Honeybees, which have an annual impact of approximately $250 million on BC’s economy, experienced a significant drop in winter survival rates over the past few years, declining 38 per cent in 2008. That’s on top of an estimated 35 per-cent loss during 2007. Beekeepers and farmers alike are hoping the trend doesn’t continue this winter.
“Such losses are economically unsustainable,” said Leonard Foster, an assistant professor with the University of British Columbia’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Foster was addressing a Genome British Columbia lecture at the Telus World of Science on January 20th.
“Bees are vital to pollination of BC’s apple, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and cranberry crops,” he said, adding that although there are other ways for farmers to pollinate these crops, bee pollination tends to produce the largest yields, of the highest quality.
According to the Canadian Honey Council, honeybees increase national fruit and vegetable production between $1.3 and $1.7 billion a year. But those estimates assume that there is a stable, healthy honeybee population at work, and that isn’t the case in BC. Foster noted that the average annual loss in British Columbia is usually around 15%.
Lab buzzing with new research
Foster leads a research team that has partnered with two beekeepers – one in Kootenay, British Columbia and the other in Beaverlodge, Alberta – to identify genes that may indicate resistance to diseases like the American Foulbrood virus, which can ravage a bee colony.
Once disease resistant genes have been identified, bees with these genes can be bred with a queen that has similar genes. This type of selective breeding increases the likelihood that offspring will possess specific traits, including disease resistance.
“If we have those molecular markers that allow us to predict disease resistance, we won’t have to wait a whole year to see if the bees actually died throughout the winter,” Foster said.
“We’re not trying to create genetically modified bees,” he said. “The public wouldn’t accept that, and the technology is not there to do it.”
Work to identify resistant genes within bee populations is already well under way. Foster’s team hopes to have the first batch of selectively bred bees ready for colonization within the next two years.
Selective breeding offers imperfect solution
Critics have expressed concern about Foster’s work and the effect that disease resistant bee colonies might have on the ecosystem. Although Foster acknowledges that these concerns have merit, he doesn’t anticipate any problems.
“Population size is regulated by the economy,” he said. “Bees don’t survive very well in the wild in Canada. It’s the keepers who make decisions about the size and number of colonies that they keep who exercise control over the size of the bee population.”
Foster noted that even if his team succeeds in breeding disease resistance into the Kootenay and Beaverlodge bee populations, the research will not yield a blanket solution for all bee colonies. A variety of traits would be required for bees to survive in different regions, and the traits bred into various bee populations would depend on what crops they would be expected to pollinate.
Mass honeybee death isn’t just a concern in Canada. In recent years, there have been noticeable decreases in the size of bee populations worldwide. Since late 2006, one-quarter of the US’s honeybee population has died, while the United Kingdom has lost more than one-third of its bee population.