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How to Vaccinate Your Bees

Soon will come the time to split hives. Beekeepers must decide between allowing the colony to raise a new queen or adding a mated queen from a breeder. In deciding which better serves your purpose, please keep in mind that recreational beekeepers are in a unique position to improve the health and survivability of honey bees. Beekeeping is not our livelihood. Most of us seek to produce honey, but the well-being of our families does not depend on it. Therefore, sacrificing some production to raise a stronger colony is well within our means.

Late last year (December 2018), it was announced that researchers had created the first honey bee vaccine. While a long way from market, this news was enthusiastically received by the beekeeping community. There is more good news: We don’t have to wait for a vaccine to become available to vaccinate our bees. What researchers had discovered is that honey bee queens were already vaccinating their offspring naturally. These scientists simply reproduced what they observed.

Some insects, including honey bees, prime offspring immunity despite the absence of antibodies. Vitellogenin, the critical egg-yolk protein that regulates behavior development in honey bees, carries immune elicitors from the queen to her eggs. It is now hypothesized that vitellogenin evolves under local pathogen pressure: "…changes in pathogen pressure over time and in different environments are reflected in interesting patterns of vitellogenin evolution.” This strongly suggests that requeening with nonlocal queens costs the colony an opportunity to be primed for defense against threats specific to their environment. It has been well established that honey bees in the past several decades have been plagued by a weakened immune response.

Allowing your colonies to requeen naturally and mate locally preserves the progress made in developing the specific immunity required for survival in our local environment. There is no evidence that this system lessens the threat and devastating damage inflicted by the varroa mite, as it may be limited to defense against pathogenic bacteria. But there is so much we don’t know. It may take years before any meaningful evolution of vitellogenin produces noticeable improvements in the health of our colonies. Or it may take one generation. Regardless, we must start somewhere.

A recent, international, multiple year study supports the finding that disease resistance in honey bees is local.

There can be a benefit to introducing an outside queen, in terms of expanding the local gene pool. If an outside queen is strongly preferred, make every effort to purchase a queen from new and diversified sources, as opposed to buying a queen raised in the same yards that ship thousands of package bees to our valley every spring. There may even be a local option just a little later in the season. Don’t let this unique opportunity held by hobbyist beekeepers be wasted. And don’t wait for a product to come to market. Start vaccinating your bees this spring by allowing splits to raise their own queen.

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