Webb knows that “bee vaccines” do not address the root of the issue, but hopes this method of saving bees will also raise awareness of the underlying problems.
Without pollinators, our food security and survival as a species would be seriously at risk. But even with this knowledge, humans continue to perpetuate practices that endanger bees and other pollinators, one of the biggest being the growing use of pesticides in agriculture. Pesticides in large doses can kill bees outright, but smaller doses also make bees more susceptible to mites and pathogens and make the flight more difficult.
After working on solutions to mitigate the negative effects of pesticides on bees while attending Cornell University as a student, James Webb launched Beemunity, an initiative that has produced a kind of vaccine for bees that can help them become immune to the harmful chemicals present in pesticides.
Webb says that he “always thought there was a lot of research going into seeing if bees were dying, and the extent to which bees were dying, but not really many solutions.” This is what inspired him to lead the Beemunity startup that is working to bring its incredible product to the market.
Webb’s team of scientists and researchers began by testing an enzyme that can be added to sugar or pollen patties that are administered to the bees in a minuscule capsule. Once the bee consumes the capsule, it breaks down the pesticide in the bee’s stomach before it can damage the brain cells. One of Beemunity’s latest studies demonstrates the impressive effect that the capsule has on a bee’s chances of survival. The team reports that 100 percent of bees that ate the enzyme survived exposure to pesticides while all the bees in the control group that were exposed to pesticides perished.
The enzyme only protects against one type of pesticide, a group called organophosphates, but Webb’s team also developed an alternative solution that fills the microcapsule with oil that absorbs any type of pesticide like a sponge. Eventually, the bees expel the microcapsule out along with the life-threatening chemicals.
The company is holding larger trials this summer and is hoping to have the product available on the market for beekeepers in early 2022. Another product for wild bees could be available as quickly as the end of this year.
Webb knows that these “bee vaccines” do not address the root of the issue, but hopes that this method of saving bees will also raise awareness of the underlying problems. “The real problem is the industrialization of agriculture,” he says. “The scale at which it happens now means that pest management is very tricky. And so, people resort to the cheapest thing that they can use, and that’s obviously pesticides.”
Webb’s hope for Beemunity is that he and his team can show people “that when pesticides are taken out of the equation, wildlife does very well.”