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A Vaccine To Save The Bees: New Treatment Provides Immunity From Some Pesticides

A bumblebee collects pollen from a flower. (Silas Stein/AFP via Getty Images)
A bumblebee collects pollen from a flower. (Silas Stein/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a lot of buzz around a newly developed technology that helps beekeepers protect their hives from some deadly pesticides.

The solution is about the size of a grain of pollen, and when ingested by bees, allows the creatures to come into contact with these pesticides with immunity — like a little bee vaccine. With 98% of the country’s hives contaminated by at least six different pesticides and a third of our food reliant on bees for pollination, beekeepers are taking note.

James Webb, a 27-year-old student at Cornell University, developed the idea and co-authored a study about his findings in the journal Nature Food. He’s also the founder of the Beemmunity company, which is licensing the technology from Cornell.

Researchers identified an enzyme that can break down harmful pesticides that bees consume. The study showed the enzyme can break down the pesticides and save bees from death or other effects, Webb says.

“We can put microparticles in a sugar feed or even a pollen supplement,” he says, “and they’ll happily eat it up.”

The study found 100% of the bees who received the enzyme survived exposure to lethal amounts of pesticide — and 100% of the bees that didn’t died. The effectiveness of the treatment depends on how much pesticide the bees encounter, when the creatures come in contact with pesticide and the size of the dose, Webb says.

“If it’s a very severe dose and we have managed to get this treatment just maybe before or just after the bee has come into contact, then it might not work as well,” he says. “But based on beekeepers’ feeding practices, we can do a pretty good job of protecting bees.”

This innovation was designed to address a significant group of pesticides known as organophosphates.

Now, Webb’s team is working to improve the design to include different types of pesticides. One design uses an absorptive oil that soaks the pesticides up, and then the bees release them as waste. These microparticles divert the pesticides from the bees’ brain cells, he says.

Researchers found that one drawback to the treatment is the bees might need multiple doses, but Webb says this technology can detoxify entire hives rather than just individual bees.

“This really is a foundation where we can see that without pesticides, bees can make a good comeback,” he says.

In the U.S., the agriculture sector relies on managed pollination services to grow food, Webb says. Beekeepers travel around the country and bring bees into fields to pollinate crops — from cherries to tomatoes to almonds.

But beekeepers are losing around 40% of their colonies every year because of pesticides applied to crops, he says. These losses make beekeeping a less financially viable business.

“If we don’t have these beekeepers one day, we might not have the pollination supply to bring us this food,” he says.

That’s because pesticides and a lack of natural forage prevent wild pollinators from doing this important job, he says.

The new technology can help bees withstand pesticides, but Webb argues the U.S. needs to reform how it manages and conserves pollinators in agricultural areas in the long term.

After facing hardship in recent years, beekeepers can be skeptical — but Webb says they’re excited about the innovation.


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.