A biotech company in Georgia has received conditional approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first vaccine for honeybees, a move scientists say could help pave the way for controlling a range of viruses and pests that have decimated the global population. It is the first vaccine approved for any insect in the United States.
The company, Dalan Animal Health, which is based in Athens, Georgia, developed a prophylactic vaccine that protects honeybees from American foulbrood, an aggressive bacterium that can spread quickly from hive to hive. Previous treatments included burning infected colonies and all of the associated equipment or using antibiotics. Diamond Animal Health, a manufacturer that is collaborating with Dalan, holds the conditional license.
Dalail Freitak, an associate professor in honeybee research at Karl-Franzens University of Graz in Austria and chief science officer for Dalan, said the vaccine could help change the way scientists approach animal health.
“There are millions of beehives all over the world, and they don’t have a good health care system compared to other animals,” she said. “Now we have the tools to improve their resistance against diseases.”
Before you start imagining a tiny syringe being inserted into a bee, the vaccine — which contains dead versions of Paenibacillus larvae, the bacterium that causes American foulbrood — comes in the form of food. The vaccine is incorporated into royal jelly, a sugar feed given to queen bees. Once they ingest it, the vaccine is then deposited in their ovaries, giving developing larvae immunity as they hatch.
Scientists long assumed that insects could not acquire immunity because they lacked antibodies, the proteins that help many animals’ immune systems recognize and fight bacteria and viruses. Once scientists understood that insects could indeed acquire immunity and pass it to their offspring, Freitak set about answering the question of how they did so. In 2015, she and two other researchers identified the specific protein that prompts an immune response in the offspring and realized they could cultivate immunity in a bee population with a single queen.
Their first goal was tackling American foulbrood, a bacterial disease that turns larvae dark brown and makes the hive give off a rotting smell. The disease ran rampant during the 1800s and the early 1900s in bee colonies in parts of the United States. While American foulbrood is not as destructive as varroa mites, the bacterium can easily wipe out colonies of 60,000 bees.
The introduction of a vaccine comes at a critical moment for honeybees, which are vital to the world’s food system but are also declining globally because of climate change, pesticides, habitat loss and disease.
“There is no silver bullet, but there is a toxic stew of causation, and some of that includes diseases that are new and some that are old and familiar,” said Keith Delaplane, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia and the director of its honeybee program, which provided research grounds for Dalan. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
By pollinating food as they feed on pollen and nectar, honeybees pollinate about one-third of the food crops in the United States and help produce an estimated $15 billion worth of crops in the United States each year. Many beekeepers lease their hives across the country to assist in the pollination of almonds, pears, cherries, apples, and other types of produce.
At least three-quarters of flowering plants require the assistance of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and moths, to produce fruit and seeds.
Chris Hiatt, who keeps bees in North Dakota and California and is the president of the American Honey Producers Association, participated in the vaccine trial over the summer with about 800 queen bees in North Dakota.
“For beekeepers, you just don’t want to be reliant on antibiotics,” which most beekeepers give once a year or when there are flare-ups, he said. “Antibiotics can wipe out some of the beneficial microbes. This has the potential to add other things, too.”
Annette Kleiser, the CEO of Dalan, called the vaccine “a huge breakthrough.”
“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,” Kleiser said.
The conditional approval provides a mechanism that allows companies to accelerate approval for vaccines if they demonstrate there is a high, unmet need in the market, Kleiser said.
“The agency realizes that these new tools are needed in the market to help change practices,” Kleiser said, adding that the USDA had recommended that the company pursue a conditional path “to get this out onto the marketplace as quickly as possible.”
Kleiser said the company had to show proof of “safety, purity, and certain degrees of efficacy” to gain approval and that it planned to continue collecting data while it applied for full approval. Dalan also hopes to use the American foulbrood vaccine as a map to produce vaccines for other diseases that affect honeybees.
“When we started, there was no regulatory path,” she said. “No one has ever developed an insect vaccine; they’re wild animals who fly around,” compared to domesticated livestock and pets with vaccine protocols. She added, “We’re really hoping we’re going to change the industry now.”
Delaplane, the entomologist at the University of Georgia, agreed.
“Someday,” he said, “we could have a cocktail that solves a lot of bee problems. That would be the holy grail.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.