Canadian researchers look to build a better honey bee: National Post

(Note: OBA is the recipient of this grant.)

Ottawa is spending $244,000 to help build a tougher honey bee.

Researchers at the universities of Guelph and Manitoba are working with queen bee producers in Ontario to find bees that are resistant to the disease and pests that have decimated their numbers, and to then breed them, said Rob Currie, professor of entomology at the University of Manitoba.

“Beekeepers are losing on average 35% of their colonies every year. You always had a couple losses over the winter, but it was usually 5%,” said Les Eccles, a specialist at the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association.

The federal research grant to the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association aims to curb the rapid decline of European honey bees, largely caused by a parasite carried by Asian honey bees. The Asian variety, first spotted in Canada in 2007, are considered an invasive species and it is illegal to bring them into the country.

The most damaging diseases are caused by the Varroa mite, a parasite that feeds on a bee’s blood and commonly infects the host with the deformed wing virus; Asian bees are resistant but Europeans are not.

“If you control the Varroa mite, you control everything else,” said Mr. Eccles. “It’s a vector for all the viruses.”

Central Ontario hives have been hit the hardest this year. Board’s Honey Farm in Restoule, an hour southwest of North Bay, lost over half of its 280 colonies.

“One of my workers today asked me if we were going to raise our prices because we’ve had such a tough time,” said Ann Board, who owns the apiary with her husband. “We do have honey left from last year, but we’re not expecting that to cover our needs for the whole year.”

The decreased number of bees can drive up the price of fruits and vegetables. When a plant isn’t pollinated it can’t produce food at all, and if it’s not pollinated properly, the food will be irregular and won’t taste the same, Mr. Eccles said.

“A third of all the fruits and vegetables we eat are directly pollinated by honey bees,” Mr. Eccles said, and because honey bee losses occur over the winter, there aren’t enough bees to pollinate in the spring, when the produce needs it most. Resistant bees will better allow producers to predict how many will survive over the winter, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Munro Honey’s hives in Alvinston, Ont., near London, were devastated by disease four winters ago, said John Bryans, a Munro co-owner.

“We were at 3,500 colonies, and when we got done in the spring we were down to 900 hives. It takes a long time to build those numbers back, you just don’t do that over one season,” said Mr. Bryans. The company is now back to about about 3,000 hives, but the loss “put a real strain on the company for the next four years, and it’s money we’ll never recoup.”

Once researchers have established several resistant generations, the queens would be provided to beekeepers whose livelihood has been put at risk.

“I would anticipate that they may be able to improve their stock within a period of three to five years,” said Dr. Currie. Read