It’s no secret that the bee population has been rapidly declining. To combat the rising concerns amid this crisis, a small biotech company, Dalan Animal Health, has been granted conditional approval from the USDA on a vaccine for honeybees. This vaccine is the first for any insect and would protect the honeybees from an aggressive bacterial disease known as American foulbrood.
Scientists originally thought vaccines would be ineffective for bees because they do not produce antibodies, proteins that recognize diseases and target them for destruction. However, by exposing bees to an inactive version of the bacteria, the larvae are able to develop resistance to the disease.
“You know where the queen is,” said Dr. Lanphere, professor of environmental science. “You can give her the vaccine and it’s possible that she can then pass it on to her 1.7 million babies who then would have the ability to overcome this bacterial disease.”
However, as we delve into the world of insect vaccines, Lanphere warns we should proceed with caution.
“The skeptic in me would say how is that going to impact the honey that you are eating,” Lanphere said. “If you’re eating honey, you’re basically eating the bee’s gut biome. They’re regurgitating food and spitting out honey. I’m sure the vaccine would be in there. Is that something that would be good for the public?”
As the vaccines are administered, Lanphere recommends limiting their scope in the event of unintended consequences. The concept of a vaccine for insects like honeybees is unfamiliar territory. However, it does hold potential to improve the bee population.
While the vaccine is a potential step in the right direction, American foulbrood is just one issue honeybees are facing in the United States.
In the past year alone, U.S. beekeepers reported losing nearly 45% of their hives. Losses like this have been reported for over 20 years, according to the University of California Riverside magazine. These losses are from a range of issues such as climate change, habitat loss, pesticides and disease.
However, the root of the issue can in some ways be traced back to the use of honeybees in agribusiness.
“[The bees] are shipped around our country,” Lanphere said. “They perform the pollination act in New Hampshire for blueberries and they go down to Georgia for the peaches and they come to California for the almonds. They are like a roadshow that travels around and they are very important for food production.”
One in every three bites of food we eat is generated through pollination, making bees essential for our survival.
“The most important process of growing food is the pollination process,” said Jacob Trinidad, junior environmental science major. “It’s what allows the crops to produce fruit. Many farmers use bees to pollinate their fields. Without pollinators, we wouldn’t be able to sustainably produce enough food for everyone.”
This decline in fruit production is becoming a serious threat with the continued decline of the bee population. It has already forced companies to ship bees to locations where they are needed. However, this is not ideal for the bees. While on this “roadshow” the bees are fed sugar water, which fails to provide them with the nutrients they need. They also become exhausted from the stressful conditions.
“When [the bees] get tired and malnourished, they are more susceptible to disease just like we are,” Lanphere said. “If they are brought into an environment they are not used to, their immunity can be reduced.”
Vaccines are one way to improve the immunity of honeybees. However, research is also being conducted in the area of genetically enhancing bees through artificial insemination.
Barbara and Boris Baer, researchers at UCR, have been studying the genetics of “survivor bees” that have been able to withstand environmental stresses.
The Baers start by isolating the genes that have allowed the honeybees to survive specific threats such as Nosema, an intestinal parasite that gives bees diarrhea. After isolating those genes, the researchers inseminate the queen to ensure her offspring develop the resistance.
Currently, the Baers are working to create a strain of honeybees that can withstand the Southern California heat as well as Varroa mite, the most devastating disease faced by bees.
The Baers’ passion for honeybees comes from the extensive impact they have on the environment.
“Bees save human lives,” Boris Baer said. “The crops they pollinate provide vitamins and other chemical compounds we need to be healthy. Without bees we will lose people to health issues. It’s more than nutrition; it’s human wellbeing that’s at stake.”