“It’s just getting harder for bees to do what they do,” Keith Delaplane says. Increasingly, honeybees and other pollinators face survival challenges from climate change, pesticide use, and habitat destruction—in addition to bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can swiftly decimate a hive. But researchers like Delaplane, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia and the director of UGA’s Bee Program, are working to offer beekeepers tools to combat at least some of these threats. Next year, Georgia—home to one of the biggest commercial beekeeping industries in the country—might also be home to the world’s first vaccine for honeybees.
This one targets what Delaplane calls the “historic bad boy” of bee diseases: American foulbrood, caused by a bacterium that infects larvae with deadly spores and can wipe out an entire colony in days. “American foulbrood is historically the most important honeybee disease, period,” Delaplane says. Outside of antibiotics, the use of which has been curbed by the USDA in recent years, there is no way to treat it. Once a beekeeper detects AFB—which can happen as soon as they open their hive, since the disease makes it “stink like a chicken house”—there’s only one option, Delaplane says: “Dig a hole, put it in the hole, burn it, and cover it up.” The disease is so contagious and devastating that beekeepers are required by state law to destroy affected hives.
The vaccine was developed by Athens-based Dalan Animal Health, which partnered with UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to test its efficacy in the field. (It doesn’t involve—alas—a bee-sized syringe, but rather a candylike solution fed to queens, who then pass immunity along to offspring.) Following vetting and approval by regulatory agencies like the EPA, the team hopes to make the vaccine available to both amateur and commercial beekeepers by fall 2023.
Then, it’s on to the next challenge: viruses. Parasites like the varroa mite not only carry viruses as vectors; they also activate them and make them worse. Delaplane says it’s technically trickier to develop a viral vaccine for honeybees, since researchers have not yet been able to create sterile honeybee tissue in the lab for controlled experiments. Solving that problem would be a big leap forward in protecting bees.
“We have this toxic stew of the old bacterial diseases, plus the blood-feeding parasites, plus the viruses those parasites are now spreading,” says Delaplane. “We need to give beekeepers more tools to take care of every one of those little straws that break the camel’s back.” Treating AFB is a start; longer-term, Delaplane hopes to see a cocktail-style vaccine against a number of bacterial and viral diseases that honeybee queen breeders could feed to their queens. “I think that would be kind of the holy grail.”
As for Delaplane himself, who has five honeybee hives in his own downtown Athens backyard? Once the vaccine becomes available, he says: “I’ll get in line myself.”
This article appears in our January 2023 issue.