Beekeepers are hoping two important breakthrough studies being done by University of British Columbia researchers will help solve a worldwide problem that is leading to a dangerous decline in honeybees.
For at least the last five years, North American beekeepers have lost an average of 30 per cent of their hives annually because of infectious diseases and climate change.
As the primary insect farmers depend upon for the pollination of commercial crops, the decline in the lowly honeybee is being seen as the agricultural equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. From B.C.'s blueberry crops to its tree fruit industry to the canola fields of Alberta, western Canadian crops are at risk if bee populations continue their downward spiral.
Last weekend more than 150 beekeepers gathered in Richmond for a B. C.
Honey Producers Association conference to learn about new research and bee husbandry that may help arrest that decline.
Some of the research is being done by a team led by Dr. Leonard Foster, a molecular biologist at UBC who is trying to develop bees with a genetic resistance to some viruses and diseases. He's also developing tools to help bee breeders genetically select for characteristics that help reduce infestations of a parasitic mite that has caused widespread damage in the industry.
"Beekeepers in Canada and the U.S. have lost 30 per cent of their colonies every winter to a variety of causes but mostly to infectious diseases. Ultimately what we want to do is reverse that trend," Foster said.
"We want to do that by giving beekeepers new tools to protect the bees or fight off the infectious diseases."
Part of the problem is that in recent years bee pests have developed resistance to traditional chemical treatment methods. The solution, Foster said, appears to be in finding new ways to select for bees that can naturally resist the diseases, or to develop vaccines.
Foster said three serious pests threaten the worldwide stability of the honey bee population: a tiny blood-sucking mite called Varroa Destructor and two viral diseases, nosema and American Foul Brood. There are many other diseases, he said, but these are the ones causing the most problem.
Varroa, a South Asian pest, has become a worldwide problem for beekeepers because it can very quickly overpower a hive and kill its hosts. Nosema and AFB are intestinal and brood diseases.
The rise in those diseases may be linked to another dangerous phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder," in which whole hives are abandoned by bees without any trace. Some research has suggested the disorder may be linked to rising, but sub-lethal, levels of pesticides in the beeswax in hives.
Foster's lab is not specifically working on colony collapse disorder. But it is working with an Israeli company, Beeologics, to develop molecular-level reagents that can create something of an immunity for honeybees from various diseases.
"If we are able to get this to work, bees will be the first organism anywhere, including humans, where this technology has been used to treat a disease," Foster said.
"The preliminary results are really, really encouraging," he added.
Foster is also working with several government agencies and a dozen B.C. bee breeders to isolate genetic "markers" that can identify bees that have particular grooming and hygienic traits. Those traits can help resist the destructive power of the Varroa mite.
By 2013, he's hoping to have the partner bee breeders produce better bees that will survive hive infestations. Queens with those successful traits would then be sold from those operations to other beekeepers.
The conference is also hearing from scientists and breeders on other aspects of honeybee health and how to successfully keep bees.