First Insect Vaccine Ever Created May Be Key To Preventing World’s Catastrophic Decline Of Bee Populations

Honeybees
Diana Dimitrova / Shutterstock

Researchers in Finland claim that they have created the first-ever vaccine for insects and that their discovery may be the key to reversing the catastrophic decline of the world’s honeybee populations.

The vaccine is designed to target American foulbrood disease, which can spread quickly through a hive and decimate its population. It’s a bacterial infection which spreads through the hive’s nurse bees, who introduce the bacteria to the hive’s larvae. The bacteria then forms spores to expand further into the hive, infecting the hive’s food storage to quickly destroy its hosts.

The vaccine, which remains in the testing phase, has been met with some skepticism by the scientific community, according to NPR. The same research team proclaimed the same breakthrough three years ago, as reported in Entymology Today, only to find that their celebration was premature, as the vaccine broke down in the testing phase.

The research team of Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela at the University of Helsinki assert that they have worked through those issues, which stemmed from the fact that the immune system of bees does not have antibodies, which are critical for organisms to build a tolerance to pathogens. Salmela’s work on the protein vitellogenin’s ability to create an elevated immune response in the offspring of exposed insects provided the key to Freitak’s search for a mechanism to promote the vaccine through a hive.

“When the queen bee eats something with pathogens in it, the pathogen signature molecules are bound by vitellogenin. Vitellogenin then carries these signature molecules into the queen’s eggs, where they work as inducers for future immune responses,” Freitak said in a news release. “Now we’ve discovered the mechanism to show that you can actually vaccinate them, you can transfer a signal from one generation to another.”

The researchers call the vaccine PrimeBEE, and suggest delivering the vaccine to the queen through a sugar patty.

The vaccine must clear safety tests before becoming commercially available, but if it proves to be an effective vaccine for bees, it would be an important breakthrough in reversing the catastrophic decline of honeybee populations worldwide, which is vital, as honeybees occupy a vital role in the food chain.

American foulbrood is not the only threat to honeybee populations, which are vulnerable to other diseases, parasites, and insecticides. However, the research team believes that they can use the same process to inoculate bees against other diseases.

“We need to help honeybees, absolutely. Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale,” Freitak said. “If we can help honeybees to be healthier and if we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit.”