From the A-team to the Bee-Team
By Cassandra Docherty MSc., Apiculture Technologist, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry
I fell in love with honey bees after having the opportunity to do a couple hive inspections with a professor while I was studying abroad. When I returned to Canada to finish the second half of my masters degree on an invasive fish species in Alberta, I decided to take a beginner beekeeping course. Needless to say, my fascination with these creatures only grew stronger. A year after I graduated, I was lucky to land a job working as an apiculture research technician at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. As of right now, I am hoping to expand my knowledge of honey bees and colony management, as well as develop specific technical skills to help the industry diagnose and manage pests and diseases.
The beekeeping industry in Alberta is the largest in Canada, and is home to over 315,000 honey bee colonies. Both honey production and the provision of pollination services to crops in Alberta and British Columbia are key aspects of the industry. Our goal at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is to support Alberta’s beekeepers to ensure the industry is strong and resilient, and honey bees are healthy for the future. One of our primary objectives is to assist beekeepers in developing and applying Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems in their operations to reduce the risks and costs associated with colony loss from disease outbreak.
The two main parasites responsible for colony losses in Alberta are Nosema and Varroa. Nosema is an internal fungal parasite that infects the digestive tract of honey bees. Bees transfer spores by exchanging food and water and by cleaning up infected fecal material in the hive. When Nosema spores build up in the bee’s digestive tract, it leads to malnourishment, starvation and a shortened lifespan from stress. Varroa, in contrast, are external parasitic mites. Varroa mites feed on the fat body tissues of adult and larval honey bees, weakening their immune system and critical body functions. Varroa mites not only impact the health of bees by feeding on the fat body tissues, they also transfer viral diseases. High infestations can decimate a hive within 1-1.5 years depending on colony strength.
The critical issue the beekeeping industry faces is the current lack of treatment options for both of these important bee parasites. The only antibiotic used to treat Nosema, Fumagilin-B®, was taken off the market by the supplier in 2018 with no alternative products available. For Varroa, resistance to synthetic miticides due in part to lack of rotation of products and improper application, has left the industry with only one highly effective chemical treatment option. To build a more sustainable IPM system for beekeepers to access, the Alberta Apiculture team is working to test alternate chemical treatments. Between 2016 and 2018 we tested numerous miticides and antibiotics to find effective products against Varroa and Nosema, respectively. We also screened the products for bee safety.
Twenty-two miticides were tested to see which chemicals were lethal to mites but safe for bees. To do this, we topically treated mites and bees with each miticide in the laboratory and determined mortality after 24 hours. We did a similar test by placing bees or mites in miticide-coated glass containers to see how many died after 24 hours. For Nosema, honey bees were fed Nosema spores and treated with one of 11 different antibiotics over 20 days. After treatment, Nosema spores were extracted from the digestive tract and counted to determine how effective the antibiotic was. The miticides and antibiotics that were safe for bees but killed Varroa mites or Nosema, respectively, were tested on colonies in field trials. We have identified two miticides that show potential to control Varroa, and one antibiotic showing promising results against Nosema. For both Varroa and Nosema, more experiments are needed to determine safe and effective field application methods.
This research is important because honey bees are an essential part of agri-food systems in Alberta. Providing chemical alternatives is one aspect of IPM practices, but to ensure long-term health and resiliency of the beekeeping industry, producers need to utilize multiple management strategies in order to promote bee health. Our program also provides information to beekeepers on best practices for nutrition, colony management, and bee breeding, so beekeepers and crop growers can maximize the health and productivity of pollination management and honey production.
This project was funded by the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, ACIDF, and Growing Forward 2.