Queen bees naturally vaccinate the other members of their colonies, a new study reveals. This finding could play a crucial role in protecting bees from devastating population losses. 

Arizona State University (ASU) investigators, along with colleagues from other institutions, have uncovered how the regal insects protect the bees in their domain. Vitellogenin, a protein found in the bloodstream of bees, was examined by researchers. They found the substance plays a crucial role in the prevention of disease in the insects. 

Queen bees only rarely leave their nests, so other members of the colony must bring her food, known as royal jelly. This is manufactured from pollen and nectar, gathered by forager bees. This raw material is naturally contaminated with bacteria. After the queen eats the royal jelly, the microorganisms are stored within her fat body, an organ much like a liver. Fragments of the contaminate then pass through the queen's blood stream and enter her developing eggs. This transport, made possible due to binding with the protein vatellogenin, provides the bees with protection from diseases once they are born. 

"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 amazing discovery was made possible because of 15 years of basic research on vitellogenin. This exemplifies how long-term investments in basic research pay off," said Gro Amdam from the School of Life Sciences at ASU.

Study of this natural immunization method could lead to new methods to treat commercial beehives, aiding the insects on their return from colony collapse disorder (CCD). This mysterious event has resulted in the loss of large populations of bees each winter. Knowing the path by which genetic information passes from the outside world, through the queen and into the bee population as a whole, could allow researchers to design new edible vaccines for the insects. 

"We are patenting a way to produce a harmless vaccine, as well as how to cultivate the vaccines and introduce them to bee hives through a cocktail the bees would eat. They would then be able to stave off disease, said Dalial Freitak, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Helsinki, stated in a press release. 

Since 1947, the number of managed honeybee colonies has fallen from six million to just around 2.5 million. About 35 percent of the world's cash crops depend on the health of these vital pollinators. 

Analysis of how microorganisms found in the environment can lead to the immunization of the colonies of bees was published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

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