AUSTIN, Texas -- Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin believe they may have found a solution to one of the causes behind bee colony collapse: a vaccine engineered from gut microbes already present in honeybees.

  • Study found record numbers of bees died last year
  • UT researchers working to develop vaccine 
  • Strengthens existing bacteria strain found in honeybees 

Honeybees have strains of protective bacteria in their guts which work to defend the bees against the bee-killing varroa mite. Researchers have found a way to genetically enhance those strains to be stronger. They're reintroduced to bees via spray.

“We actually take the bacteria we’ve grown in lab, mix it with sugar and essentially spray it on the bees. So what happens is the bees will clean each other off and in so doing they ingest that bacteria,” said UT graduate student Sean Leonard.

Think of it as a vaccination. Many humans get inoculated, or get shots, for different diseases like polio, tetanus, and the measles. Scientists believe this discovery may curb the damage brought by the varroa mite.

“They actually spread some of these dangerous forms of the virus around so it’s really—we say synergistic interactions between the mites and virus,” said Leonard.

The research aims to address concerns about widespread colony collapse, which according to a national survey was a major issue last year.

“Last winter 40 percent of bee colonies in the U.S. failed,” said UT biology professor Nancy Moran.

On top of feeding off weak bees, the varroa mite may also be responsible for the spread of deformed wing virus.

“The mites can pierce little holes in the bees and introduce the viruses, so it’s kind of a syndrome that happens together,” said Moran.

According to the study, varroa mites that ate vaccinated bees were 70 percent more likely to die by day 10 of the research.

“Potentially this could be a tool for helping bees and helping beekeepers,” said Moran.

Before these findings can be used by farmers or beekeepers at a larger scale, more studies would have to be done to look into the effects of spraying large spaces with this type of bacteria solution.

“We’re interested in removing the threats and things that hurt bee health,” said Leonard.