Researchers turn to honey bees for more effective pesticide delivery

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Bees can be used to 'vector' safer organic pesticides to crops

Although honey bees have been suffering quite a bit lately due to our use of pesticides, according to Canadian researchers, it turns out that bees may actually offer us the most effective way of delivering pesticides to crops to do the most good.

Pesticides are typically delivered to crops — especially those grown in greenhouses —by spraying chemicals. It's expensive and time-consuming to spray large areas, and the spray typically covers the entire plant, even though the pesticide is really only needed near or on the flowers. However, using a new method called 'bee vectoring', bees that are used to pollinate the greenhouse crops can also deliver pesticides while they fly from flower to flower. These organic pesticides aren't chemicals, but instead are viruses, bacteria and fungi that are known to target the specific pests, whether they're insects or fungal diseases.

The bees are basically allowed to go about their daily routine. However, upon exiting their hive, they walk through a tray of these organic pesticides, which stick to their legs. As the bees make their rounds among the plants, the pesticides rub off onto the flowers or are 'groomed' off by the bees while they collect pollen and nectar. This puts the pesticides right where they're needed to fight the pests plaguing the crops.

"They're out there working seven days a week. You're getting continuous introduction of control agents," said Les Shipp, a senior research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, according to CBC News. "If you sprayed, you're only spraying at one point in time, but the bees are there constantly delivering this. I wouldn't look at it as a silver bullet. It’s another tool to control pests and diseases. We hope it drastically reduces sprays."

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As for the effect on the bees themselves, in a study published last year, the researchers found that there was no difference in the mortality rates of the bees between using the bee-vectored pesticide and spraying.

Bee vectoring has been in development for years now. Tests done at the University of Guelph date back to 1990, where bees were used to deliver fungal spores that were known to control grey mold on strawberry and raspberry plants. Since then, work has been done with other crops, such as canola, and lately with greenhouse-grown tomatoes and peppers. Its usefulness isn't limited to indoors, though, as it can be used with any crop indoor or outdoor, that the bees regularly visit.

Given the concerns with current methods of delivering pesticides — with how damaging they can be to the environment, not to mention to the bees themselves — this method not only gives added value to the bees, but it also reduces pesticide use (thus lowering costs) and uses better, more targeted pesticides for a more effective 'attack' on the insects and diseases. Seems like a win-win solution.

(Photo courtesy: University of Guelph/Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

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