Our bees are exposed to multiple stress factors: besides pesticides, reduced food supply due to monocultures and the Varroa mite, they also suffer from a number of diseases. One particularly serious disease is the American foulbrood, which attacks the young colonies and poses problems for beekeepers worldwide. In Europe, infected bee colonies must be burned to prevent the pathogen from spreading. Researchers at the University of Graz have now developed a simple and effective method to protect larvae from the disease: using a natural substance that is added to the wax of the hives. The invention has already been patented and will now be brought to market maturity.
“Adult bees have a lecithin-like substance in their intestines that makes them resistant to foulbrood,” explains Wolfgang Schühly, head of the Bee Health Research Group at the University of Graz. Together with Ulrike Riessberger-Gallé and Javier Hernández López, he has isolated this substance – known as lysophosphatidylcholine or LPC for short – and tested its efficacy in larvae. After extensive research, the trio finally found a way of administering the substance to the larvae: “We incorporate the LPC into the wax from which the bees then build the honeycombs in the hive,” explains Schühly. From there, the active substance reaches the animals via the royal jelly in which the larvae lie. In this way, the concentration of the body’s own substance is increased and the natural immune defence is supported.
The researchers are now testing their technology in field trials in Spain and in the south of the US, where bees also breed in winter and foulbrood occurs more frequently.
As part of the “spin-off fellowship” funded by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) with about 350,000 euros, they want to demonstrate the practical suitability of the technology under real conditions and set up a company to manufacture and market the enriched wax honeycombs. “The American foulbrood affects the entire agricultural sector because it reduces pollination performance,” explains Schühly, emphasising the importance of a successful protective measure.