This treatment protects bees against Paenibacillus larvae, one of farmers’ worst nightmares.
American beekeepers will soon have access to a new tool that could be a game-changer in their conservation efforts. In a clinical trial spotted by ScienceAlert, researchers presented a vaccine that protects bees from a dangerous pathogen.
It’s no secret that pollinating insects, including bees, are absolutely essential players in life as we know it. As they come and go, they also carry the reproductive cells of plants. They therefore play a decisive role in the life cycle of plants and other species that depend on them, starting with ours.
However, for years already, the inhabitants of the countryside have been able to observe that their numbers are tending to collapse. An observation confirmed by numerous scientific works. And this is an extremely worrying situation, because without bees, the whole ecosystem as we know it could falter. And by extension, the food security on a planetary scale is threatened.
Some researchers are therefore trying to find ways to avoid the decline of their population. Several angles of attack have already been identified. One of the most important is the fight against toxic pesticides, in particular the famous neonicotinoids which poison them. Others have chosen to focus on fighting invasive species that make life difficult for them. We can for example cite the Asian hornet.
A destructive pathogen
Researchers from Dalan Animal Health, a private US company, are focusing on another major threat: Paenibacillus larvae. It is a species of bacteria that infects bees at the larval stage. It is responsible for American foulbrood, a highly contagious and extremely serious bee disease; if left unchecked, it can destroy a colony in no time.
Contrary to what its name suggests, it is rampant everywhere on the planet, including in Europe. In France, it is also a closely monitored disease: it is on the list of first category health hazards for animal species. The problem is that it is quite difficult to get rid of them. There are antibiotic treatments against this wreck, but they are far from ideal.
As a rule, their effectiveness remains moderate. In addition, its application requires enormous work from beekeepers. And above all, the fact of having recourse to these antibiotics could push the pathogen to develop full resistance, which would be catastrophic. This approach is therefore formally prohibited in the European Unionwhich opted for zero tolerance at this level.
The only absolute guarantee of preventing the spread once the wolf is in the fold is to burn it all down, from the hive to tools and infected brood. A heartbreaker for beekeepers who are forced to come to this.
The first vaccine of its kind
Dalan Animal Health researchers have therefore rolled up their sleeves to wage war on these bacteria. Their weapon: a vaccine specially designed to protect our yellow and black friends.
The concept is much the same as for a human vaccine. We start by collecting the targeted pathogen, then we inactivate it to make it harmless. All that remains is to bring it into contact with the immune system. The latter can then learn to eradicate the intruder without risking infection. The difference is that for obvious reasons it is not an injectable vaccine. It is administered through food.
However, the term should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, it is not a vaccine in the usual sense. Bees do not have the same immune system as humans; in them, we do not find the antibodies on which traditional vaccines play.
But that does not mean that bees are incapable of defending themselves, far from it. Several studies have already shown that they can develop remarkable resistance to a host of pathogens previously encountered.
And this system has another remarkable feature: heredity. Indeed, unlike the immunity of mammals, which is built up individually over exposure to pathogens, bees can transmit these resistances to their offspring.
Researchers played on this phenomenon to treat entire colonies in a trial conducted last year. The results published last November indicate that this vaccine is both very effective and perfectly safe for bees. He succeeded in protecting not only the workers, but also all the offspring of the colony!
The war is far from over
Based on these results, the Dalan researchers obtained a two-year license from the United States Department of Agriculture. During this period, it will distribute limited quantities of this vaccine to various beekeepers. The priority objective will be to study its effects on a larger scale. If all goes as planned, this license may be extended. Dalan will then be authorized to supply the vaccine directly to operators without any particular restriction.
While waiting for this deadline, professionals in the sector have already welcomed what they consider to be a real breath of fresh air. ” This is a very interesting step for beekeepers “, welcomes Trevor Tauzer, one of the leaders of the Californian association of beekeepers.
” If we can prevent these infections in our hives, we can avoid costly treatments and focus our efforts on other things important to bee health. “, he rejoices. Certainly good news for this discreet and indispensable ally of humanity.
But it should also be kept in mind that Paenibacillus larvae is not the only threat to bees. There will still be a lot of work to ensure the survival of these adorable hymenoptera which, let’s remember, survive of Homo sapiens sapiens between their little paws.