Prince George, BC – In the past year alone, nearly 36% of all Canada’s honeybees died over winter, more than twice the normal mortality rate of 15%. The trend in BC is no less severe, with select geographic areas such as Vancouver Island and the Peace River District suffering far greater losses.
According to Paul van Westendorp, BC’s provincial apiculturist, these numbers are simply not sustainable for breeders, and pose serious environmental and economic risks, not to mention threatening the food supply.
“Reduced honey production is only the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “When we look at what bees do in the larger context of agriculture, which is most notable in terms of crop pollination, we are talking about a value of $200 to 300 million a year in BC alone.”
The problem appears to stem from the fact that mites and bacteria, which have plagued bees for years, are becoming increasingly resistant to traditional treatments such miticides and antibiotics. The bees are unable to defend themselves, and those without natural genetic resistance inevitably die.
But a new Genome BC research project will soon put advanced genomics tools into the hands of bee breeders, enabling them select only the strongest, most resistant bees for breeding programs. The project is receiving $2.8 million in funding from Genome BC and the University of British Columbia.
The project, entitled Apis mellifera Proteomics of Innate reSistance, will be led by Dr Leonard Foster, of the University of British Columbia. Dr Foster and his fellow investigators Dr Stephen Pernal (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) and Dr Katherine Baylis (UBC) will develop a set of tools to identify disease resistance in natural bee populations.
The researchers will use the bee genome to identify molecular markers of resistance to both mite and bacterial infections by doing proteomic analysis of different bee populations.
“By understanding the traits that make bees naturally resistant to pathogens the long-term hope is that beekeepers will no longer need to use miticides, fungicides, and antibiotics to control them,” says Dr Foster. “We will be able to improve the efficiency of bee breeding by using protein markers to map desirable traits in bee families through generations.”