The disease is very hard to eradicate because the Paenibacillus larvae bacterium spreads through spores that can survive for decades, in dry and humid conditions, even at extremely high temperatures.

While this is one of the current threats to the survival of pollinator insects, which are crucial for ecosystems and our own food security, it is by no means the only one. Pollinator populations are also decimated by intensive agricultural practices, the excessive use of synthetic pesticides (including the notorious neonicotinoids), and the higher temperatures associated with climate change. Overall, almost 35 per cent of invertebrate pollinator species are at risk of extinction, primarily bees and butterflies, as are 17 per cent of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats.

Why pollinator health is so important

Pollinator insects perform a vital ecosystem service, helping flowers to reproduce and contributing to biodiversity. Approximately two-thirds of crops destined for human consumption are pollinated: these include, to mention a few, almonds, apples, onions, gourds, and strawberries. Global agricultural production directly associated with pollination is worth between 199 and 589 billion euros. Consequently, if we were to assign a monetary value to the action of pollinators, this would reach a global total of 153 billion euros, of which 22 in Europe. The disappearance of bees and other insects would thus be a catastrophe for our planet and for our own food security.

Furthermore, recent studies have shown that the presence of bees accelerates the restoration of vegetation even in extreme conditions, for example following wildfires or in areas with encroaching desertification.

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