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US Department of Agriculture approves first-ever vaccine for honeybees

The drug could protect bees from American foulbrood, a bacteria that can devastate entire colonies.
Honeybee pollinating a flower in Markham, Ontario, Canada, on September 02, 2022. (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Igor Bonifacic
Igor Bonifacic|@igorbonifacic|January 8, 2023 5:21 PM

The humble honeybee hasn’t had an easy go of things recently. Between climate change, habitat destruction, pesticide use and attrition from diseases, one of the planet’s most important pollinators has seen its numbers decline dramatically in recent years. All of that bodes poorly for us humans. In the US, honeybees are essential to about one-third of the fruit and produce Americans eat. But the good news is that a solution to one of the problems affecting honeybees is making its way to farmers.

This week, for the first time, the US Department of Agriculture granted conditional approval for an insect vaccine. A biotech firm named Dalan Animal Health recently developed a prophylactic vaccine to protect honeybees from American foulbrood disease. The drug contains dead Paenibacillus larvae, the bacteria that causes the illness.

Thankfully, the vaccine won’t require beekeepers to jab entire colonies of individual insects with the world’s smallest syringe. Instead, administering the drug involves mixing it in with the queen feed worker bees eat. The vaccine then makes its way into the “royal jelly” the drones to feed their queen. Her offspring will then be born with some immunity against the harmful bacteria.

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The treatment represents a breakthrough for a few reasons. As The New York Times explains, scientists previously thought it was impossible for insects to obtain immunity to diseases because they don’t produce antibodies like humans and animals. However, after identifying the protein that prompts an immune response in bees, researchers realized they could protect an entire hive through a single queen. The vaccine is also a far more humane treatment for American foulbrood. The disease can easily wipe out colonies of 60,000 bees at once, and it often leaves beekeepers with one choice: burn the infected hives to save what they can.

Dr. Annette Kleiser, the CEO of Dalan, told The Times the company hopes to use the vaccine as a blueprint for other treatments to protect honeybees. “Bees are livestock and should have the same modern tools to care for them and protect them that we have for our chickens, cats, dogs and so on,” she said. “We’re really hoping we’re going to change the industry now.”

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