In a world-first, honeybees in the US are set to receive a pioneering vaccine to protect them against American foulbrood disease, a serious bacterial condition known to weaken colonies and kill hives. 

Honeybees in the US will soon be receiving a vaccine to mitigate the impact of a bacterial disease that can wipe out entire colonies.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted a conditional license for the vaccine this week, according to Dalan Animal Health, the biotech company behind the preventative treatment. 

"Global population growth and changing climates will increase the importance of honeybee pollination to secure our food supply," explains Dr. Annette Kleiser, CEO of Dalan Animal Health. "Our vaccine is a breakthrough in protecting honeybees. We are ready to change how we care for insects, impacting food production on a global scale."

As much as one third of the world's food supply relies on pollinators such as bees, birds, and bats. With many wild bee species in drastic decline as a result of habitat loss, pesticide use and a changing climate, the agricultural industry has become unusually reliant on managed honeybee colonies, particularly in the US.

These 'service bees' are transported around the country to help propagate an array of crops from blueberries to almonds. Exposure to a variety of diseases has destroyed colonies in vast numbers and led to the need for interventions by beekeepers to sustain their hives. 

The planned vaccine is another weapon in the arsenal to help fight the decline of honeybee populations. It targets American foulbrood, an affliction caused by the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae that can destroy entire colonies by reducing bee larvae to a rancid, brown goo. 

Foulbrood can reduce bee larvae to a rancid, brown goo. Image © Tanarus

With no known safe or sustainable solution for disease prevention, foulbrood poses a challenge to beekeepers whose only option to treat the problem involves incinerating infected hives and equipment, and treating nearby colonies with antibiotics.

To administer the vaccine, an inactive version of the bacteria that causes the disease is incorporated into royal jelly feed given by worker bees to the queen. Once ingested, fragments of the vaccine are deposited in the queen's ovaries which ultimately work their way down to the larvae, providing them with immunity. 

"This is an exciting step forward for beekeepers," explained Trevor Tauzer, owner of Tauzer Apiaries and board member of the California State Beekeepers Association. "If we can prevent an infection in our hives, we can avoid costly treatments and focus our energy on other important elements of keeping our bees healthy."

Top header image: Brian Hoffman, Flickr