US government approves use of world’s first vaccine for honey bees

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The world’s first vaccine for honeybees has been approved for use by the US government, raising hopes for a new weapon against diseases that routinely devastate colonies relied upon for food pollination.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has granted a conditional license for a vaccine created by Dalan Animal Health, a U.S. biotech company, to help protect honeybees from American foulbrood disease.

“Our vaccine is a milestone in protecting honeybees,” said Annette Kleiser, CEO of Dalan Animal Health. “We are poised to change how we look at insects by impacting food production on a global scale.”

The vaccine, which will initially be offered to commercial beekeepers, aims to reduce foulbrood, a serious disease caused by the larval bacterium Paenibacillus, which can weaken and kill hives. There is currently no cure for the disease, which is found in a quarter of hives in some parts of the US, requiring beekeepers to destroy and burn infected colonies and administer antibiotics to prevent further spread.

“It’s something beekeepers can easily recognize because it reduces the larvae to this brown sticky substance with a sour odor,” said Keith Delaplane, an entomologist at the University of Georgia who partnered with Dalan to develop the vaccine.

The vaccine works by incorporating some of the bacteria into royal jelly fed to the queen by worker bees, then ingesting it and gaining some of the vaccine in the ovaries. The developing bee larvae then become immune to foulbrood when they hatch, and Dalan’s research suggests this will reduce mortality from the disease.

“In a perfect scenario, the queens could be fed a cocktail in a queen sugar, which is the soft, pasty sugar that queen bees eat during transit,” Delaplane said. “Queen breeders can advertise ‘fully vaccinated queen bees’.”

The American foulbrood originated in the USA and has since spread all over the world. Dalan said the breakthrough could be used to find vaccines for other bee-related diseases, such as the European version of foulbrood.

As honey bees have been commercialized, transported and put into agricultural service, they have been exposed to a cocktail of different diseases that typically destroy large numbers of colonies and require massive beekeepers’ intervention to keep numbers high.

The United States is unusually dependent on managed honeybee colonies to support food pollination, with hives routinely being trucked across the country to reproduce everything from almonds to blueberries.

This is because many wild bee species are in alarming decline due to habitat loss, pesticide use and the climate crisis, raising concerns about a global crisis in insect numbers that threaten ecosystems and human food security and health.

• This clause was amended on January 4, 2023, that American foulbrood has spread worldwide. An earlier version stated that it was only available in the US and Canada.

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