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The world’s first vaccine for honeybees has been approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Developed by biotech company Dalan Animal Health in Athens, Georgia, the vaccine aims to combat American foulbrood, a contagious bacterial disease that can destroy entire colonies. The vaccine incorporates killed whole-cell foulbrood bacteria and transgenerational technology that is fed to the queen through royal jelly. Fragments of the vaccine deposited in her ovaries can provide immunity to developing larvae. The vaccine is expected to become available for purchase in the United States later this year.

Honey producers and beekeepers typically rely on antibiotics to control diseases like American foulbrood. However, these antibiotics have limited impact and often wipe out beneficial microbes in honeybees’ stomachs, according to Chris Hiatt, President of the American Honey Producers Association. The approval of the honeybee vaccine marks a new approach to animal health that may provide new tools to improve resistance against diseases. A spokesperson for Dalan Animal Health said that “[this] vaccine and platform technology is forging a new insect health sector, changing how we care for honeybees.”

According to preliminary research out of The University of Maryland and Auburn University, beekeepers in the United States lost an estimated 39% of their managed honey bee colonies from April 2021 to April 2022 due to disease. As one of the planet’s most important pollinators, honeybees play a critical role in agriculture. Bees and other pollinators affect 35% of the world’s crop production, increasing the outputs of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates bee pollination to account for around US$15 billion in added crop value.

Keith Delaplane, Professor of Entomology at the University of Georgia, believes the discovery of inherited immunity has the potential to alter scientific approaches to other infectious honeybee diseases. According to Delaplane, inherited immunity is a relatively new discovery in insects. He believes this technology could be applicable to many other infectious honeybee diseases, alongside other remedial products for cultured bumble bees, mealworms, and crickets. He said that “improving social conditions and human quality of life cannot ignore improving crop pollination in all parts of the world.”

While the vaccine may not be the solution to all viruses impacting honeybees, it is a strong indication of promise, according to Hiatt. He said that “we’ll still have virus issues, but this is one step in the right direction.” Keith Delaplane agrees, calling it a new category of tool - a remedial vaccine - rather than a silver bullet.