Superbees to the rescue

Superbees to the rescue

Helping breeders identify disease-resistant bees
June 13, 2012

At first buzz, 2012 is looking like a better year for beekeepers. Most regions in British Columbia lost about 30 percent of their honeybees to colony collapse disorder over the winter, a mass die-off that’s been afflicting the North American industry since 2006. “Thirty percent is not too bad a year,” says Liz Huxter a bee breeder in the Grand Forks area working with Foster to develop new breeding methods. “Last year, we lost 50 percent of the hives. Ironically, it’s more work dealing with dead bees than raising live ones.”

Canada produces 34 million kilograms of honey annually, and crops pollinated by honeybees are two to eight times more productive, at a value of over $2 billion a year. As the primary pollinator of commercial crops, honeybees are a vital component of food production, and the impact of a bad year can be significant to breeders, the industry and the public. And while the cost of honey has remained basically unchanged, the cost of breeding bees has risen 11 percent in the past three years.

“Bees are incredibly important for maintaining our food supply, particularly the variety of fruits we eat,” says Leonard Foster, a bee researcher at the University of British Columbia (UBC). “Without bees, we wouldn’t be able to produce commercial quantities of blueberries, canola or almonds.” Most fruits, many vegetables and some nuts are dependent on honeybees for pollination.

Although there is no simple explanation for colony collapse, Foster says that a handful of diseases play a significant role. Beekeepers use chemicals to control some of the worst diseases and parasitic mites that can transmit viruses from bee to bee. But “treatments are a stop-gap affair,” says Huxter. “The pests get stronger, and the bees get weaker. You really want the bees to be able to look after themselves.”

This is where Foster’s research comes in. Using a CFI-funded mass spectrometer and other equipment, his lab is working to identify bees that are genetically resistant to the pests so that people like Huxter can selectively breed more resilient bees.

“We want to select for specific traits, just as a dog breeder does,” says Foster. “But first we have to figure out how to identify which bees have the traits we want.”

Foster’s interest in bees began when he was a child, and his parents kept hives. For a high school science experiment, he proved, with the help of two Simon Fraser University professors, that there are antibacterial properties in bee propolis — a waxy, resinous substance the bees collect from buds and use to construct and repair the hive. At university, he studied molecular biology, but not bees specifically until 2005, when he started his own lab at UBC to study, among other things, the immune systems of animals and bees.

Like humans, bees have an innate immune system. It recognizes and attacks an invading organism before it can do any damage. But not all bees have what’s called “social immunity,” a behaviour displayed by the colony that helps fight off infection. According to Foster, hygienic behaviour — removing dead bees from a hive — is the most important type of social immunity, but not all bees display it.

“A single bacterium infecting one bee can lead to 5 to 10 billion spores,” he says. “It takes only one spore to infect a bee. So removing dead bees before the spores are released gives the hive an advantage. It’s an important trait for all bee diseases.”

Another important bee behaviour is the ability to detect mites and disturb their mating ritual, thus reducing their prevalence. In addition, some bees are naturally resistant to certain diseases.

The bulk of Foster’s work to date has focused on identifying the bees that possess the desirable traits. Now he’s working to help breeders identify the hardiest bees.

There are already tests to determine whether a given hive has higher levels of social immunity, but they require hours of work and specialized experience, take months to complete and result in the death of lots of bees. “The tests aren’t practical,” says Foster. He is developing new tests that will reduce labour costs by 60 to 70 percent and yield results within a week. “If a breeder is planning a five-year breeding process, these tests will be able to cut that down to two to three years.”

“If Leonard’s work can help identify traits easily and cheaply, it will be a huge boon to beekeepers,” says Huxter.”It will be globally useful.”

Although beekeepers tend to be slow to take up new processes, they are keenly interested in Foster’s work. Originally, 48 commercial beekeepers across western Canada partnered with him to test hives for the presence of different traits. Foster continues to work with 12 of them, including Huxter, who breeds bees almost exclusively for him now. On the research side, he’s partnered with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Manitoba and receives funding from Genome BC. He’s also working with Monsanto to develop a vaccine-like treatment that will help bees fight off viruses.

Both vaccines and viable tests are still a couple years away. But no matter what Foster finds in the lab, it will be the bees that have the final buzz. “Bees live in a complex interconnected system,” says Huxter. “We need them to show us what works.”

Bee facts

Sources: Leonard Foster, Liz Huxter, and wikipedia

  • Bees were first domesticated in Egypt 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.
  • Honey bees range in colour from solid gold to black.
  • One female will mate with up to 24 drones, the male bees, who die after mating. She receives enough sperm to last the rest of her life, three to five years.
  • All the bees you see flying around are female worker bees.
  • At the height of summer a hive's queen bee produces up to 3,000 eggs a day.
  • There are 20,000 species of bee but only seven species of honey bee.
  • Honey bees were introduced to North America in 1622 by European settlers.
  • Honey bees and silkworms are the only fully domesticated insects.
  • Mead, alcohol made with honey, dates back 9,000 years.
  • Some believe the term honeymoon refers to the practice of giving newlyweds enough honey wine to last a month.
  • Big commercial bee keepers on the Prairies will cultivate 2,000 hives.
  • A bee colony typically has one breeding female (the queen), a few thousand males (drones) and 40,000 to 80,000 sterile females (workers).
  • To create half a kilogram of honey a bee would need to fly about 75,000 kilometres and visit 2-million flowers.