Honey bees naturally vaccinate their babies

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Vaccination isn’t just restricted to humans as researchers have found recently that bees also vaccinate their babies through a process that naturally immunizes the offspring against specific diseases.

A multi-university effort has yielded the exact process through which this natural vaccination takes place. Through researchers have long known the importance of a bee blood protein called vitellogenin, but it is for the first time that they have decoded how it provides bee babies protection against diseases.

Researchers from Arizona State University, University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä and Norwegian University of Life Sciences have discovered the vitellogenin plays the role of a carrier transferring bacteria to the developing eggs thereby vaccinating the bees and providing natural immunity to fight diseases found in their environment.

The basic arrangement in a honey bee colony is that the queen rarely leaves the nest and worker bees bring food to her. Bees out and about gathering pollen and nectar may end up bringing pathogens along with them and these ingredients infested with bacteria is used by worker bees to create ‘royal jelly’ for the queen.

The bacteria consumed by the queen are digested in the gut and transferred to the body cavity where they are stored in the queen’s “fat body” — an organ similar to a liver. Pieces of these digested bacteria are then bound to the blood protein vitellogenin that carries them via the blood to the developing eggs.

Because of this, bee babies are “vaccinated” and their immune systems better prepared to fight diseases found in their environment once they are born.

“The process by which bees transfer immunity to their babies was a big mystery until now. What we found is that it’s as simple as eating,” said Gro Amdam, a professor with ASU’s School of Life Sciences and co-author of the paper. “Our amazing discovery was made possible because of 15 years of basic research on vitellogenin. This exemplifies how long-term investments in basic research pay off.”

Co-author Dalial Freitak, a postdoctoral researcher with University of Helsinki adds: “I have been working on bee immune priming since the start of my doctoral studies. Now almost 10 years later, I feel like I’ve solved an important part of the puzzle. It’s a wonderful and very rewarding feeling!”

The research has also paved way for creating the first edible and natural vaccine for insects. Researchers revealed that they 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. This, the researchers say, will enable the bees to stave off disease.

One of the reasons that this discovery is important to us is that bees are one of the best known pollinators and global food production depends on these insects.

During the past six decades, managed honey bee colonies in the United States have declined from 6 million in 1947 to only 2.5 million today. Not only are bees affected by diseases, they have been decimated by a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. Researchers don’t know exactly what causes this, but pesticides, pests, pathogens and nutrition problems may all be contributing factors.

According to a 2014 report by the U.S. government, pollinators are instrumental for a healthy economy and critical to food security, contributing 35 percent of global food production. In North America, insects pollinate 87 of the top 115 food crops and honey bees are vital in keeping fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diets.

Humans depend on bees and other pollinating insects for a huge portion of their food supply. Insect vaccines could play an important role in helping to combat colony collapse disorder, in addition to fighting a variety of diseases.

Researchers believe that their discovery could have far-reaching benefits for other species – specifically all egg-laying species, including fish, poultry, reptiles, amphibians and insects as they all have vitellogenin in their bodies.

The food industry could implement the use of natural vaccines that would not only be inexpensive to produce, they could easily be used in developing countries.

“Because this vaccination process is naturally occurring, this process would be cheap and ultimately simple to implement. It has the potential to both improve and secure food production for humans,” said Amdam.

The study has been published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.