Saving the honeybees

September 18, 2015

The Challenge

Agricultural production has been threatened due to a significant decline in honeybees, which pollinate about 75% of major global crops.

One of the largest causes of global honeybee population decline is the Varroa mite, a parasite that weakens honeybees and carries infection. The effect of this parasite can be minimized though hygienic behavior, which is a genetic trait that allows a bee colony to eliminate infected bees and prevent the spread of mites.

Identifying genetic traits that improve pest resistance in honeybees could address the issue of colony collapse disorder, a serious problem threatening the health of honeybees and the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations worldwide.

The current process of selecting and breeding for honey bee stocks expressing hygienic behavior has its concerns: high labor costs associated with surveying and testing; screening currently has to be done late in the season after producers have spent a lot of time and money; the process involves killing several hundred bees per colony; the test is resource intensive so only a few beekeepers in Ontario can use it; non-hygienic honey bees can invade the colony, putting the others at risk.

The use of Varroa-resistant honey bees is ideal since the need for chemical-based treatments becomes unnecessary. There is a need to develop a selection process that is inexpensive and high-throughput with great precision and accuracy that allows beekeepers to better assess the hygienic capacity of colonies earlier in the beekeeping season.

Genomics solution

Dr. Amro Zayed’s research is aimed at understanding and identifying genetic mutations that are associated with hygienic behaviour in honey bees, to lessen the impact of this devastating parasite on the industry.

By selectively breeding bees for improved hygienic behavior, we can increase their natural resistance to Varroa mites. And by improving colony hygiene, beekeepers can avoid chemical treatments, which can result in residue being left behind in the honey and wax, and lead to chemical-resistant pathogens.

Successes

This project will generate significant economic benefits to beekeepers and farmers in Ontario and Canada, including more effective breeding practices, cost savings in testing and bee loss, and upstream screening to cull non-hygienic colonies earlier in the season, and allowing a greater number of beekeepers to use the technology.