Commercial beekeepers in the United States will soon have access to a vaccine that could save their hives from the most devastating disease facing honey bees today.
The drug was developed by the biotech company Dalan Animal Health to combat American foulbrood (AFB), an infectious disease caused by spore-forming bacteria Paenibacillus larvae.
ANDincorporated into the food of the worker bees of the hive, the oral vaccine is transferred to the “royal jelly” that is fed to the queen.
The pathogen has only one known host: honeybee larvae. Once it infects a hive, it is extremely difficult to eradicate. The only effective way to get rid of the bacteria for good is to burn everything: the hive, the tools, and the bees themselves.
Any spores that don’t burn can stay viable for 70 years or more, ready to infect the next colony that comes their way. Unfortunately, the bacteria can overcome an entire hive in as little as three weeks, leaving beekeepers little time to react.
In 2022, Dalan sponsored i.a placebo-controlled study on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine with excellent results. The drug not only protected the workers and queen from dying from AFB disease in tests, but also imparted immunity to the next generation by working in the royal ovaries.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will grant a two-year conditional license to the Dalan vaccine for honeybees, but there is a good chance the treatment will be extended for public use beyond that date.
For the next two years, Dalan will distribute a limited amount of the vaccine to US beekeepers. Then, if all goes well, there’s a chance that beekeepers will have direct access to the vaccine.
“This is an exciting step forward for beekeepers as we rely on antibiotic treatments that have limited effectiveness and require 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 statement.
“If we can prevent infection in our hives, we can avoid costly treatments and focus our energy on other important elements of keeping our bees healthy.”
The global decline in the honey bee population is a serious problem in the modern world. In the United States alone, intensive farming techniques, harmful pesticides and climate change, among others, have led to a 90 percent decline in bee populations since 1962, leading to what appears to be a “global pollinator crisis.”
This incredible loss not only puts natural ecosystems at risk, but also threatens one-third of the world’s food supply and essential nutrients for our species.
A recent study from Harvard University, published last December, found that inadequate pollination reduces global yields of fruits, vegetables and nuts by 3 to 5 percent.
As a result, many people will struggle to access healthy food options, leading to an estimated 427,000 additional deaths from ill health.
Interestingly, in the models used by Harvard researchers, low-income countries would lose significant income as yields decline, potentially up to 30 percent of their total agricultural value.
But it was people in middle- and upper-income countries that showed the greatest health impacts, possibly due to the nature of today’s global food system where wealthier nations tend to import food.
“This study shows that doing too little to help pollinators not only harms nature but also human health,” says Matthew Smith, an environmental health scientist at Harvard.
A vaccine that protects them may also protect us.
The pollination crisis study was published in Environmental health prospects.