A new vaccine for honeybees and other pollinators may prove a breakthrough in protecting the insects – and the planet.
Scientists at the University of Helsinki in Finland have developed a vaccine for honeybees and other pollinators that may prove a breakthrough in protecting the insects – and therefore, the planet.
It may be a few years before the PrimeBEE vaccine is commercially available, but it shows promise in fighting microbial diseases that decimate bee colonies around the world. The health of pollinators is critical to about three-fourths of human food crops around the globe, and they support 87 of the leading food crops, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“The price tag of global crops directly relying on pollinators is estimated to be between US$235 and US$577 billion a year,” the FAO said in a 2018 report issued in partnership with the government of Slovenia. “And their quantity is on the rise.”
Yet so are the challenges to bees, and that’s where Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela come in. They have developed an edible sugar patty to administer to queen bees that delivers a vaccine dose, between 10 and 15 grams, over about a week. It is engineered to prevent American foulbreed, a disease caused by Paenibacillus larvae, the most destructive of the bee brood diseases, the scientists said.
When the queen is exposed she passes on immunity to later generations, based on a theory developed after considering Freitak’s work with moths coupled with the vitellogenin protein that Salmela was studying in bees. Vitellogenin binds to pathogens when the queen eats them, and then carries the pathogen molecules into the queen’s eggs to give the next generation of bees an immune response.
Before this, no one had thought that insect vaccination could be possible because the insect immune system lacks antibodies, one of the central mechanisms for immunological memory that are found in mammals. The collaboration between the two insect scientists is what hit on the pathway to do so.
“Now we’ve discovered the mechanism to show that you can actually vaccinate them,” Freitak said. “You can transfer a signal from one generation to another.”
In protecting the pollinators, the PrimeBEE vaccine would also protect agriculture, food and humans.
“Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale,” Freitak said. “Of course, the honeybees have many other problems as well: pesticides, habitat loss and so on, but diseases come hand in hand with these life-quality problems. If we can help honey bees 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.”
The vaccine is still being tested for safety at the university, but Freitak and Salmela hope to develop similar products to counter European foulbrood and other fungal diseases. “The plan is to be able to vaccinate against any microbe,” Freitak said.
Meanwhile, the university has filed a patent application for the discovery and the scientists are getting business support from Helsinki Innovation Services and its Business Finland program.