Scientists hope to develop made-for-Canada honeybees
Published Tuesday, November 10, 2015 8:32AM EST
A new project by a pair of Canadian scientists is creating buzz in in the country's beekeeping community.
Amro Zayed, a biology professor at York University, and Leonard Foster, a biology professor at the University of British Columbia, are heading a four-year-long quest to genetically modify bees that are healthier and more resistant to Canada's winter weather.
The ultimate goal is to set up a diagnostics centre where beekeepers can send sample worker bees from their colonies, Zayed said on CTV's Canada AM Tuesday.
"The centre would analyse the bees' genomes and give the beekeeper back a report about the potential of these bees," he said.
According to Zayed, the reports would answer crucial questions about the insects' health, such as "What are the chances they'll be able to resist disease," or "What are the chances they're going to survive the winter?"
Using the answers to these questions, Zayed said, beekeepers would be able to breed the bees with the best genetic traits, which would then be passed down to future generations of Canadian honeybees.
"Over time, we think this will improve the overall health of Canadian bees," Zayed said.
Canadian honeybees produce 75 million pounds of honey, Genome British Columbia says.
And beyond honey, bees are also responsible for pollinating some farmers' crops, contributing more than $4.6 billion to the Canadian economy each year.
"So by making honeybees (healthier), we're not just generating profit for the beekeeper, we're generating profit for all the farmers that rely on bees for pollination," Zayed said.
But since the winter of 2006-2007, Canada's honeybee population has been in decline.
Genome British Columbia estimates that national beekeepers have lost more than a quarter of their colonies during that time.
The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists has also reported losses recently.
According to a July, 2015, report by the association, the national average percentage of colony loss was 16.4 per cent in the winter of 2014-2015.
And in Ontario alone, 37.8 per cent of the province's colonies died last winter.
In the apiculturist association's report, beekeepers blamed starvation, weak colonies, poorly-performing queens, disease and winter weather for the losses.
Traditionally, Canadian beekeepers have replenished their bee populations by importing insects from places such as New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii.
But foreign bees aren't necessarily equipped to handle Canadian diseases or winters.
And bringing in new bees also runs the risk of introducing new diseases or invasive strains of bees to Canada.
Because of this, Zayed and his co-researcher, Foster, are hoping their project will help strengthen the local honeybee population, so that beekeepers can sustain their colonies without needing to import foreign insects.
The $7.3-million initiative is funded in part by Genome British Columbia and Genome Canada.
"Minimizing the need to rely on imported honeybee queens allows beekeepers to more efficiently manage healthy and productive honey bees," Genome British Columbia president Alan Winter said in a statement.
"(This will) indirectly benefit our agro-economy and food security that depend on healthy bees, and benefit the Canadian public who are concerned about the health of bees."
Zayed said he hopes the project will be "implemented on the ground" by 2019.