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APIMONA: the feed supplement for bees

Innovation Article published on 09 March 2023 , Updated on 09 March 2023

The APIMONA project, based at the Institut Lavoisier de Versailles (ILV - Univ. Paris-Saclay, UVSQ, CNRS), consists of developing a molybdenum-based feed supplement for bees, which are subject to multiple deficiencies and attacks. After initial studies in Moldova and conclusive tests, a startup will soon be created.

Molybdenum is an essential trace element with fascinating properties and an often overlooked importance. It is necessary for the activity of numerous enzymes in a large majority of living beings. Molybdenum enzymes, such as sulphite and xanthine oxidase, and nitrate reductase, catalyse multiple reactions in a wide range of metabolic pathways. Also present in soil, molybdenum contributes to its fertility. "A soil deprived of molybdenum is a sterile soil. Without it, plants cannot assimilate nitrogen," summarises Sébastien Floquet, a researcher at ILV and leader of the APIMONA project. Chemist by training and member of the Molecules, Interactions, Materials (MIM) group at ILV, Floquet is a specialist in molybdenum. Up to the launch of the APIMONA project, his work focused on a series of molybdenum-based compounds for hydrogen production and on the search for new uses for these compounds.

A chance meeting

It was Moldavian biologists who first guided Sébastien Floquet and his molybdenum complexes towards bees. "Following some unresolved exchanges, I reconnected with Aurelian Guela and Ion Toderas, members of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, shortly before 2015. They were looking for new molecules to test and I had some molybdenum-based molecules," he explains. "In Moldova, the testing system consists of systematic screening: all molecules are tested for a wide range of biological properties, with no preconceived ideas." At the end of these tests, one particular use for Sébastien Floquet's molybdenum molecules stood out: beekeeping.

In 2015, a first molecule was tested in a syrup distributed in Moldavian test hives: this was the beginning of the APIMONA project. "Initial observations showed a 10% increase in queen egg production and a 20% increase in honey production," the researcher reports. These were encouraging results, but insufficient in view of the amount of protocol to be set up. The molecule has to be added to the hives in small doses every other day for the first two weeks of spring. In France, professional beekeepers manage on average farms of several hundred hives. Such a protocol was therefore impossible. Following this initial work, a thesis was started in 2016 at ILV, under the joint directorship of Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ) and Moldova State University. The goal was to find a molybdenum-based molecule that produced better results while reducing the constraints of use.

In 2017, Sébastien Floquet discovered the world of beekeeping. "In 2018, thanks to the Université Paris-Saclay and HEC Paris Lab2Biz programme, we met some French beekeepers. Beyond giving access to players in the market, these meetings were essential to our understanding of beekeeping and its constraints. From the first protocol developed in Moldova in 2015, a protocol for one single use in hives was developed in 2018, with the same effects."  Two new funding sources then gave the project a further boost: the Labex Charmmmat in 2017, and in 2018 the Poc in Labs call for pre-maturation projects implemented by Université Paris-Saclay and financed by IDEX funds, supported in pre-maturation and then maturation by SATT Paris-Saclay since 2019. 

A feed supplement on its way to commercialisation

Administered in the form of a feed supplement, the product developed by Sébastien Floquet and his team presents very interesting new results: "We observe an increased effect of the product when the hives are in poor condition: there is an increase in queen laying of about 15%, which means 300 more bees laid per day, and greater resistance to viruses and varroa destructor, a parasite that is dangerous to adult bees." More and healthier bees produce more honey. Production increases of up to 60% have been observed in some cases. The product has also been tested in California, where mortality within bee population is as high as 80% during winter. Thanks to the molybdenum-based dietary supplement, this mortality rate is reduced by about half.

In order to continue the development of the APIMONA project, steps for the approval of the feed supplement are now necessary. "As of today, the product is being tested in four apiaries subject to specific conditions validated by the European health authorities: three in France and one in Greece. The same work is being done in the United States," says Sébastien Floquet. Our goal with these registration tests is to prove the non-toxicity of our molecule for consumers and the environment, even when used in quantities exceeding our recommendations." The start-up company Oligofeed, which will lead to the commercialisation of the product, will be created in 2023. Aneta Ozieranska, an engineer from CentraleSupélec, has joined Sébastien Floquet and investors are currently being sought out.

Studies of an unprecedented scope

Pollen substitutes, essential oils, proteins, etc. A multitude of feed supplements are already available on the market for beekeepers. None, however, has been as rigorously studied as the APIMONA project. "There is no evidence that existing products are effective for bees, except for one study on twenty hives. Counting the first apiaries in Moldova, then those in France, Greece and the United States, our product has been tested on nearly 1,000 hives since 2015. The panel of tests carried out is unprecedented," says the researcher.

Numerous studies conducted by Sébastien Floquet and his team show that the molybdenum-based feed supplement has a positive effect on bees, their health and their honey production. To explain it, the team collaborated with Jean-Christophe Sandoz, a specialist in the evolution and nervous plasticity of bees and a member of the management team of the Evolution, Genomes, Behaviour and Ecology laboratory (EGCE - Univ. Paris-Saclay, CNRS, IRD). Together, with support from the Fondation Lune de Miel in 2019 and the CNRS Mission for Transversal and Interdisciplinary Initiatives (MITI) in 2021 and 2022, they are conducting observations on the assimilation of the product by bees. "We showed very clearly that the product was assimilated by bees and that it went in particular to their head," explains Sébastien Floquet. Further studies are underway at the SOLEIL synchrotron. "Our goal has been to locate key areas in bees' heads. We have shown that the molecule interacts with the hypopharyngeal glands, which are involved in the longevity of the bee and the production of vitamins. Our molecule is also assimilated by the membrane that protects the bees' brain." This work also shows the initial presence of molybdenum in the hypopharyngeal glands of bees, at very low levels. This fundamental part of the project is supported by the UVSQ Foundation.

The close link between molybdenum and bees

In addition to the development of a feed supplement, Sébastien Floquet is now looking further ahead. "I have discovered an exciting world alongside beekeepers. APIMONA is the first result. I have lots more ideas for bees," he says. In particular, he has started new studies concerning the environmental deficiencies faced by bees. "Bees have difficulty finding molybdenum in pollen because of soil depletion: the pollen produced by plants is less and less rich in this trace element. Finally, I am trying to prove that the APIMONA project molecule responds to a molybdenum deficiency in bees," he concludes.