Finnish Scientists Develop Edible Insect Vaccine To Save Bees

DOGO News By Ariel Kim  January 10, 2019

European honey bee extracts nectar from an Aster flower (Credit: John Severns/ Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

European honey bee extracts nectar from an Aster flower (Credit: John Severns/ Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

In addition to providing us with delicious honey, the hardworking honey bees also pollinate about a third of food crops and almost 90 percent of wild grasses, like alfalfa, used to feed livestock. Hence, it is not surprising that their declining population, caused by climate change, habitat loss, and deadly microbial diseases, has researchers scrambling to find ways to protect the vulnerable insects, which are so crucial to our existence. Now, scientists from the University of Helsinki in Finland have found a way to help honey bees fight off infectious diseases with a sweet, edible vaccine!

Vaccinating non-humans is not a novel idea. Domesticated dogs and cats have been inoculatedagainst rabies, Lyme disease, and even the flu for many years. However, using them to protect insects has never been considered possible. That’s because vaccinations entail injecting a dead, or weakened, version of the virus into the body and allowing the immune system to create antibodies to fend off the disease. Since insects do not possess antibodies, they lack a "memory" for fighting infections and therefore do not benefit from traditional vaccinations.

Some of the foods that could be affected if honey bees disappear (Credit: Specialtyfood.com)

Some of the foods that could be affected if honey bees disappear (Credit: Specialtyfood.com)

Dalial Freitak, a biologist at the University of Helsinki, came up with the idea of an edible insect vaccine in 2014, after observing that when a moth was fed certain bacteria, it was able to pass on immunity to its offspring. Meanwhile, her colleague, Heli Salmela, had noticed that vitellogenin, a bee protein, appeared to have a similar effect to invasive bacteria in bees.

"So they could actually convey something by eating. I just didn't know what the mechanism was. At the time, as I started my post-doc work in Helsinki, I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honeybees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk, and I was like: OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another. We started to collaborate, got funding from the Academy of Finland, and that was actually the beginning of PrimeBEE," Freitak explains.

How the American foulbrood bacteria invade and decimate hives (Credit: Current Opinion in Insect Science/Sciencedirect.com)

How the American foulbrood bacteria invade and decimate hives (Credit: Current Opinion in Insect Science/Sciencedirect.com)

The first PrimeBEE vaccine, which is still undergoing safety tests, aims to protect honeybees against American foulbrood, or AFB, an infectious disease which affects bee colonies worldwide. The harmful bacteria, introduced to the hive by nurse bees, feed on larvae and generate spores which spread and infect the entire hive. “It's a death sentence for a hive or colony to be diagnosed with the disease,” says Toni Burnham, president of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance in Washington.

The researchers, who unveiled their findings on October 18, 2018, say the vaccine teaches honeybees to identify harmful diseases, similar to how antibodies function in humans and animals. They explain, "When the queen bee eats something with pathogens in it, the pathogen signature molecules are bound by vitellogenin. Vitellogenin then carries these signature molecules into the queen's eggs, where they work as inducers for future immune responses." The researchers believe that once the first PrimeBEE vaccine is perfected, defense against other pathogens will be easy to create.

“We need to help honey bees, absolutely. Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale. Of course, the honey bees have many other problems as well: pesticides, habitat loss and so on, but diseases come hand in hand with these life-quality problems,” Freitak says. “If we can help honey bees to be healthier and if we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit.”

Resources: Smithsonianmag.com, NPR.org, mnn.com.

How the Hell Do You Vaccinate a Bee?

HAARETZ By Ruth Schuster December 18, 2018

a bee Credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/ REUTERS

a bee Credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/ REUTERS

Scientists propose to inoculate bees against deadly diseases
reportedly decimating their colonies lest we all starve, and no,
vaccines don’t cause autism in insects either

Many and myriad a solution has been touted for the catastrophes reportedly afflicting bee colonies around the world, spurring fears that the loss of their pollinating powers will lead to massive crop losses.

Honeycomb with bees. credit: philippe wojazer, reuters

Honeycomb with bees. credit: philippe wojazer, reuters

The latest wrinkle is to vaccinate the insects against diseases implicated in colony collapse disorder, a method (dubbed PrimeBEE) developed by two scientists in the University of Helsinki, Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela, and reported by AFP and ZME Science.

Dead bees killed by mite infestation. Credit: Getty Images IL

Dead bees killed by mite infestation. Credit: Getty Images IL

There is no consensus about the extent of the problem, or even whether bee colony collapse disorder is a thing, let alone a worsening thing. Some experts claim that declines in world bee populations is a natural fluctuation or that, in any case, it is reversible. The cause of the declining bee populations is variously ascribed to pesticides, geomagnetic disturbances (impairing the bees’ navigation), vampire-like mites, viruses, sunspots (navigation again), bacteria, fungi, climate change, and malnutrition. Or a combination of some or all of these. Some even claim that although there is a problem, its dimensions have been egregiously overstated.

The one thing we’re sure of is that bees are good, certainly since we have abandoned a life of hunting and grubbing for roots in favor of industrial farming. Around a third of the plants people eat require pollination (grains don’t), and while fruit bats and other living beings play their part, bees are estimated to be responsible for about a third of that. No question, the insect is crucial to food security.

Fruit bats are lovely but no replacement for bees. credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Fruit bats are lovely but no replacement for bees. credit: Tomer Appelbaum

So, whether or not colony collapse is a thing, clearly prevention is worth an ounce of honey. A riot of flower species are being planted or just allowed to grow between European crop fields, to vary the bees’ sources of nectar for the sake of their nutrition; in England, farmers have been planting hedgerows and trees because honey bees prefer them to “just” flowers.

Scientists have experimented with fighting mite infestations by a method involving exposing the bees to cold (by, er, shutting them in the fridge), while others are monkeying around with rich solutions to augment their feed.

Some people propose to replace the humbled honeybee with other more robust bee species, bats or whatever. (Robot bees don’t seem to be the answer.) And now Finnish scientists have invented the first-ever vaccines for bees. One gets a mental picture of a nimble-fingered scientist armed with an extremely fine needle and infinite patience. But one would be wrong.

bees in a hive. credit: chris o’meara, ap

bees in a hive. credit: chris o’meara, ap

The inoculating chemical is put into a sugar cube that is fed to the queen bee, who passes the immunity onto her offspring. The scientists have begun their testing process with a sugar-coated vaccine against so-called “American foulbrood” – a fatal bacterial condition that actually affects bees around the world. Unhappily for our friends the bees, foulbrood is caused by sporulating bacteria, meaning hardy ones, and it’s highly infectious. It infects and kills bee larvae, not adults, hence the name.

The bee vaccination technique will take some four to five years to perfect, lead researcher Freitak told AFP.

Intriguingly, bee vaccination isn’t about injecting an antigen that provokes production of antibodies. Insect immune systems don’t have antibodies, but as the University of Helsinki explains, Freitak had noticed (in moths) that if the parents eat certain bacteria in their food, their offspring show elevated immune responses to that germ. Ultimately, this led to the thought of a delivery system of the vaccination via food. They started with foulbrood because it’s so deadly and infectious. Right now, the technique is being tested for safety, following which commercialization can ensue.

Also, given that vaccinations do not cause autism in people (with all due respect to the lunatic fringe), there’s no reason to think they cause mental acuity or behavioral issues in bees.

Although much work remains to be done – including to adapt the technique to a lot more bacteria, fungi and other nasties – as Freitak stated: “If we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit.”

It isn't clear if colony collapse syndrome is a huge problem or hype: Meanwhile, here are some bees flying around. credit: bloomberg

It isn't clear if colony collapse syndrome is a huge problem or hype: Meanwhile, here are some bees flying around. credit: bloomberg

The First-Ever Insect Vaccine Prime-BEE Helps Bees Stay Healthy

University of Helsinki By Elina Raukko October 31, 2018

Photo: Helsinki Innovation Services

Photo: Helsinki Innovation Services

The easily administered edible vaccine could keep pollinators safe from bacterial diseases and give invaluable support for food production worldwide.

Food and pollination services are important for everyone: humans, production animals and wildlife alike. Inventing something that guards against pollinator losses will have a tremendous impact.

PrimeBEE is the first-ever vaccine for honey bees and other pollinators. It fights severe microbial diseases that can be detrimental to pollinator communities. The invention is the fruit of research carried out by two scientists in the University of Helsinki, Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela.

The basis of the innovation is quite simple. When the queen bee eats something with pathogens in it, the pathogen signature molecules are bound by vitellogenin. Vitellogenin then carries these signature molecules into the queen’s eggs, where they work as inducers for future immune responses.

Before this, no-one had thought that insect vaccination could be possible at all. That is because the insect immune system, although rather similar to the mammalian system, lacks one of the central mechanisms for immunological memory – antibodies.
"Now we've discovered the mechanism to show that you can actually vaccinate them. You can transfer a signal from one generation to another," researcher Dalial Freitak states.

From moths to honey bees

Dalial Freitak has been working with insects and the immune system throughout her career. Starting with moths, she noticed that if the parental generation is exposed to certain bacteria via their food, their offspring show elevated immune responses.

"So they could actually convey something by eating. I just didn't know what the mechanism was. At the time, as I started my post-doc work in Helsinki, I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honeybees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk and I was like: OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another. We started to collaborate, got funding from the Academy of Finland, and that was actually the beginning of PrimeBEE," Dalial Freitak explains.

Fu­ture plans: vac­cin­at­ing honey bees against any mi­crobe

PrimeBEE's first aim is to develop a vaccine against American foulbrood, a bacterial disease caused by the spore-forming Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae. American foulbrood is the most widespread and destructive of the bee brood diseases.

"We hope that we can also develop a vaccination against other infections, such as European foulbrood and fungal diseases. We have already started initial tests. The plan is to be able to vaccinate against any microbe".

At the same time as the vaccine’s safety is being tested in the laboratory, the project is being accelerated towards launching a business. Sara Kangaspeska, Head of Innovation at Helsinki Innovation Services HIS, has been involved with the project right from the start.

"Commercialisation has been a target for the project from the beginning. It all started when Dalial and Heli contacted us. They first filed an invention disclosure to us describing the key findings of the research. They then met with us to discuss the case in detail and since then, the University has proceeded towards filing a patent application that reached the national phase in January 2018.”

A big step forward was to apply for dedicated commercialisation funding from Business Finland, a process which is coordinated and supported by HIS. HIS assigns a case owner for each innovation or commercialisation project, who guides the project from A to Z and works hands-on with the researcher team.

“HIS core activities are to identify and support commercialisation opportunities stemming from the University of Helsinki research. PrimeBEE is a great example of an innovation maturing towards a true commercial seed ready to be spun-out from the University soon. It has been inspiring and rewarding to work together with the researchers towards a common goal,” says Sara Kangaspeska.

The latest news is that based on the PrimeBEE invention, a spinout company called Dalan Animal Health will be founded in the very near future.

"We need to help honey bees, absolutely. Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale. Of course, the honeybees have many other problems as well: pesticides, habitat loss and so on, but diseases come hand in hand with these life-quality problems. If we can help honey bees to be healthier and if we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit," Dalial Freitak asserts.

Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Research Programme
Centre of Excellence in Biological Interactions

In short:

Honeybees are central for providing food for humans, production animals and wildlife by pollinating more than 80% of the plant species in the world. Recent years have witnessed a decline in pollinator numbers worldwide, threatening the food and fodder production. Among other reasons, emerging diseases are raging havoc in bee populations.

PrimeBEE is the first-ever insect vaccine, which is based on the trans-generational immune priming mechanism, allowing immunological signals to be passed from queen bees to her offspring. PrimeBEE insect vaccine is easily administered as it can be added to the queen bee's food. The queen then conveys the disease resistance to its progeny.

JOIN US: We are now looking for investors and funding to help save a little bit of the world! CON­TACT IN­FOR­MA­TION: Dr. Dalial Freitak, Dr. Annette Kleiser, and Dr. Franziska Dickel

PrimeBee website

https://www.helsinki.fi/en/news/sustainability-news/the-first-ever-insect-vaccine-primebee-helps-bees-stay-healthy