January 30, 2023

A first of its kind vaccine for honeybees is close to coming to market to fight a disease that currently means burning infected hives. It’s a little extra help as bees try to deal with climate change.



AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Honeybees play a key role in pollinating the crops we eat, but they face ongoing threats from disease, pesticides and climate change. And now there’s some hope against one of those threats. Emily Jones of member station WABE reports on the world’s first honeybee vaccine.

EMILY JONES, BYLINE: On Marcus Pollard’s farm just south of Atlanta, the bees are hunkered down for winter.

MARCUS POLLARD: What they do when it is cold, they cluster around the queen to keep her warm and the cluster of bees warm. And they just go around and eat honey.

JONES: It’s a mild day for January, so Pollard can open up the bee boxes without hurting them.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEES BUZZING)

JONES: He talks over Zoom as he points his phone camera inside a healthy colony. The bees crawl all over, busy making honey for winter. It would be a different story if these bees picked up the bacteria that causes American foulbrood.

POLLARD: As soon as you would open it up, you would get a very rancid smell.

JONES: The bees inside would die, leaving behind a sticky residue filled with bacteria. That puts all the nearby hives at risk because bees could visit and take the deadly bacteria back to their colonies. So Pollard says there’s no choice but to burn an infected hive.

POLLARD: It can wipe out my entire operation, you know, in a week or two.

JONES: That’s one reason a new vaccine developed by biotech firm Dalan Animal Health could be a game changer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the vaccine a conditional license earlier this month. That means there’s an urgent need for it as testing continues. The vaccine works by feeding a safe version of the American foulbrood or AFB pathogen to queen bees. University of Georgia bee expert Keith Delaplane says the queen then passes it on.

KEITH DELAPLANE: Each egg has particles of the AFB bacterium so that the adult that emerges from that egg is born primed for immunity against that pathogen.

JONES: Whole colonies of bees then become immune to the disease. American foulbrood is just one threat to honeybees. Climate change can shift where their favorite plants grow and harm bee habitat. Warmer temperatures also help mosquitoes spread. Delaplane says that can mean more people spraying insecticides where honeybees live.

DELAPLANE: You know, that doesn’t do them any good.

JONES: Plus, plenty of other diseases can devastate bees. That’s one reason scientists are so excited about this vaccine. It could lead to more bee health breakthroughs. For NPR News, I’m Emily Jones.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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