Bee Vectoring: Pollination and Crop Protection
Article By: Cate Pedersen
Lately, the buzz has been all about the bees—and with good reason. Climate change and pesticide use has been blamed for the decline of bee populations around the world. Scientists are in agreement across the board that the bee decline will have devastating effects on global food production. Bees are crucial to the pollination of fruits and vegetables—and without these food crops, humankind might go into a decline right alongside the bees.
News reports and statements from industry experts in the US inform us that up to 40 percent of bee colonies have experienced Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where disoriented bees cannot locate their hive, or die from an overdose of pesticide.
But it is also true that for now, and into the foreseeable future, agriculture depends on the use of crop and pest controls. Farmers cannot grow enough food for the world’s population without ways to control pests, fungus, diseases and invasive plants. Efforts must continue and methods improve to ensure the use of chemicals has the least impact on the environment and our bee community.
Commercial distributors of pesticides acknowledge that 70 percent of the top 100 crops in the world rely entirely on pollinators to fertilize while they feed. They are working with beekeeping associations to find ways to use chemicals responsibly so farmers can be confident that their crops will thrive as will the pollinators. At a recent forum on pesticides and pollinators in Kelowna, BC, the following statement was shared: “Sustainable agriculture needs efficient pollination services and responsible pesticide use.”
A New Approach to Crop Control
This is where companies like Bee Vectoring Technologies can step in to combine the two seemingly opposing themes of crop control and pollination. In their brand new, 7,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in Mississauga, Ontario, a world-class team of scientists and experts have worked to create an organic crop control and delivery system like no other. BVT also recruited a diminutive agent to turn the tables on the crop crisis and deliver essential doses of controls to crops as they go about their business. The agent—the humble bumblebee.
Michael Collinson, CEO of Bee Vectoring Technologies, explains that the company has intellectual property rights and patents pending on three principal issues: a delivery system in the form of a small tray, the powder—which is the vectorite—and a bio control which they call CR7.
The inoculum dispenser tray system fits snuggly into commercial bumblebee hives. The bees walk through the tray which is filled with the vectorite powder on their way out of the hive. Collinson explains, “The powder is made up of different compounds to either keep it dry or make it fluffy or create a naturally occurring static charge to help it stick to the bee’s legs. A commercially reared bumblebee hive will house 200-300 bees and they will make 1,000 or more trips a day so the powder must be refilled every few days.”
This powder can be combined with various crop and pest control agents that the bees pick up on their legs and deposit on each flower they visit. They effectively disperse pollen and at the same time inoculate each plant against targeted pests and disease. The bees are not hurt by this process, and BVT is the first to show concern for the bees’ welfare, as the company depends on them for their continued success.
A Biological Battle
BVT’s website describes the benefits of one of their products which can be added to the vectorite—an organic strain of beneficial fungus able to naturally control other fungal pathogens (BVT-CR7): “Berries developing from BVT-CR7 treated flowers have natural built-in protection against diseases and consequently last longer and have a longer shelf life. This gives growers additional valuable time to get the fruit to market and consumers more time to enjoy the pesticide-free or organic fruit.”
Collinson further explains that the fungus is naturally occurring and most bees are probably already carrying it. “This is not a product that hurts bees. The fungus does not actually kill anything. It occupies the space where other diseases would enter, and consequently blocks the disease.”
The vectorite powder can be tailored for a variety of applications. “We can add another company’s bio-controls into our product. Aphids, for instance, would be controlled by adding a substance which deters the insects from laying eggs on the fruit,” Collinson says.
One pathogenic fungus BVT combats is Botrytis which causes a fast-growing gray mold (blight) affecting a wide variety of plants in the field as well as in greenhouses. “We can also block the formation of Sclerotinia, often found on blueberries, canola, sunflowers and other crops.”
BVT Bumblebee exiting the hive.
The Water Factor
The company’s delivery system is revolutionary in that it does not rely on water to distribute product, but targets each flowering plant. “Our system is designed to reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides where it can. The natural portal to the plant is through the petal—that is how nature designed it. When you have bees depositing product directly to the bloom you have a stronger chance of controlling diseases and pathogens. Because we can take the product directly to where it’s required, there is less waste; farmers aren’t spraying hundreds of acres unnecessarily; and the product is not sprayed onto leaves, or into waterways around the fields,” says Collinson.
“The potential for this product is substantial all around the world, and if we take just the top 20 crops in the top 20 countries, there’s over 5.5 million hectares of high value crops which can be treated—things like apples, strawberries, tomatoes, pears, canola, sunflowers and almonds.”
“In places like India where up to 66 percent of the population farms the land, but farm sizes are smaller, a system like ours would allow them to get controls on their product with just a hive or two. It would be a lot more efficient than using the equipment they might be using now,” Collinson describes. “And places like California where they have significant drought issues could save the valuable resource by using bees instead of water to distribute controls.”
Tests and Trials
Collinson elaborates that the company is currently conducting trials and is open to working with farmers and greenhouse operators who are interested in demonstrations or participating in trials. “We are excited to see the results. Our experience in blueberries, for example, is that we were able to control pre-bloom where farmers might lose a portion of their crop. We had instances where there was an increase of yield and the berries remained disease free. Though we cannot guarantee the results will be the same, we have seen more than 25 percent and even up to 50 percent increase in yield.”
“In most cases we have had extraordinarily good reception for our system and I would say 95 percent of the people who talk to us are happy about it. There are obviously some people concerned about the bees, but we believe this process will actually help bees because it uses a lot less pesticides, and we use commercially reared bumblebees. We could use honey bees but we elected at this time to use bumblebees. It might even be possible in the future to reverse the process and use the tray to dispense medication in the hive and actually treat the bees for diseases they may have,” Collinson muses, exploring potential applications for the BVT apparatus.
It will be interesting to follow companies like BVT and others who are on the forefront of agriculture technology and innovation. The future certainly looks promising. Growers and consumers are asking for more transparency and environmentally friendly options when it comes to growing food; and there a few intrepid innovators working away, as busy as bees, providing answers.