Protecting the hive: ASU scientists discover path to colony-level immunity in honeybees

Honeybee on flower covered in pollen

Honeybees frequently make international news, as their global decline threatens the world’s food supply. Since honeybees pollinate the majority of crops that humans use for food, scientists have been searching for a way to maintain healthy bee populations.

Now, researchers with Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and the University of Helsinki are one step closer to understanding the complex immune mechanism that protects honeybees from diseases in their environments.

Graduate student Gyan Harwood and his mentor Professor Gro Amdam have discovered that honeybee workers can transfer a type of “immunity memory” to the queen when they are exposed to pathogens during foraging outside the hive.

The findings appear in a paper published Jan. 28 in the Journal of Insect Physiology.

“The cool implications of this are that it opens the possibility that bees have this colony-level immune response where worker bees that are out foraging at flowers may encounter pathogens, and if they are able to successfully fight off the disease, they can potentially transfer these pathogen fragments between individuals and prime their immune system to kick into gear and start fighting these pathogens,” Harwood said. “It’s a way to prime the immune system of all individuals in the hive in a safe way without them being exposed to live pathogens.”