How the Hell Do You Vaccinate a Bee?

Scientists propose to inoculate bees against deadly diseases reportedly decimating their colonies lest we all starve, and no, vaccines don’t cause autism in insects either

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A girl patient holds one of the bees as she receives bee-sting treatment by health practitioner Haj Omar Abulhassan at his home in Cairo, Egypt, November 10, 2018.
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Many and myriad a solution has been touted for the catastrophes reportedly afflicting bee colonies around the world, spurring fears that the loss of their pollinating powers will lead to massive crop losses.

Honeycomb with beesCredit: \ PHILIPPE WOJAZER/ REUTERS

The latest wrinkle is to vaccinate the insects against diseases implicated in colony collapse disorder, a method (dubbed PrimeBEE) developed by two scientists in the University of Helsinki, Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela, and reported by AFP and ZME Science.

There is no consensus about the extent of the problem, or even whether bee colony collapse disorder is a thing, let alone a worsening thing. Some experts claim that declines in world bee populations is a natural fluctuation or that, in any case, it is reversible. The cause of the declining bee populations is variously ascribed to pesticides, geomagnetic disturbances (impairing the bees’ navigation), vampire-like mites, viruses, sunspots (navigation again), bacteria, fungi, climate change, and malnutrition. Or a combination of some or all of these. Some even claim that although there is a problem, its dimensions have been egregiously overstated.

Dead bees, killed by mite infestationCredit: Getty Images IL

The one thing we’re sure of is that bees are good, certainly since we have abandoned a life of hunting and grubbing for roots in favor of industrial farming. Around a third of the plants people eat require pollination (grains don’t), and while fruit bats and other living beings play their part, bees are estimated to be responsible for about a third of that. No question, the insect is crucial to food security.

Fruit bats are lovely but no replacement for beesCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

So, whether or not colony collapse is a thing, clearly prevention is worth an ounce of honey. A riot of flower species are being planted or just allowed to grow between European crop fields, to vary the bees’ sources of nectar for the sake of their nutrition; in England, farmers have been planting hedgerows and trees because honey bees prefer them to “just” flowers.

Scientists have experimented with fighting mite infestations by a method involving exposing the bees to cold (by, er, shutting them in the fridge), while others are monkeying around with rich solutions to augment their feed.

Some people propose to replace the humbled honeybee with other more robust bee species, bats or whatever. (Robot bees don’t seem to be the answer.) And now Finnish scientists have invented the first-ever vaccines for bees.

One gets a mental picture of a nimble-fingered scientist armed with an extremely fine needle and infinite patience. But one would be wrong.

Bees in a hive.Credit: Chris O'Meara,AP

The inoculating chemical is put into a sugar cube that is fed to the queen bee, who passes the immunity onto her offspring. The scientists have begun their testing process with a sugar-coated vaccine against so-called “American foulbrood” – a fatal bacterial condition that actually affects bees around the world. Unhappily for our friends the bees, foulbrood is caused by sporulating bacteria, meaning hardy ones, and it’s highly infectious. It infects and kills bee larvae, not adults, hence the name.

The bee vaccination technique will take some four to five years to perfect, lead researcher Freitak told AFP.

Intriguingly, bee vaccination isn’t about injecting an antigen that provokes production of antibodies. Insect immune systems don’t have antibodies, but as the University of Helsinki explains, Freitak had noticed (in moths) that if the parents eat certain bacteria in their food, their offspring show elevated immune responses to that germ. Ultimately, this led to the thought of a delivery system of the vaccination via food. They started with foulbrood because it’s so deadly and infectious. Right now, the technique is being tested for safety, following which commercialization can ensue.

Also, given that vaccinations do not cause autism in people (with all due respect to the lunatic fringe), there’s no reason to think they cause mental acuity or behavioral issues in bees.

Although much work remains to be done – including to adapt the technique to a lot more bacteria, fungi and other nasties – as Freitak stated: “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.”

It isn't clear if colony collapse syndrome is a huge problem or hype: Meanwhile, here are some bees flying around.Credit: Bloomberg

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