UGA CAES partners with Dalan to develop honey bee vaccine
Vaccines are a proven benefit in the world of animal science. People have vaccinated both pets and livestock for decades.
Soon, beekeepers may be able to protect their colonies through vaccination. The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) and Dalan Animal Health have teamed up to advance the world’s first honey bee vaccine.
“You don’t have to look far to know honey bees are having a lot of problems right now. Hives will die unless you intercede with herculean efforts,” said Keith Delaplane, professor in the CAES Department of Entomology and director of the UGA Bee Program.
Depending on the queen
How to vaccinate a honey bee? It won't come down to tiny syringes. The research is focused on a different delivery method: candy for the queen.
Inherited immunity, according to Delaplane, involves the queen incorporating fragments of bacterial cells into her eggs. The egg contains the antigen, which in turn creates and promotes an immune response. The current project calls for feeding queen bees Dalan’s proprietary vaccine after which the inoculated queen, for the remainder of her lifetime, will produce worker bees that are primed to be immune against that pathogen.
“In a perfect scenario, the queens could be fed a cocktail within a queen candy — the soft, pasty sugar that queen bees eat while in transit,” Delaplane said. “Queen breeders could advertise ‘fully vaccinated queens.’”
There is also some evidence that immunized worker bees could pass immunity to their sisters. As they age, Delaplane said, bees go through a series of predictable tasks — cleaning cells, feeding larvae, processing honey, foraging and guarding the nest. If an immunized nurse bee feeds her larval sisters, it could give them immunity. He likened the relationship to the mother-baby relationship of lactating mammals where immune benefits are transferred through breastmilk.
Solving a global bee pandemic
The diseases seen today in beekeeping are global pandemics, according to Kleiser. Bees are sent worldwide and, while there are strict measures to prevent the spread, containment is impossible.
“This work with Keith is really, really important. One of the reasons is that this work is so new,” Dalan co-founder and CEO Annette Kleiser said. “There are no guidelines, no handbook. We are developing, together with Keith, what will be the gold standard for these trials. It’s really exciting; it is the first of its kind. When you engage with the regulators moving forward, this is what they will look at.”
The team is currently working on American foulbrood (AFB), one of the most fatal of bacterial diseases, Delaplane said. Once they succeed with a vaccine against bacterial disease, he has his eye on an even more complicated problem — tackling the viruses that can easily decimate hives.
“It is trickier to create inherited immunity with viruses, yet viruses are front and center in all literature about bee health problems,” he added. “They have proven to be an intractable problem — my hope is that this partnership can lead to a viral vaccine.”
Putting insect health on the map
“People don’t understand how hard it is to keep bees alive,” Delaplane said. “I can’t imagine a more frightening branch of agriculture to be in. It takes ceaseless attention.”
Once released, Delaplane added, these vaccines would be a game-changer for beekeepers who have had few resources except supportive therapies for decades.
“We are putting insect health on the map,” Kleiser said. “It will have a huge impact, not just on what we learn, but opportunities for students and for jobs that don’t currently exist.”
While the potential benefits are concrete, timelines — especially on a totally novel, first-in-class regulated vaccine — are hazier. Dalan is at the final stages of the approval process to obtain a conditional license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Veterinary Biologics (CVB), according to Kleiser.
“For us, it was important to establish (the honeybee vaccine) as an animal vaccine, just like a chicken or swine or cattle vaccine, that is regulated by the USDA-CVB; they oversee the approval of animal vaccines,” Kleiser said. “Once the vaccine is filled in bottles, the final steps in the detailed review process are confirmatory testing by the CVB laboratories for purity, etc. It is difficult to predict the timing, as much is out of our hands, though the CVB has been remarkably adaptive and flexible in our submissions as we go through the registration process for this novel product.”
The team is gearing up for that release ahead of the approaching 2023 honey bee season.