See more of the story

A new vaccine for honeybees — the first approved for an insect in the United States — is nearing commercial use, but Minnesota's bee community sees little near-term relief for the threatened pollinators.

The vaccine aims at preventing American foulbrood, a bacterial disease that has decimated hives for over a century. But it doesn't address the host of other issues facing bees and the global food system that depends on them.

As a result, reaction in Minnesota — ranked sixth nationally for honey production — has been muted.

"American foulbrood rates in Minnesota are very, very low," said University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak.

Spivak said the vaccine shows promise, however, particularly if it works on viruses and other bee diseases.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the treatment conditional approval Dec. 29, according to Dalan Animal Health, the biotech company in Georgia that developed it.

The vaccine itself is made of dead bacterium that is fed to worker bees who, in turn, feed it to the queen bee, said Brendon Keiser, Dalan's head of operations. It goes into her ovaries and is passed to the young. It won't get into honey, he said.

The vaccine is undergoing field trials and won't be on the market until late spring at the earliest, according to Dalan.

It's an intriguing scientific development, but some Minnesota beekeepers gave the vaccine a shrug, if they had even heard of it.

"That's news to me," said Ed Menefee, a retired beekeeper from rural Itasca County who has run the Bar Bell Bee Ranch since the mid-1970s. "Usually stuff like this shows up on your Facebook."

Menefee concurred with Spivak that foulbrood is largely controlled in Minnesota. He saw two or three cases of the disease last year in his hives.

"It's not like we don't ever see it," said Menefee, who added that new viruses are showing up annually.

Dustin Vanasse, chief executive of Bare Honey, a Minneapolis-based producer, said his company is still trying to learn more about the treatment.

"It's not going to solve all the issues that you hear about in the media with the bees," he said.

Laurie Schneider, executive director of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance and a beekeeper, said foulbrood is not a major issue for her, and that it is not a main cause of pollinator decline, or honey bee deaths. In her opinion, mites are more dangerous to honeybee colonies.

"If beekeepers keep their equipment clean and manage them correctly, foulbrood is not a problem," Schneider said.

Schneider noted that honeybees are a managed, non-native insect unlike wild, native pollinators such as the rusty patched bumblebee; she likens honeybees to livestock. Honeybee colonies are getting harder to keep healthy, she added.

Wild bees and the other native pollinators necessary for food production are suffering global collapse largely because of compromised immune systems, humans plowing up native vegetation for development, industrial agriculture and the widespread use of pesticides, Schneider said.

"These are the issues we need to be working on," she said.

While the 7.13 million pounds of honey Minnesota bees produced in 2021 was a 20% increase from the year before, it's a dramatic drop from the 11 million pounds colonies produced in 1998. Some beekeepers cited Colony Collapse Disorder, reporting deaths from between 30% and 90% of hives beginning in the winter of 2006 and 2007, according to the USDA.

In Delano, on the Ames Farm, Brian Fredericksen said the overall number of honey bees statewide has been relatively flat for more than a decade. He called the vaccine a "nothing-burger," noting that he hadn't burned a hive — one of the treatments for American foulbrood disease — in years.

"American foulbrood is completely under control these days because most of the successful beekeepers have genetics that have hygienic-type behaviors that will minimize this," Fredericksen said.

He agreed with Schneider, at the Pollinator Friendly Alliance, that the loss of native plants and grasses for pollination has reached critical levels, particularly in farm-heavy southwest Minnesota.

Fredericksen said if he weren't working he'd be at the Legislature pushing a conservation program for bees.

"[Gov.] Walz, the ag department, and other people need to get behind this and say, 'I need you rural landowners ... to plant 3 percent of your property for the native pollinators and don't mow it.'"