Bees naturally vaccinate their offspring, a new joint study suggests, protecting them from a large array of diseases specific to their environments.
The joint study was conducted by researchers at the University of Helsinki, University of Jyvaskyla, and Arizona State University and is published in the PLOS Pathogens journal.
Particularly, the researchers looked at vitellogenin, a protein found in the bee’s blood.
Vitellogenin is the key to the immunization process observed by researchers. The bees’ offsprings are not vaccinated per se. Rather, they are infused with the immunization protein through food.
Honey bees live in colonies where the queen plays the central role. As the worker bees roam the nearby environments in search of nectar and pollen, they face the risk of being infected with numerous pathogens.
Once they return to the colony, the honey bees produce royal jelly, the nourishment being devoured exclusively by the queen. As the queen is central to the colony, pathogens that could affect its health are digested and transferred to the queen’s “fat body”, an organ very similar in function to a liver.
From here, the pathogens are linked to vitellogenin and transferred further to the honey bee developing eggs. Larvae hatch already prepared to face the harsh outer environment as their immune systems get a boost from the cocktail of vitellogenin and bacteria pathogens.
Gro Amdam, who is a Professor at the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences, stated:
“The process by which bees transfer immunity to their babies was a big mystery until now. What we found is that it’s as simple as eating. Our discovery was made possible because of 15 years of basic research on vitellogenin”.
Vitellogenin is the key factor of honey bee offspring immunization, as it carries the immune-priming signals, the researchers found. While the offsprings are vaccinated against certain pathogens, a number of others remain deadly for the colonies.
The next step, the researchers argue is to create natural vaccines for the honey bees to increase their survival rate and help them fend off more dangerous diseases in their environments. What the researchers have in mind is a cocktail of vitellogenin and other pathogens that would also be introduced in the nests naturally and that the queen would eat as it does with the royal jelly.
The concept is a long way from patenting, but it offers hope to the dwindling pollinator insects population. Honey bee colonies particularly are faced with what scientists call the colony collapse disorder, a mysterious factor the underpinnings of which are not yet understood, but which leads to massive deaths in honey bee colonies.
In the past 60 years, the number of managed honey bee colonies across the U.S. declined drastically to 2.5 million from over 6 million in 1947.
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