This is the flower the pollen grows in,
This is the flower, its color so bright,
It’s sweet, blooming scent
Calls the bee from its flight.
from The Honeybee
written by Kirsten Hall
illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2018
Several summers ago, I was stung by a bee. It was my fault. My thyme was draping itself beyond its square foot of my square-foot garden, flowing into the parsley and tarragon. I like the wild-ish look of a slightly overgrown garden. The plants are showing me they are healthy and strong.
But even I have limits. I got my pruners and began snipping away, parting the leaves and tiny flowers as I went. My bees must love thyme flowers, because they were in there buzzing around, doing the work they do. I was an intruder.
I felt something tickle my neck below my right ear. Silly me for not connecting the tickle with the bees I disturbed. The first bee sting of my life was sharp and fast. The severity of it lasted only a second, but I felt a dull pain for the rest of the afternoon.
Turns out it was a yellow jacket, which is a good thing, even though it didn’t hurt any less. Yellow jackets are aggressive scavengers, not pollinators. Also, they’re wasps, not bees.
Today during a cold snap, the sun is bright and I’m dreaming of another summer, which started me thinking about wasps and yellow jackets, and hornets. And honeybees. Sometimes the universe is lined up. At least that’s what I thought when I heard a news story on the radio about a vaccine for honeybees.
Honeybees pollinate 80% of all flowering plants, including more than 130 types of fruits and vegetables. And you’ve probably heard, for a pretty long time, that honeybees are in trouble. Pesticides and climate change are challenging our bee population. But disease is also a threat.
In an interview for NPR’s Morning Edition, Emily Jones spoke with Marcus Pollard, a beekeeper who lives in Atlanta. They discussed American foulbrood, a bacteria that can quickly devastate a bee colony.
Honeybees are social. They communicate with each other. All worker bees are female (of course). They divide up the jobs needed to run a successful hive including feeding larvae and drones. They collect pollen and nectar, tend the queen, keep the hive clean, and even perform guard duty. The drones’ only job is to procreate with the queen. When it’s cold, drones and workers cluster around the queen to keep her warm. Clustering together keeps the workers and drones warm, too. And they all buzz around and eat honey.
But a hive smells rancid if its honeybees are infected with American foulbrood.
First discovered by apiologist G. F. White in 1906, American foulbrood is common in the United States and Europe. But only among honeybees. It is a larval disease and not highly contagious. It will run its course and usually destroy the larvae before they pupate. While adults do not contract American foulbrood, they can carry it and spread it in their pollination journeys.
An infected hive is a risk to others nearby, too. If a bee visits an infected hive she could spread it to her home hive. In just a few weeks, whole colonies can be wiped out. That’s why Pollard, the beekeeper in Atlanta, says there’s no choice but to burn infected hives.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, American foulbrood is one of the most widespread and the most destructive of honeybee diseases.
The new vaccine developed by biotech firm Dalan Animal Health could be a game changer. It works by feeding a safe version of the American foulbrood (AFB) pathogen to the queen. Each egg she lays will have a small amount of the safe AFB pathogen and when the adult finally emerges, it will already be immune. Whole colonies can pretty quickly become immune to this threat.
The vaccine has been available for about a year (since January of 2023).. Studies to ensure its efficacy are being conducted. It is the first insect vaccine in the U.S.
There are 2.8 million honeybee colonies in North America (Scientific American) with about 30,000 bees per colony. That’s a lot of bees and a lot of honey. And while climate change and pesticides remain problematic for bees, this vaccine discovery provides an opportunity to conquer American foulbrood. and add to the health of their hives.
I just started reading Our Missing Hearts (Penguin Press, 2022) by Celeste Ng. I’m reading it with my book club and I’m not sure if I would have picked it up on my own. Another dystopian novel from the looks of the first chapter. Authoritarian government, children separated from their parents, discrimination of pretty much everyone but white men, book banning. Feels very close to home! Stay tuned.
-—Be curious! (and start planning your garden)