BYU’s bee team successfully treats honeybee loss

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BYU’s bee team students participating in field research during summer 2014. (Ashley Payne/ BYU bee team)

BYU Microbiology professor Sandra Hope and her students are close to distributing a treatment that fights against “American Foulbrood,” a bacteria that kills honeybees.

“Targeting American Foulbrood is a significant influence on fighting the loss of honeybee populations,” said Hope, who leads BYU’s bee team. “(The bacteria) presents a real hazard to honeybees that live in the same apiary or surrounding area.”

American Foulbrood is caused by a spore-forming bacteria called Paenibacillus larvae, which is present in contaminated food that is sometimes ingested by young larvae.

A current treatment option to fight American Foulbrood is found in antibiotics. However, antibiotics are “quickly becoming less of an option for beekeepers,” said Hope, who explained that the bacteria is becoming resistant to the antibiotic.

Additionally, the FDA is curbing the use of antibiotics for prevention of American Foulbrood due to “the mounting concern of overuse of antibiotics in our food supply and environment.”

Finding a new method of treatment from this hazardous and highly contagious infection was needed in order to mitigate the rapidly increasing honeybee loss, according to Hope.

In 2011, Hope began targeting American Foulbrood and continued her research at BYU with a natural solution known as phage therapy.

“It is organic, safe for the bees, safe for humans, and safe for our environment,” said Hope. “Then there’s the added bonus, that it works.”

Student researcher Ashley Payne explained that a phage is “a virus that goes into a bacteria, replicates, breaks open the bacterial cell and infects other bacteria.”

To target and isolate the specific phages used to fight the bacteria in Foulbrood, BYU’s bee research team looks directly in the hive, soil and pollen. After finding effective phage candidates, testing is done.

“Last year we were able to conduct experiments looking at the safety of phages to see if they caused a decrease in health of the bees,” Payne said.

The research team is continuing to test the successful phages found in killing the infectious bacteria that causes American Foulbrood. Their treatment is currently in the process of getting FDA approval while the team validates their results.

In the meantime, Hope said they are able to give the treatment to beekeepers as long as they are willing to gather and share data on how effective it is for the bees.

“This type of collaboration with actual beekeepers helps to gather information that is required by the FDA to approve the treatment,” Hope said.

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