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Bees and Health: Natural-Vaccine Discovery Opens Doors

Jul 31, 2015 05:10 PM EDT
Bees naturally vaccinate their young, which opens the door to introducing other vaccines to them.
In a time of colony collapse disorder and other environmental stresses to pollinators, researchers recently uncovered details on how queen bees pass on natural immunity to certain diseases to young.
(Photo : Photo: Christopher Bang)

While humans give certain kinds of immunity to their young via breast-milk, bees naturally vaccinate their babies against specific diseases found in their environments, too.

Their case is different, though, because it involves royal jelly, a "fat body" within the queen bee, and proteins passed along in blood to offspring eggs. While that may sound like a modernist play, researchers discovered it after years of bee study.

That is, researchers from Arizona State University, University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä and Norwegian University of Life Sciences recently published their findings in the journal PLOS Pathogens, after studying the bee blood protein vitellogenin.

To give a little background: In a honey bee colony, worker bees bring food to the queen, who hardly ever leaves the nest. Those forager bees create "royal jelly," which only the queen can eat. Incidentally, it includes bacteria that the worker bees picked up in the outside environment, as a release noted.

The queen bee digests the pathogens in her gut. They're transferred to the body cavity and go into her "fat body," which is similar to a liver. Some of the bacteria is then bound to the protein vitellogenin and arrives via blood to the developing eggs. This is how the bee babies are "vaccinated" and can better fight local diseases, according to the release.

Now that the scientists know that vaccines arrive by vitellogenin--which all egg-laying species (including fish, poultry, reptiles, amphibians and other insects) have--they can think about creating an edible and natural vaccine for other pathogens that affect pollinators and potentially others, say Gro Amdam of ASU and Dalial Freitak of University of Helsinki, in the release.

"We are patenting a way to produce a harmless vaccine, as well as how to cultivate the vaccines and introduce them to bee hives through a cocktail the bees would eat. They would then be able to stave off disease," said Freitak in the release.

At least one destructive disease, American Foul Brood, already spreads quickly among bees and destroys hives.

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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