Photo: Bloomberg Photo by Daniel Acker.
A growing number of honeybees die each year from pesticides, vanishing habitats, poor nutrition and climate change, with potentially catastrophic consequences for agriculture and natural diversity.
] Scientists at the University of Helsinki have now developed the first edible vaccine against microbial infections to save at least some of the pollinators.
"We are now at a turning point without realizing it," Dalial Freitak, the project's senior scientist, said in an interview Wednesday. "We have taken the pollination services for granted for so long, these insects are not there, they are disappearing."
The first vaccine inoculates bees against American foulbrood, a worldwide disease that can kill entire colonies and their spores can last more than 50 years. The technology can be used in the future to combat fungal diseases and other bacterial infections.
The vaccine is administered via an edible sugar paste, which is suspended in the hive so that the queen can use up for seven to ten days. After she has taken the pathogens, she can trigger an immune reaction in her offspring and eventually produce a vaccinated hive.
The vaccine still needs a lot of work before it can become commercially available. Scientists must ensure that it is safe for the environment, the bees themselves, and the people who consume the honey. Regulatory hurdles will take years to overcome. It is also too early to estimate how much beekeepers have to spend to buy vaccinated beehives, Freitak said.
While yields for potatoes, rice, wheat, and other crops that do not require pollination could benefit more bees, vitamin-rich fruits such as apples, tomatoes, and citrus would not be harvested without them, Freitak said.
"The problem really touches us all," she said. "We have to tackle it from all sides."