U.S. Department of Agriculture approves first-ever honeybee vaccine

A honeybee on an Aster flower Photo by Fiona M. Donnelly/Shutterstock

Beekeepers are buzzing with the news that the first honeybee vaccine has been granted conditional approval by the United States Department of Agriculture. The vaccine was created by biotech company Dalan Animal Health, and it protects honeybees against American Foulbrood, a bacterial disease with lethal consequences for bee colonies.

American Foulbrood affects the larval stage of honeybees and can rapidly spread through a hive. As reported by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs website, the disease is fatal, and causes larvae to decompose into a gooey mess. It’s not a pleasant fate for a hive.

Confirming the presence of American Foulbrood comes down to a very simple test. “The old methods still hold,” says Collette Mesher, the research lead for the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. Once a beekeeper spots symptoms of the disease, they use what’s called a ropey test, she says. The keeper uses a stick to mush up the larvae, puts the stick in, pulls it out, and if the goop ropes or stretches more than two centimetres, the disease is confirmed.

Under the Bees Act of Ontario, American Foulbrood must be reported once detected. It is a very virulent disease and can survive for up to 30 years on beekeeping equipment, say Ian Grant, the president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association.

“Once it’s confirmed, the only solution is to quarantine the site and then bottle up the hive and burn everything—the bees and the equipment—and then your location is quarantined for two years,” he says. “If we don’t control it, it could possibly affect all of Ontario.

Currently beekeepers in Ontario can ward against American Foulbrood infection through the use of oxytetracycline, a common veterinary antibiotic. The drug is regulated by the World Health Organization and requires a veterinarian prescription. Beekeepers do have the special privilege to use the prescribed antibiotic in the spring and early fall to suppress infection, says Mesher, but this is a preventative measure, not a treatment. She adds that the World Health Organization wants to slow down or stop the preventative use of antibiotics to avoid antibiotic resistance developing.

“New research like this is exciting for us,” says Mesher. It might not replace current procedures, but it could be another tool. The fact that people are out there looking for alternatives is positive, she says.

The vaccine isn’t administered through a needle like your flu shot. Instead, the vaccine is fed to the hive’s queen bee, who will then pass on the immunity to their offspring. While Ontario doesn’t allow the import of honeybee colonies from the United States under the Bees Act, the province does allow the importation of queen bees under very strict conditions. California is a major player in queen bee breeding, so Grant says the vaccine tests in that state will be very interesting to watch.

Questions also remain about how the vaccine would fit into a beekeeper’s operation schedule. Grant says administering the vaccine requires a beekeeper to isolate their queen bee for eight days from the hive. That’s a significant amount of time where the queen is out of production, he adds.

The vaccine is still under conditional approval and has not been fully tested. For now, Ontario beekeepers are watching and waiting to see the results of the roll out in the United States. “It’s several season away before we would see it here in Canada,” says Mesher.

In the meantime, both Mesher and Grant have suggestions on how to support Ontario’s beekeepers. “We’re a significant part of the agri-food sector, but we’re well hidden,” says Grant. One third of your food supply is pollinated by honeybees, as good a reason as any to want healthy bees.

For folks who want a hands-on experience with honeybees, Ontario has 33 local beekeepers’ associations that welcome newcomers. Property owners can also partner with commercial and hobby beekeepers to host hives on their land, says Mesher.

And the most delicious option to support local honeybees and their keepers? Buy local honey.

The original version of this article incorrectly identified the title of Ian Grant as the director of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. He is, in fact, the president.

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