A Hard Look At The Highly Publicized 'Honey Bee Vaccine'

Dec 12, 2018

Equipment used for keeping honey bees that is infected with foulbrood often has to be burned to avoid spreading the disease.

A research team based in Helsinki, Finland announced recently that they have developed a vaccine to treat foulbrood, a bacterial infection that kills honey bee larvae.  The scientists based out of the University of Helsinki say they are able to increase honey bees’ resistance to the bacteria. 

Dr. Diana Cox-Foster is the research leader at the US Department of Agriculture Pollinator Insect Research Unit in Logan, Utah.

“Foulbrood is a bacterium and it’s a virulent pathogen in honey bees," she said. "Basically, to get rid of it you have to kill it with heat or autoclaving.  In Utah, you can give antibiotics treatment but it’s still really, really hard to get rid of.  It strikes terror to beekeepers.”

Dr. Cox-Foster says that describing the development in Helsinki as a vaccine might be a stretch.  Vaccines work with adaptive immune systems, which bees don’t have.

“Insects, by all evidence, lack the adaptive immune system," she said. "They don’t have a way to turn on and make antibodies, so insects, as far as we know, don’t have that ability to become vaccinated in the true sense of the word.”

Dr. Cox-Foster also noted that, while there have been several press releases about this study, a peer-reviewed scientific publication has yet to be released.

“What the study suggests is that they’re giving another bacterium to help boost up immunity.  There’s some evidence in other insects that something like that can happen.  How exactly it works and what it offers in other insects isn’t really clear, so what they’ve written and what they’ve submitted in these generalized reports is intriguing, but, I guess, seeing is believing on how well it works.”

Still, the study is hopeful.

“Potentially, it would offer another way to treat foulbrood, if it does work, which would be an advantage.  Right now, there’s a concern about microbial resistance to antibiotics.”