From employing bacteria-sniffing dogs to feeding their bees immune-boosting mushroom extracts Beekeepers are using a variety of innovative strategies to help combat the spread of infectious diseases in their hives. Unfortunately, however, they’ve never been able to vaccinate bees in the same way we vaccinate children and pets against disease.
That’s because insects lack the antibodies that our immune systems depend on to fight diseases.
Without these antibodies, bees’ immune systems can’t “remember” how to fight diseases in the same way that ours can. Likewise, they can’t be vaccinated in the same way as humans and other mammals either. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t be vaccinated at all, though.
In Finland, a group of researchers is testing a new method of vaccination that could protect bees against the bacteria that causes the highly infectious American foulbrood disease (AFB). If successful, it will become the world’s first vaccine for insects.
The experimental vaccine uses a protein called vitellogenin to inoculate queen bees and their offspring against AFB. By feeding the queens a combination of foulbrood bacteria and vitellogenin, the researchers found that they were able to trigger a heightened immune response that is passed on to future generations of bees.
“When the queen bee eats something with pathogens in it, the pathogen signature molecules are bound by vitellogenin,” explain the researchers in a press release. “Vitellogenin then carries these signature molecules into the queen’s eggs, where they work as inducers for future immune responses.”
Although they lack antibodies like ours, the immune systems of bees are still capable of storing information about harmful pathogens with the help of this protein. The AFB vaccine is still in the testing phase of development, but its success could constitute a major breakthrough in the fight against infectious disease in honey bees.
“We hope that we can also develop a vaccination against other infections, such as European foulbrood and fungal diseases,” continue the researchers in their press release. “We have already started initial tests. The plan is to be able to vaccinate against any microbe.”