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Bees have a new, lifesaving ‘vaccine,’ too

Feeding them an enzyme can protect them from pesticides and could change the horrifying trajectory of declining bee populations.

Bees have a new, lifesaving ‘vaccine,’ too
[Photo: Casia Charlie/Pexels]
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Fifteen years after beekeepers first started reporting mass die-offs of bees, it’s still common for an average beekeeper to lose around a third of a hive each year. Wild bees have it even worse, and many species are endangered. One of the multiple threats bees face is the growth of pesticides on farms—but a new solution, a little like a vaccine for bees, can help make them immune to the effects of the chemicals.

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“I always thought there was a lot of research going into seeing if bees were dying, and the extent to which bees were dying, but not really many solutions,” says James Webb, who worked on the new technology as a student at Cornell University, and who is now leading a startup called Beemunity that is bringing a product to market.

Webb and other researchers first tested an enzyme that can be added to sugar or pollen patties given to bees in a tiny, pollen-size capsule. When a bee eats it, it breaks down the pesticide in the bee’s stomach before it can reach brain cells and cause damage. In a recently published study, the team found that 100% of bees that had been given the enzyme survived when they were exposed to pesticides. In the control group, all of the bees exposed to the pesticides died.

Because the enzyme only protects against one type of pesticide, a group called organophosphates, the team also developed an alternative solution that fills the microcapsule with an absorbent oil that can suck up pesticides like a sponge; the bees eventually poop out the microcapsule. The technology is designed to work with any type of pesticide.

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[Photo: Aaron Burden/Unsplash]
The company is scaling up production as larger trials are run this summer and plans to have a product on the market for beekeepers in early 2022. Another product for wild bees could be available by the end of the year.

While it can help save bees now, Webb says it’s not the final answer. “The real problem is the industrialization of agriculture,” he says. “The scale at which it happens now means that pest management is very tricky. And so people resort to the cheapest thing that they can use, and that’s obviously pesticides.”

A typical beehive is now contaminated with an average of six pesticides. When bees are exposed, it can make them more susceptible to other threats, such as mites and pathogens. It can also make it harder for them to fly. Large doses can also kill bees directly.

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Webb hopes that Beemunity’s work makes the underlying problems more obvious. “I think it’s hopefully something that can help people realize that when pesticides are taken out of the equation, wildlife does very well,” he says. “Obviously, they’re not going to be able to feed every single animal this stuff and help them in that way. So this is a damage-control step, rather than a long-term solution.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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