Scientists are looking to create bees that are selectively bred to survive cold Canadian winters in hopes that the number of bees we import from the U.S. can be reduced.
Two answers to questions you may have right now. No, this is not a joke; we have actually been importing bees from the states for years. And no, they didn’t first consider millions of tiny Canada Goose parkas.
A pair of educators from opposite ends of the country, Professor Amro Zayed from York University’s Faculty of Science, and Professor Leonard Foster from the University of British Columbia, were recently awarded $7.3 million in joint industry-government funding to try and solve Canada’s bee problem.
“It is very clear that we have to develop innovative solutions for bee health because bee declines will have serious consequences for Canada’s economy and food security,” says Zayed. The professor says genetic data can predict the behavior of colonies and beekeepers could use genomic and proteomic markers to selectively breed colonies that can better survive our cold winters.
The project that professors Zayed and and Foster will lead was born from a small concept study Zayed worked on with the Ontario Genomics Institute, who provided seed funding, a business plan, and identified potential customers.
“The project worked fantastically well,” says Zayed, who says the success of the pilot attracted the interest of UBC researchers and larger funding from Genome Canada,
The Canadian Ministry of Agriculture currently allows Canadian beekeepers to import queens and packaged bees from several approved sources, including New Zealand, Australia, Chile, California and Hawaii.
A recent report from the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists said that more than half of bee colonies in Ontario don’t survive the winter. But our famous cold might not be the only culprit.
A study published in Nature found a link between the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are used on crops such canola, corn, and soybeans, and honeybee colony losses.
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“As long as acute toxins remain the basis of agricultural pest control practices, society will be forced to weigh the benefits of pesticides against their collateral damage. Nowhere is this tension more evident than in the system with the world’s most widely used insecticide, the world’s most widely used managed pollinator and Europe’s most widely grown mass flowering crop,” said the study.
Those findings resonated with beekeepers here in Canada. Last year, led by Ontario-based honey producers Munro Honey and Sun Parlor Honey Ltd., they launched a $450-million class-action law suit against Bayer Cropscience Inc. and Syngenta Canada, claiming the two companies were negligent in the design, manufacture, sale and distribution of neonicotinoid pesticides.
One Canadian beekeeper, Tim Wendell, who operates in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, told Global News why he was likely to add his name to the lawsuit.
“It’s really not about the money for me. It’s just about the issue,” he said. “Bees are probably very similar to the canary in the coal mine,” added Wendell. “They are the flying dust mop. They pick up everything in the environment.”
Professor Zayed, meanwhile, is currently working on his own study, The effects of sublethal neonicotinoid exposure on brain state and behaviour of honey bee workers and will report his findings next year.
Below: Is genomics a solution for saving the bees?