The vaccine, developed by a team at Helsinki University in Finland, works by giving bees resistance to fight off severe microbial diseases that can be fatal for pollinator communities.
Vaccinating insects was previously thought to be impossible because the creatures lack antibodies, one of the key mechanisms humans and other animals use to fight disease.
But a breakthrough came in 2014 when Freitak, a specialist in insects and immunology, noticed that moths who are fed certain bacteria can, in fact, pass on immunity to their offspring.
Scientists created a vaccine against American foulbrood, the most globally widespread and destructive bee bacterial disease.
The treatment is administered to the queen bee via a sugar lump, similar to the way many children are given polio vaccines. The queen then passes the immunity to her offspring, spreading it through the bee community.
As well as working on vaccines against further diseases, the team has also begun trying to raise funding to make the vaccine commercially available, with “very positive” feedback so far, according to Freitak.
“There are many regulatory hurdles. Four to five years until reaching the market is an optimistic estimate,” she said.
Crop growth affected
Diseases are believed to be just one of a number of reasons for the loss of pollinators, alongside pesticides and intensive farming, which reduces the diversity of insects’ nutrition.
But the team believes that protecting bee populations against disease will make them stronger, and therefore better able to withstand the other threats.
The European Union and Canada have voted to introduce bans on insecticides based on neonicotinoids after studies showed the chemicals harmed the ability of bees to reproduce.
UN-backed research in 2016 estimated that up to 577 billion U.S. dollars (511 billion euros) worth of food grown every year relies directly on pollinators.
The study said the volume of food produced that depends on pollinators has risen by 300 percent in the last half-century.
As pollinator numbers have declined, some farmers have turned to either renting bees or pollinating by hand – as with fruit trees in some parts of China – in order to replace the processes that nature previously provided free of charge.