A Vaccine for Honey bees? Is it sweet or sour?

Did you know that if a bee inspector finds American Foulbrood (AFB) in a beekeepers beehives, the beekeeper has to BURN the affected colonies? With FIRE! Yup, boxes, bees, honey, all of it goes up in flames. That is the current most effective method of eradicating AFB. Foulbrood is a spore that pretty much destroys the brood; the baby bees in their developmental stages. And if you’re wondering why it’s called ‘foul’ brood it’s because that’s exactly how it smells, foul! In one word, ‘Ew!’

In my seventeen years of beekeeping I have only experienced foulbrood on two separate occasions, that were several years apart. Although it does devastate a bee hive it’s also rare in my experience. When a colony suffers from AFB it dies slowly. The biggest threat is when honey bees from healthy colonies find another colony weakened by AFB and rob all of its honey and hightail it out of there. The AFB spore is on everything and even in the honey remaining in the dying hive. So when it’s robbed out by healthy bees, they inadvertently carry home spore-infected honey. Uncool. That’s one of several ways that AFB can spread. So scientists have been working on a vaccine to treat for AFB.

~So how is a vaccine supposed to help honey bees fight this?~

Doing my own personal research, nerd style, I have learned that the vaccine is intended for her majesty, the queen bee. Apparently, instead of giving thousands of little bees a shot with a needle, which would take way too long, the vaccine is delivered via an edible sugar solution to the queen. But here’s the part that makes me nervous:

~Every egg that a vaccinated queen lays results in a vaccinated worker or drone honey bee.~

Her Majest, the Queen is in the upper middle; she’s the one with the nice booty.
Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

So the idea is that once a beekeeper gets his hands on a vaccinated queen from a professional bee breeder ($$$), then eventually all of his or her beehives would be vaccinated against AFB and possibly some virus strains from Varroa mite, simply through the queen’s bloodline. I’m not a scientist by any means but this sounds like honey bee genetics could potentially be modified by this vaccine or tampered with, depending on your point of view. Does this sound like a GMO honey bee to you?

Now I’m not against things that help to progress the field of beekeepery. I am uneasy about vaccines and possibly altering the essential nature of something. But I think there’s a bigger issue here, one that makes me wonder why, why, why? As I mentioned earlier, I’ve only seen AFB twice in the last seventeen years! BUT, I’ve experienced other issues every day of those seventeen years that honey bees and their Keepers are facing much more often: Varroa mites, pesticide spray, land clearing, lack of forage (wildflowers), and harsh chemical treatments given by many commercial beekeepers directly inside their beehives.

I created this oil painting to illustrate what happens to beehives during almond pollination in California. We need pollination yes, but almonds are not facing the danger list like honey bees are. Almonds will still produce without honey bees. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

~Why are we focusing our scientific research on a blasted vaccine for honey bees while we’re still okay with spraying chemicals that are known to be harmful on our lawns, our groves and orchards, our ditches, and forests and water supplies? ~

What would be better than a vaccine?

First– Time will tell whether this vaccine is a good idea or not. In the meantime, I would love to see more effort put towards permaculture instead of monoculture. Monocultures, a large crop of one specific type of food which need sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Orange groves in Florida are a great example of this as they attract large numbers of pests and disease. However permaculture incorporates plants that support and provide for one another in such a way that balances out any threat of plant pests or disease. I’ll be covering permaculture more in the near future. Until then I highly recommend checking it out for yourself.

Second– Stop clearing so much land! When we cut down trees and clear fields of wildflowers for land development, we are literally starving the honey bees. I read a Native American quote that went something like this:

~”It isn’t until man cuts down the last tree that he will realize that he can’t eat money.”~

My honey bees are bringing in large amounts of pollen from Wild Golden Glow, a type of coneflower. Photo by Jonathan Hargus

Third- There’s something that honey bees already have to help them fight disease. It’s something that can’t be made in a laboratory. It’s something that can’t be administered by humans. It’s something that humans can’t do anything about, IF they would just leave it alone: It’s called Pollen. That’s right. That colorful dust that flowers make. Have you ever heard of probiotics? In a nutshell it’s something that helps us humans digest our food more efficiently. When we digest better we get more nutrients from our food and a healthier immune system.

Pollen is a probiotic for honey bees. The more they get, the better. The more varieties of pollen that honey bees can collect from multiple sources, the healthier they will be. At that point, their natural immune systems protect them by fighting off anything that threatens to harm them.

Fourth– Stop allowing commercial beekeepers across state lines. Yeah, I’m aware of the pollination issue but that’s why we need more local beekeepers that maintain locally-based beehives. As a result of this commercial beekeeping practice, disease is spread farther and faster than it would be otherwise.

This is a small pallet that I painted to display at our market and festival events to encourage people not to cut down precious wildflowers. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

It might sound like I am completely against a vaccine for honey bees and it’s probably true. But I haven’t seen it in action so I cannot make a final determination yet. But what I also have not seen is a huge effort being put into solving the issues I mentioned earlier. Issues, I feel that are much more manageable by a community that gives a hoot as opposed to the effort, time, and funding that researchers use for a test tube solution. For now, I feel that the scientists developing the vaccine are, Barking up the wrong Bee. If you’re interested in how I personally treat my beehives for AFB, then click here to read all about it.

Thank you for joining me for our daily bee rant. As always, I appreciate your comments and would get a kick out of hearing what you think about this. So give me a shout out below in the comments. Until then remember,

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee.~

Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire

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