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A biotech firm says the U.S. has approved its vaccine for honeybees

A bee feeds on honey from a honeycomb at a beekeeper's farm in Colina, on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, Monday, Jan. 17, 2021.
Esteban Felix
A bee feeds on honey from a honeycomb at a beekeeper's farm in Colina, on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, Monday, Jan. 17, 2021.

The federal government has granted a conditional license for a honeybee vaccine, the developer of the drug announced Wednesday.

The vaccine will be used to help fight American Foulbrood disease in the insects and was approved by the Department of Agriculture, Dalan Animal Health, the biotech company behind the vaccine, said.

"This is an exciting step forward for beekeepers, as we rely on antibiotic treatment that has limited effectiveness and requires lots of time and energy to apply to our hives," Tauzer Apiaries, a board member of the California State Beekeepers Association, said in a news release from Dalan. "If we can prevent an infection in our hives, we can avoid costly treatments and focus our energy on other important elements of keeping our bees healthy."

Infected bees and hives are also typically incinerated to stop the spread of the disease, Dalan Animal Health said.

The disease is caused by Paenibacillus larvae, a type of bacteria that affects the bee's larvae. The vaccine contains some of that bacteria, and it will be mixed in with the royal jelly, which worker bees secrete from their heads and then feed to the queen and larvae. When the queen eats the jelly, she will ingest fragments of the vaccine that will grant her offspring some immunity against the bacteria.

The vaccine is not genetically modified and can be used in organic agriculture, Dalan Animal Health said.

The USDA issues conditional licenses for products that "meet an emergency situation, limited market, local situation, or special circumstance" and are pure, safe and have a "have a reasonable expectation of efficacy," according to a memo by the agency.

Pollinators are responsible for one of every three bites of food we take, according to the agency, but their numbers have been declining for many years.

U.S. beekeepers lost nearly 40% of their honeybee colonies in winter 2019, according to a survey by the Bee Informed Partnership.

Bee decline has many causes, including decreasing crop diversity, poor beekeeping practices and loss of habitat. Pesticides weaken bees' immune systems and can kill them. Varroa mites latch onto honeybees and suck their "fat body" tissue, stunting and weakening them and potentially causing entire colonies to collapse.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]

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