Scientists try to breed better bees

After suffering hard losses during the worldwide colony collapse, New Brunswick’s bee population seems to be on the mend.

This trend will continue if researchers in Manitoba and Ontario get their way.

Robert Currie is an entomologist at the University of Manitoba. He has partnered with the Ontario Beekeepers Association to breed a better bee. Specifically, a bee with a higher immunity to one of the principal causes of bee colony collapse – the varroa mite. Currie’s lab has been working toward this for the past seven or eight years, he said in an interview.

The theory is simple. Find bees that have particular resistance to the mites and the parasites that go with them, and breed them to pass along and strengthen those characteristics.

When a progress report was done two years ago, researchers found that their selected brood had a higher chance of living than a bunch of regular honey bees that hadn’t been specially bred.

While only 40 to 45 per cent of the unselected stocks survived the winter, about three quarters of Currie’s selected stocks made it through.

In about five years they should have significant overall resistance in Canada’s bees, Currie said. And while he said these bees should be able to integrate into New Brunswick colony’s, Richard Duplain has his doubts. Duplain is the vice-president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association and said that what might work for one region might not work in another.

To breed a bee that is completely resistant to the mites is a “laudible goal,” he said, but the chances of it happening are unrealistic.

Currie agrees to an extent.

“If you’re trying to find the silver bullet and trying to say that this is the end-all be-all?…?I think that’s probably not going to be the case,” he said. “But I think what we can do is make significant progress in reducing a lot of the chemical treatment that we’re putting in place and also increasing the survival rate of the bees.”

New Brunswick’s boost in survival rate since 2010 could be due to a favourable position in a cycle of good and bad years, but it’s also partly because many commercial apiarists use Apivar. Apivar is a varroa mite treatment in the form of a rigid polymer strip impregnated with the antiparasitic drug amitraz. It is registered under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and has no effect on the bee, honey or wax.

Other more labour-intensive methods (and thus less popular among commercial apiarists) include wafting the hives with vapour from organic formic and oxalic acids, which are found naturally in honey. This from Fletcher Colpitts, the chief inspector at the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association.

But the mites aren’t the only cause of failing bee colonies.

Other likely factors include increased pesticide use, air pollution and a possible interference of cell phone towers into the bees’ ability to navigate their way home.

It’s normal for some bees to die over the winter, but Canada (and the world) have been dealing with above-average colony losses since 2006. Bees are important because farmers rent them to pollinate their crops, usually blueberries and cranberry fields.

Previously published July 25, 2011; Telegraph-Journal, Times & Transcript

Heavy reliance on potatoes puts agriculture in peril: prof

A researcher of rural economies warns that a lack of diversity in the industry is steering New Brunswick agriculture toward a crisis.

Susan Machum, the Canada research chair in social justice and a professor at St. Thomas University, said the reliance on potatoes in New Brunswick’s agricultural sector is a disaster waiting to happen.

Farmers have pressed toward crop specialization for years, in the interests of cost efficiency and economies of scale, Machum said. But those actions have built up to produce a grim 21st-century situation.

“It’s like you’re driving down the highway,” she said, “it’s been going fine, and then suddenly up ahead we’re seeing major crisis. There are big major potholes in the road and the road is washing away,” Machum said.

“It took us several decades to get here, and now it’s like ‘hmmm, this is not a good road to be on.’?”

Potatoes are the province’s largest agricultural commodity, spanning 200 farms and 50,000 acres. In the 2006 census, New Brunswick farmers reported working 375,590 acres of cropland.

Machum said when there is so much weight placed on a specific crop, a single disease can wipe out an entire growing season.

For example, the mad cow crisis on British cattle farms had catastrophic economic impacts on the industry. Even poor weather during the planting season can affect the entire year’s profit.

Joe Brennan agrees that having more variety spreads out dependence and lowers risk. He is the chairman of New Brunswick Potatoes, a producer-driven organization.

He said potato farming is a market-driven industry and there isn’t really a long-term plan to deal with a sudden drop in global demand or an unexpected shortage in supply.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” he said.

Most farmers educate themselves on the best way to protect their crops from agricultural diseases such as late blight, and a jointly-funded crop insurance program creates something of a buffer, but Brennan said there’s always risk.

If something were to come along and decimate the potato industry, said Brennan, it would hit the province hard. And it wouldn’t just affect potato growers, It would trickle through the economy, toppling various sectors like dominos.

Brennan added that more crop diversity is not only better for economic protection and stability, but it also means healthier soil.

Lots of people have decided to just ignore the problem and assume someone else will fix it, Machum said.

“We’re on this path. How do you get off? … ?We’re caught.”

She said that there is hope in an emerging younger generation committed to sustainable farming.

But once you’re on a certain trajectory, it can be very hard to stop it, she said.

Previously published June 20, 2011; Telegraph-Journal