Bees are delivering more than pollen in greenhouses

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There’s a buzz in fruit and vegetable greenhouses – and it’s not just coming from the bees that help pollinate crops.

Growers are buzzing about bee “vectoring” – an alternative way to fight damaging plant diseases and insect pests that is effective, eco-friendly, and is saving them time and money.

Bee "vectoring" uses the natural foraging activity of bees to deliver biological control agents (BCA) directly to plants. The BCA contain live spores of naturally occurring fungi that fight diseases and pests common to fruit and vegetable crops. Only minute amounts of BCA are used, which are not harmful to bees, plants, greenhouse workers, or consumers, but are effective in controlling various moulds, whiteflies, aphids, thrips, and Lygus.

The innovative delivery process was developed by researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the University of Guelph.

"There is a considerable savings in labour costs to greenhouse operators who do not need to have greenhouse workers spray the product. In addition, the bees carry very small volumes of biological control agents precisely to where it is needed, so they're using less of the product, which is cost-effective, and environmentally sound."

– Dr. Les Shipp, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (original project lead, retired)

How does a bee become a vector?

In biology, a “vector” is anything that delivers something from one place to another.

To make a bee a "vector", trays with BCA live spore powder are placed at beehive exits. As bees leave the hive, they walk through the tray, picking up tiny amounts of powder on their legs. They then deliver the spores to leaves, flowers, and fruits as they go about their natural foraging activities thus becoming a vector from the tray to the plant. The spores germinate, develop, and eventually kill their target.

While it may seem simple, it took a lot of work to figure out the right balance between having the bees deliver enough BCA to be effective but not too much that it interferes with their natural activities or alters crop yields.

The process was fine-tuned and approved by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency in 2013 as an insect biological control product, allowing commercial growers to use and refine the eco-friendly technology.

Banking on bees

There has been an early return on investment from this research - a new company was established in 2013 that has been actively working across Canada and the United States to produce and commercialize the new delivery technology.

AAFC scientists continue to research new BCAs that can be delivered by bees. These will help fight threats to greenhouse fruit and vegetable crops while improving environmental impacts and saving farmers time and money. Recent trials are looking at ways to target pests of greenhouse peppers and tomatoes.

"There is huge potential for bee vectoring technology to help greenhouse pepper and tomato growers. And we're looking to apply it to new greenhouse crops, like strawberries for instance, which are plagued by the disease causing fungi Botrytis. Bee vectoring could be used to effectively deliver anti-fungal products exactly where the fungi thrive. It is this type of possibility which we hope to explore."

– Dr. Roselyne Labbé, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (current project lead)

Moving forward, field trials are underway to move the technology outside the greenhouse and into open fields. To date, field trails on sunflower and apples crops have shown promising results.

Key discoveries (benefits)

  • Bee "vectoring" technology was developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in partnership with the University of Guelph.
  • Bees act as tiny delivery vehicles, distributing biological control agents exactly where they are most effective while the bees are not harmed by the process.
  • Bee "vectoring" is eco-friendly and saves farmers money because only minute amounts of biological control agents are used.
  • Bee "vectoring" technology has been commercialized and is making a positive difference for farmers in Canada and the United States. Field trials outside the greenhouse are currently underway.

Photo gallery

A honeybee is shown at the exit of a beehive.
A bee exits its greenhouse hive picking up the biological control agent that it will deliver to flowers, fruits and leaves

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