About eight years ago, honeybee colonies started to die off with enough frequency to be noticeable. Three or four years ago, they began to collapse in alarming numbers all around the world, particularly in North America. Since then, beekeepers have reported losing about a third of their honeybee hives and colonies every year — about three times the historical average. In 2014 alone, beekeepers in the U.S. saw 42 per cent of their colonies collapse.
Difficult news for anybody who likes to eat. The planet needs bees: not only do we rely on them for their honey, we look to them to pollinate a massive proportion of our crops each year. Biology researchers at UBC are working hard to stem the dying-bee tide — and fast.
We’re not genetically modifying bees. We’re using modern molecular tools to do the same thing that people have done with their crops and farm animals for generations: namely, selectively breeding for the traits that are valuable to us as humans, only we’re doing it faster and more efficiently.
— Dr. Leonard Foster
It’s not a pretty picture. In a time of increasing concern over food security, one of our most powerful natural tools — the humble honeybee — is experiencing mass die-offs. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating vast tracts of orchards and farmland, assisting us in the pursuit of feeding our planet. Blueberries, almonds, cranberries, apples, cherries — honeybees pollinate all these and more. The honeybee industry contributes more than $2.3 billion to our agriculture industry in Canada, and almost $15 billion in the United States. Without the bees to do all that hard work, our agro-ecosystems are at risk.
While experts don’t understand all of what’s behind the honeybee die-off, they widely acknowledge that diseases, pests and pathogens are the biggest culprits. Years of chemical pesticide use have led to pathogen resistance — and the bugs are catching up with the bees.
That’s where our research comes in.
Led by Dr. Leonard Foster, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Faculty of Medicine, scientists at UBC are working to reverse declining honeybee numbers by selectively breeding queen bees who possess genetic traits that make them more resistant to disease. It’s the same approach that farmers have used for millennia, long before Mendel started messing around with pea plants: find the organisms that exhibit the traits you want, and breed for them.
“We’re not genetically modifying bees. We’re using modern molecular tools to do the same thing that people have done with their crops and farm animals for generations: namely, selectively breeding for the traits that are valuable to us as humans, only we’re doing it faster and more efficiently,” says Foster.
Foster and his team want to breed more of the bees that show a natural predisposition to hygienic behaviours within their colony. Think of them as housekeeper bees: the ones who tidy up by removing all the junk that’s laying around, getting rid of the dead and dying, be it larvae, pupae or adult bees. “Get those sickened bees and their ailments out of the colony,” says Foster, “and you’re empowering the colony to survive those diseases more effectively.”
This is integrated pest management (IPM) at its best. Foster, whose research centres on host-pathogen interactions, is working with beekeepers, economists and biologists across North America and Europe to design and implement the IPM practices that will help to eradicate the diseases plaguing honeybees. His team’s work is helping guide beekeepers in dealing with the challenges facing the honeybee industry.
It’s critically important work to the world and it’s happening at just the right time. Given that the bugs’ generational lifespans are much faster than the bees’, the invaders have built up a resistance to the chemical pesticides that were once widely used to control their populations. Not only that, but humans no longer feel comfortable with chemical-pesticide residues in their food. IPM holds great promise for a more secure future for honeybees and humans alike.
Foster’s research team is also working on targeting specific genes in each of the pathogens and finding ways to ‘turn them off’ so they no longer pose any risk to the honeybees. The result? Beekeepers get a treatment that’s free of side effects to the bees or any other benign organisms.
Success with this project means fewer colony deaths, more honey in the hives and more bees to keep doing the work. It’s research — and thinking — that moves the world forward.
FIND OUT MORE:
Next-generation integrated pest management of honey bees