More remarkable behaviour in bees: they naturally immunise their babies against diseases specific to their environments! And now for the first time, scientists have discovered just how the bees do it.

Researchers studying a bee blood protein called vitellogenin found that this protein plays a critical, but previously unknown, role in providing bee babies protection against disease.

Since the queen rarely leaves her nest, her workers must bring food to her. These forager bees, when out seeking pollen and nectar for their queen, can pick up pathogens in their foraging environment. When they are back in the hive they create their foraged pollen into ‘royal jelly’ – a food made exclusively for the queen, but which incidentally contains bacteria from the outside environment.

After she eats her royal jelly with bacteria, the pathogens are digested in the gut, then transferred for storage in the queen’s ‘fat body’ – an organ with a function similar to a human liver. Parts of the bacteria bind to the vitellogenin protein and are carried via blood to her developing eggs. The vitellogenin functions as a vaccination, improving the immune system of the bee babies making them more resilient to fight diseases found in their environment.

Now that we know how bees vaccinate their babies, this paves the way to create other edible and natural vaccines for bees and other insects.

Bees are already losing ground to climate change; some bee colonies collapse after struggling for their lives against neonicotinoid pesticides; and other bee populations battle destructive diseases such as American Foul Brood – the latter spreads quickly and destroys entire hives. Now we can create other vaccines that mimic bees' natural immunisation to improve their resilience to these pressures.