Pollinator Problems and Solutions - Paul Kelly - UGRA AGM June 16, 2022

Posted on Monday, June 27th, 2022

Paul Kelly (B.Sc. Ag ’83) has managed the University’s Honey Bee Research Centre (HBRC) since 1987. Part of the School of Environmental Studies, HRBC is located on approximately 1 ha (~2.5 acres) at 308 Stone Road East. Here, honey bees are maintained for use in research and teaching, as well as extension and demonstration activities. Paul was recently inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame in recognition of his global contributions to apiculture, including research in bee genetics and health and education of beekeepers and the general public.


HBRC has 200-300 colonies on-site and at other locations in Ontario. Collaborative research includes studies of bee genetics, particularly breeding for disease resistance, studies of bee behavior, and development of improved beekeeping techniques. The Centre also produces honey and related products, makes YouTube videos on various bee related topics (eg. bee beard https://youtu.be/XvLk0RGo3ro), and conducts in-person educational courses. These activities help support the Centre. Professor and HBRC Director Ernesto Guzman co-ordinates research and utilizes the HBRC in teaching  ~700 undergraduate students who take the Introduction to Apiculture course each year.


Techniques developed to improve rearing and breeding of Queen Bees have been used to select for gentle behavior, longevity in our climate, and disease resistance in offspring. Selective mating of Queens is conducted on Islands in Lake Simcoe where the male drone population can be controlled. Drones can see and smell a Queen from 100 yards away and the Queen will accept about 20 drones, which die after mating. Offspring are painted and marked, so that they can be tracked over their entire lifespan. Volunteers who assist with this include students and adults from the community.


The Stone Road property, adjacent to the Arboretum, provides a unique natural environment of wildflowers to support up to 7 queens and their swarms. Bees feed on flower nectar and pollen. For some plants, the bee is necessary to move the pollen from the anther to the stigma; for others, movement of pollen from plant to plant for cross-pollination is critical. Bees are the most important pollinators, accounting for 80% of pollination, the remaining 20% comes from a variety of other insects. In Ontario over 400 species of plants rely on bee pollination, including those producing fruits, nuts and seeds for human consumption and forage and seed crops used to for livestock feed. (Even coffee requires bees, something to consider the next time you have coffee with honey or cream – all depend on bees.) Bee pollination of wild plants provides food for wildlife. Trees, like maple and sumac, require Spring pollination. If there were no bees only wind pollinated plants would survive. (We would have a steady diet of porridge.)


Honeybee die-offs in recent years have raised public awareness and concern. Research has revealed multifactorial interactive causes: diseases caused by parasites, bacteria, viruses and fungi; malnutrition due to monoculture of  crops (bees need a variety of pollen sources); habitat loss due to urbanization and agriculture; climate change (drought, flooding, unseasonable and variable winters); environmental pollutants and pesticides. Of the latter, neonicotinoids are best known, but other herbicides and fungicides contribute as well. High doses cause obvious acute toxicity and death. Chronic sublethal exposure leads to altered foraging and social behavior, and shortened lifespan.


A primary cause of colony collapse disorder is the external parasite Varroa destructor (Varroa mite) that feeds on the hemolymph and tissues of the bee. Its saliva prevents clotting and suppresses immune response increasing infection with other pathogens. Varroa mites act as vectors for viruses, like deformed wing virus that requires mite damage to infect and microsporidium parasites, Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae that infect and damage epithelial cells of the midgut. Spores shed in bee poop can transferred when people move bees (education is important for control).


HBRC research includes breeding for disease or pesticide resistance and investigation of natural methods to prevent or control infections. For example, susceptibility to tracheal mites has been effectively bred out. Thymol, an icing sugar-like phenol derived from thyme is used to control mites and has anti-septic properties. Mites can also be controlled by sprays incorporating oregano essential oils or extracts of oxalic acid found in tea, coffee, rhubarb.


As mentioned previously, colony die-offs can be attributed to various factors. Global losses in 2012-13, exceeding anything seen previously, were largely due to widespread use of ‘neonics’ prophylactically on corn seeds. These neonics are aerosolized during planting and can contaminate pollinator plants. Regulatory changes in many countries now restrict their use. Reduced bee numbers in 2022 appear to be related to relatively early development of drones in the Spring of 2021, following moderate winter temperatures. Early drone development meant early mite production, which led to decreased longevity of worker bees going into winter. Moving colonies indoors in winter can aid survival. Presently there are concerns about survival due to the length and coldness of the past winter and the introduction of new pesticides.


Honeybees need our help: eat locally produced honey, grow pollinator plants, don’t spray roadsides, plant or keep hedgerows which provide a sheltered habitat and navigational cues while foraging, allow land to naturalize. The HBRC needs help to continue its work. Purchase their products https://www.shophbrc.com or contribute to ongoing research or the planned new facility for education, research, advocacy and outreach https://hbrc.ca.


A few lessons learned in response to questions: a full bee doesn’t sting, a bee beard doesn’t sting, never kiss a bee, don’t breed bees that die over the winter (think about it …).

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