July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Elin Cave (June 11 2024)

The world’s first insect vaccine has been found to protect against a second deadly disease. It is not yet understood how, but researchers reported at the World Vaccine Congress that vaccinated honeybees were protected against deformed wing virus, spread by the infamous varroa mites. The UK’s beekeeping community have greeted this news with cautious optimism, stressing that it must be part of a wider movement to address fast-declining nature and biodiversity. 

Developed by US researchers last year, the vaccine has been found to improve the overall health of commercial honeybees. It was initially designed to provide immunity against bacterial American Foulbrood (AFB), a fatal disease which reduces hives to a rank-smelling goo. The only possible measure of identification is the extermination of the entire colony. 

Developer Nigel Swift and his team, from Dalan Animal Health recently found that the vaccine also appears to be protecting honeybees from deformed wing virus, a debilitating disease spread by varroa mites. How a bacterial vaccine is providing immunity against this virus is not yet understood. Varroa mites are currently the biggest threat to honeybees worldwide, feeding on body tissue and spreading a host of diseases. Most UK hobbyists treat their bees for varroa mites twice a year. The vaccine, not yet approved outside the US, was welcomed by UK hobbyist Lou Taylor: ‘you always want the best for your bees, so I’d be surprised if anyone refused’. However, she emphasised the need for a wider initiative of dealing with biodiversity and stopping the attack on nature.

The 2023 State of Nature Report revealed the UK is one of the most nature- depleted countries on Earth. The catastrophic decline of bees and other pollinators is due to habitat loss, use of pesticides and the climate crisis. Hobbyist beekeepers in the UK, such as Taylor, advocate for increased biodiversity as a more sustainable solution than relying solely on chemical treatments: ‘bees are central to life, we cannot disconnect them from everything else’. 

UK and European food production rely largely on wild pollinators, meaning diseases such as AFB are no threat to food security. However, the US is a different story. Food production relies heavily on commercial pollinators. Thousands of bees are transported around the country throughout the year, pollinating almonds in the West, peaches in the East and cherries in the South. The constant moving and pollination of monocultures causes the bees to become distressed, increasing their susceptibility to disease. Bee Informed reported that US beekeepers lost 48% of their colonies last year. 

The sheer scale of US commercial beekeeping means diseases such as AFB can lead to huge losses. Honeybees are entirely relied on for pollination of almonds, a top US crop. It is estimated that managed honeybees are worth over $235 billion in pollination services. However, for hobbyist beekeepers, AFB can largely be contained. A national survey from NGO Bee Informed found the majority of UK hobbyist beekeepers suffered no winter losses.