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Bees naturally vaccinate their babies, scientists find

With the discovery of how bees naturally vaccinate their young, researchers can now develop the first vaccine for insects. (Courtesy of Christofer Bang)

Humans like to brag about their brilliant advent of vaccinations to prevent diseases, but bees just roll their eyes and shrug. After all, they've been doing it naturally for much longer.

That's what a team of international scientists recently found while studying proteins in the blood of bees. They suggest the discovery, published this week in the journal PLOS Pathogens, may lead to innovations that could benefit how we make food.

The underlying concept of how bees vaccinate their offspring is the same way that we do it for our children. The concept is to introduce little bits of a pathogen to a body so cells in the  immune system can come up with the right weapons to fight the disease when the real thing comes around.

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In a bee colony, the queen gives birth to all the insects in a hive, but she rarely ever leaves the nest. For that reason, worker bees must bring her a "royal jelly" of pollen and nectar. That food is often mixed with pathogens from the inside, which she eats and breaks down in her gut.

Bits of the pathogens are then transferred to the queen's "fat body," an organ similar to a liver, where they are packaged onto a protein called vitellogenin and delivered to eggs through the queen's blood stream. The result: newly hatched bee larvae that are already immune to the nasty germs that could have plagued the colony.

Scientists have yet to discover any bees that are opposed to this form of mandatory vaccination, but they do note that this process certainly does not protect bees against all diseases. There are a handful of afflictions devastating bee colonies, such as American Foul Brood, the deformed wing virus and the nosema fungi. They also face invading beetles and a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees mysteriously disappear and leave the queen to fend for herself.

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Dwindling bee numbers have worried scientists and economists alike, who say a reduction in the world's bee populations could severely hurt ecosystems and agricultural businesses in need of pollinators. Over the past half century, managed honey bee colonies have plummeted from 6 million in 1947 to 2.5 million today, although CDC data have recently shown a slight bump up in the numbers.

Now that scientists understand this mechanism for natural bee immunity, researchers say there's hope to come up with edible vaccines to help the insect out. Authors of the study already have a patent in the works on the concept.

"Because this vaccination process is naturally occurring, this process would be cheap and ultimately simple to implement," said Gro Amdam, an author of the study and a professor at Arizona State University, in a statement. "It has the potential to both improve and secure food production for humans."

They also suggest that the discovery could extend to other species throughout the animal kingdom. All egg-laying animals have the vitellogenin protein in their bodies, including fish, poultry, reptiles, amphibians and other insects.

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