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A deadly disease is threatening honeybees, but a new vaccine could help

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Jones locally hosts Morning Edition and reports on all things coastal Georgia for GPB’s Savannah bureau. Before coming to GPB, she studied broadcast journalism at the Columbia Journalism School and urban history at Brown University. She’s worked for the Wall Street Journal Radio Network, WHYY in Philadelphia, and WBRU and RIPR in Providence. In addition to anchoring and reporting news at WBRU, Emily hosted the alt-rock station’s Retro Lunch as her DJ alter-ego, Domino.