Immunity for Insects

bees

Published in the February 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine

Vaccinations aren’t delivered only by doctors with syringes; they also can be passed from mother to young. This transfer was thought to be something only vertebrates could do, but scientists have discovered that some invertebrates, like honeybees, have the ability too.

Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela of the University of Helsinki and Gro Amdam of Arizona State University found that queen bees transfer pieces of disease-causing bacteria to offspring through vitellogenin, an egg yolk protein. The protein travels from the queen’s blood to a liverlike organ and then to her eggs. It’s consumed by the developing bees, imparting immunity against local illnesses.

Knowing this could help scientists make a vaccine to protect bees against deadly diseases like American foulbrood, Freitak says. “It’s a cornerstone in discovering new functions of the immune system.”

—Lindsay N. Smith

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