Royal jelly, a creamy substance produced by worker bees to provide food for queen larvae, can spread immunity between honey bees, according to a new study. This effect could be harnessed to provide disease protection to honey bee populations, which are pollinators for around a third of all food making up the human diet globally.
The researchers, led by Dr Eyal Maori at the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge, created ‘vaccines’ using a biological molecule called RNA. RNA is used in cells to create proteins using the DNA blueprint, though they have many uses, and some viruses use RNA in place of DNA. The team fed fragments of virus RNA to honey bees. Just as humans become immune to the sample of disease in a vaccine, the bees also developed a resistance to the virus.
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The researchers found that this immunity spread around the hive, and even remained in later generations. The RNA fed to the bees entered their circulatory system, where it diffused into their jelly-secreting glands. The jelly the bees produced was then infused with the RNA molecules, and the larvae which fed on this jelly received the same disease protection.
“We found that RNA spreads beyond individual honey bees, being transferred not just between parents and their progeny, but also among individuals in the hive,” said Maori.
The team hope that this method could be used to protect honey bees against viruses and Varroa mites, a parasite which has played a significant role in honey bee population decline.
And honey bees aren’t the only ones who could use this type of disease protection. “It is possible that this honey bee protein may even have applications, too, for new vaccines and medicines for humans,” said Maori.