Restoring the “buzz” in honey bee colonies
The humble honey bee gets little thanks. More often than not it is shooed away or told to ‘buzz’ off. However, this diminutive insect is a gigantic participant in the economy: honey bees not only provide us with food and a natural sweetener in the form of honey, they are also crucial to the agriculture industry. Currently bee colonies across North America are on the verge of an irrevocable collapse from widespread disease, but help from a BC-led research team is on the way.
In an effort to combat this devastation, Genome BC, Genome Canada, and others, are funding a revolutionary project aimed at producing the urgently needed tools for beekeepers that will help them to raise healthier bees, and more of them. Honey bees play a major role in agriculture as pollinators of many vegetable, nut, and fruit crops, and they contribute an estimated $2.5 billion to Canadian agriculture and another $15 billion to US agriculture. For BC’s premium crops of blueberries, raspberries and cranberries there have been incalculable detriments from the collapse of honey bee colonies.
In his $5.7 million project “Next-generation integrated pest management tools for beekeeping,” Dr. Leonard Foster (University of BC) is developing tools for beekeepers that would allow them to breed more resilient bees. Interestingly, there are many social behaviours that enable bees to resist disease, such as hygienic behaviour: a cleaner hive tends to suppress the spread of some diseases. By detecting and analyzing naturally occurring proteins and gene traits in the more hygienic bees, these bees can be introduced into breeding programs.
In addition to protein analysis, Dr. Foster is developing a completely novel approach for treating the viruses that affect bees using RNAi (the biological system that controls which genes are turned ‘on’ and ‘off’) to develop a treatment that is specific to this organism. The method is expected to have no detrimental side effects and there is also essentially no way that the organism can develop a resistance to it.
“Disturbingly, this last year there was another drop in the honey bee population by approximately 30% in Canada and the US,” says Dr. Foster. “This level of annual loss has been consistent over the past five years in both countries. Contributing factors of these losses are various bacteria, viruses, fungi and mites attacking the bees. Despite some human intervention in the form of chemical pesticides, the culprits have evolved and are now able to resist traditional methods. The tools being developed in this project are expected to be less susceptible to evolutionary resistance and the development timeline should be less than traditional pesticides.
Due to our mild climate, most bee breeding in Canada happens in BC and the impact of our bees across North America is enormous. BC breeders ship bees across Canada to promote pollination and the establishment of new colonies. The expected results from the research will generate significant benefits to Canadian agriculture and should lead to a decrease in colony losses, increased honey production and greater availability of bees for pollination.
“The MAS, or Marker Assisted Selection, portion of this project could potentially make it possible to test for highly beneficial traits using a much less costly and more time efficient proteomic based assay,” says Liz Huxter, a honey bee queen producer and breeder based in Grand Forks, BC. “This in turn would make finding breeder queens that have disease resistance, and thus economic value, much easier. Beekeepers could begin to rely on better breeding, not chemicals, to defend bees from pathogens.”
“This is incredibly important research for so many reasons,” says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. “With the expected results, consumers, crop growers and beekeepers will benefit from improved food security and healthier, more abundant, more effective pollinators.”
Genome BC is funding this project as a result of Genome Canada’s 2010 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition. This competition targeted large-scale research projects focused on the application of genomics research addressing challenges in forestry and the environment. In this competition Genome BC researchers are leaders on eight of 16 new genomics research projects.
About Genome British Columbia:
Genome British Columbia is a catalyst for the life sciences cluster on Canada’s West Coast, and manages a cumulative portfolio of over $450M in technology platforms and research projects. Working with governments, academia and industry across sectors such as forestry, fisheries, agriculture, environment, bioenergy, mining and human health, the goal of the organization is to generate social and economic benefits for British Columbia and Canada. www.genomebc.ca
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NOTE TO EDITORS:
Video B-roll of researcher in beekeeper suit interacting with live honey bee colonies available upon request. Print quality, high res images also available for print media.
Researcher Leonard Foster is available for interviews through media contact.
Communications Specialist, Genome BC