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USTAR client company explores solutions to beekeeping threats

As honey bees are consummate pollinators, industrial beekeeping has become a key component of our modern agricultural economy. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that between $235 billion to $577 billion of the world’s annual food production relies on pollinators, including honey bees. From chocolate to fruits and nuts, pollination plays a valuable role in agricultural economics and production. According to the same FAO study, the volume of agricultural production dependent on pollination has increased by 300 percent since 1965.

However, the world honey bee population is on the decline from potentially multiple causes, prompting research to implicate causes and new technological innovations to overcome them.  One Utah company, Esplin Biotechnology, is aiming to combat one of the biggest threats to beekeeping.

While there are several types of pollinators used in agriculture, honey bees are easily one of the most valuable pollinators in the United States. Honey bees alone contribute $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production, according to the American Beekeeping Federation.

“The biggest pollination event in the world is the almond pollination in California because almonds trees rely completely on honey bees to pollinate them,” said Ian Esplin, founder and CEO of Esplin Biotechnology. “Without honey bees, we wouldn’t have a lot of the vegetables and fruits we enjoy, and we would have zero almonds.”

One threat to the survival of honey bee colonies that has been defined but not solved is American foulbrood (AFB), a bacterial disease that is fatal to honey bees. Caused by the spor-forming bacterium Paenibacillus larvae, AFB can spread quickly between hives. When antibiotics fail, the only way to stop the disease’s spread is the destruction of infected colonies and hives. As a result, AFB can be costly for hobbyist and commercial beekeepers alike.

“American foulbrood is the most devastating bacterial disease honey bees get,” said Esplin. “When there’s an outbreak, beekeepers are required by law to burn the hives and honey bee colonies because it’s so infectious and deadly.”

However, Esplin Biotechnology—a Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) client company—is developing BroodSafe™ that may help stop the spread of the disease.

BroodSafe™ is a feed supplement containing natural agents called bacteriophages (naturally occurring viruses which only infect bacteria) that target American foulbrood. Developed in partnership with the National Science Foundation, Esplin’s BroodSafe™ is produced using components deemed safe for human and nonhuman exposure by the Food and Drug Administration.  The company will promote its product as a natural supplement for honey bee broods.

A 2017 study conducted by Brigham Young University researchers found that phages may serve as an effective alternative to traditional antibiotics to thwart Foulbrood. The study found that 100 percent of the phage-treated hives were protected from AFB infection while 80 percent of untreated control hives became infected with AFB.

Esplin Biotechnology states their ability to develop BroodSafe™ comes from support from the State of Utah through USTAR. The company, which is located at the USTAR BioInnovations Gateway in South Salt Lake, received additional USTAR support through competitive funding, mentorship and access to the SBIR Center, which provides technical grant writing assistance.

“USTAR has been vital to our survival and success,” said Esplin. “There’s no lab space available for biotech startups in the state. If you’re not at a university, it’s almost a black hole. However, gaining space at the BioInnovations Gateway saved our business and enabled us to develop BroodSafe™.”

Esplin Biotechnology hopes to commercialize their product this spring and summer. For additional information or to learn more about Broodsafe™, visit http://www.broodsafe.com/.

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