Bees are naturally and automatically vaccinated before birth, and new research has worked out the ingenious mechanism that does it. Now, vaccines could be developed for bees, to help halt their more than half-century decline.
“The process by which bees transfer immunity to their babies was a big mystery until now,” said the paper’s co-author Gro Amdam. “What we found is that it’s as simple as eating.”
As bees gather pollen, they also pick up pathogens from the local environment. These pathogens and bacteria are transferred to the royal jelly that the bees manufacture to feed their queen. These are digested and stored in the queen’s fat body, a kind of organ where she stores energy, and which contains “lipids, glycogen, triglycerides, and some protein.” Parts of these pathogens piggy-back on a protein called vitellogenin and are carried by blood into the bee baby eggs, thus vaccinating them against local hazards, even before they are born.
Bees are essential to agriculture. Greenpeace estimates that without bees, about one third of the crops we eat would have to be pollinated by other means and as much as three quarters of all crops would suffer a decline. Meanwhile, the bee population is in near free-fall. Managed colonies numbered six million in the U.S. In the 1940s. Today that number is 2.5 million.
There are many theories about the causes for bee decline, including cellphone signals, stress and pesticides, but some causes of colony death are well known. Now, thanks to this work by researchers from Arizona State University, University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä and Norwegian University of Life Sciences, we could inoculate bees against some of them.
According to the Arizona State University (ASU), vaccines delivered via specially prepared bee food could protect against diseases such as the fast-spreading, hive-destroying American Foul Brood. “The bacterium infects bee larvae as they ingest food contaminated with its spores. These spores get their nourishment from the larvae, eventually killing them.”
Pesticides and crop monoculture will remain the biggest bee killers, but vaccination has the potential to change how we help bees. And not just bees. “All egg-laying species, including fish, poultry, reptiles, amphibians and insects, have vitellogenin in their bodies,” says Sandy Leander of the ASU School of Life Sciences. This means that we could vaccinate other animals in the same, natural, way.