Guelph gathering delves into progress in pollinator research: Guelph Mercury

ByVik Kirsch

GUELPH—The future of bee keeping is in doubt, Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturalists president Rheal Lafreniere said Thursday while attending a pollination research roundtable in Guelph.

"There's a general decline in bee populations," Lafreniere said, in an interview. "It's related to their health."

In fact, they're swooning: in the last six or seven years, 30 per cent have not survived winters, he said. While causes remain elusive, he suggested a combination of factors, including pesticides, compromising their health.

"It's easier to kill sick bees than healthy ones," said the Winnipeg-based Lafreniere, fearing bee populations will decline to a critical point that they can't recover from.

"I'm not throwing up my hands." He remained optimistic in part because of organizations like the Canpolin pollination research initiative that drew scientists, government officials, environmentalists and industry representatives to Thursday's roundtable at the Delta Hotel for a five-year review of what's been learned.

Audience members heard that amounts to plenty, even though the national group of researchers winds down at the end of the year.

Canpolin, founded by University of Guelph professor emeritus Peter Kevan, utilized $5 million from the federal NSERC science funding agency and a similar amount in industry grants. It's identified key pollinators vital to crops and other plants, including bees, flies, moths and butterflies. It's shed light on their health, better landscape management and threats from climate change.

"We can build on that as we go into the future," Kevan told audience members. He later said in an interview there's an opportunity in 2016 to apply for government funding to continue the work, such as creating sustainable ecosystem services aiding pollinators and other life forms.

Why is pollination vital? Kevan noted in an accompanying video clip a third of everything people eat is grown with the help of insect pollinators.

But University of Ottawa professor Jeremy Kerr he's worried climate change is happening faster in northern Canada than pollinators can "keep up."

"The rate of change is dangerously high." Canadians need to find out what these "disappearing" northern habitat limits mean to species richness and diversification, he stressed.

The gathering heard from a variety of scientists exploring Canpolin achievements. These include collection of almost a quarter million bee and fly records and the genetic "fingerprinting" of nearly all species for easy identification.

U of G associate vice-president John Livernois said the public is becoming aware of the importance of pollinations but "we have a long way to go."

Concern about declining bee numbers was a recurring theme among members of the audience of several score, not just scientists.

"As a citizen, I'd like to see protection of pollinators," Livernois agreed, recognizing their contribution to the ecosystem and economy.

Canpolin research was conducted by 44 scientists in nine provinces, leading to 100 scientific papers submitted or published, network manager Sarah Bates said. It's resulted in new theoretical approaches to pollination aid, fostered research collaborations and provided training for graduate students.

University of Manitoba professor Rob Currie said the investigative tools developed include laboratories working on major bee diseases, parasites and pesticides – as well as their interplay.

"These tools have given us much better knowledge on what's going on," Currie said, noting in part scientists have found a way to "silence" one of the viruses and test new treatments like irradiation, fungi and control agents, as well as using bees to spread biological controls.

Simon Fraser University professor Elizabeth Elle said areas of interest include how pollinators vary from region to region, interact with plants and are affected by natural areas retained in agricultural settings. Conserving these natural areas to increase pollinator abundance and diversity "might be the way to go," Elle suggested.

Audience member Leslie Adams with an environmental NGO asked how big such natural areas should be in farming communities.

"We don't have a number. We seem to think bigger is better," Elle responded.

The public can help pollination research by contributing observations and photographs to websites like and the upcoming