Researchers from Arizona State University, University of Helsinki, University of Jyvaskyla, and Norwegian University of Life Sciences studied a protein found in bee blood called “vitellogenin” that plays an important role in protecting their babies from diseases commonly found in their environments.
In honey bee colonies, the queen almost never leaves the nest, meaning its up to worker bees to provide food for her. However as forager bees (a branch of worker bee) go out to collect pollen and nectar for said food, they expose themselves to many pathogens in the environment. The worker bees back in the hive use the pollen collected by the foragers to create “royal jelly” – a specially made food for the queen bee that typically contains the bacteria picked up from outside. When the royal jelly is eaten by the queen, the pathogens are digested in the gut and transferred to the body cavity, becoming stored in the queen’s “fat body” – an organ similar to a liver according to TheEconomicTimes. This is where the vitellogenin comes into play, with pieces of the bacteria attaching to the protein before being carried through bloodstreams to the queen’s developing eggs, effectively ‘vaccinating’ the bee babies by preparing their immune systems to better fight diseases found in their habitat.
Until now, scientists didn’t know the significance of the vitellogenin protein and how they carry immunizing signals to larva. However, while the natural vaccination protects them from some diseases, there are still many deadly pathogens that the insects are unable to fight. With the recent understanding of this vaccination process, scientists are now looking at ways to create edible and natural serums for the bees.
“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 Dalial Freitak, co-author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher with University of Helsinki.
It may seem like a strange use of resources, but bees and other pollinating insects contribute to a very large portion of our food supply. Creating new insect vaccines may help prevent colony collapse disorder (CCD), a disturbing phenomenon where a majority of the worker bees disappear leaving only the queen and a few nurse bees left to handle the overbearing number of immature bees, something that has been rising steadily since 2006 with no adequate explanation. This revelation could even provide benefits for other species and massively impact food production, as all egg-laying species – including fish, poultry, reptiles, amphibians, and insects – have the vitellogenin protein in their bodies, the researches noted.