World quest to bar-code pollinator species has experts swarming York

There’s a certain buzz at York University this week, wrote the Toronto Star and The Canadian Press May 15. International bee experts have converged on Toronto to develop a plan to catalogue all species of the insect across the planet.

According to Laurence Packer, biology professor in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering who’s leading the group’s efforts, precisely 19,231 different kinds of bees have been identified. But he thinks there might be another 5,000 or more species out there waiting. Sadly, he said, some will likely become extinct before researchers can catch them, stick a pin through their bellies and test their DNA.

The bee gang clustering at York is trying to launch a DNA bar-coding campaign to more easily track all the bees in the world. Once their DNA is mapped, the little critters would carry a unique identifier that scientists could access from anywhere in the world.

“The bar-code in a grocery store tells you that you’re getting Cadbury’s milk chocolate rather than some other company’s,” Packer said. “The bar-code on a specimen tells you that this is an important pollinator for blueberries, rather than an important pollinator for apples or canola.”

The group is hoping to get funding of $700,000 to complete the task.

It’s possible to get DNA from bee specimens that have been pinned to a board for up to 20 years, said Packer, 53, who started collecting bugs as a child in England and is now Canada’s foremost bee expert. “My dad made sure I wasn’t scared of insects and I guess I overreacted,” he said. “Now I’m the wild bee guy in Canada.”

He said giving each species a name – and a bar-code – would help those developing the technology to use wild bees for specific pollination tasks, especially since so many bees look alike.

“There are places on the planet where people aren’t getting enough to eat as a result of insufficient pollination of the crops that they grow,” Packer said. “In these places, the knowledge about what bees do is abysmal. There are places where farmers think bees that visit their crop are damaging it, rather than actually making the crop possible in the first place.”

Packer said concern is growing over the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder, where the worker bees abruptly leave a colony and don’t return. “The bees disappear from the hives, especially over winter…and so the colony dies," Packer explained.

  • Packer said bees are important to understand and monitor because of their prominence in our food chain, wrote CBC News online May 14. “About one-third of the food we eat has been pollinated either directly or indirectly by bees,” said Parker. “Even if you only ate beef, cattle often forage alfalfa in the winter, and alfalfa is pollinated by bees.” They are also, he said, an excellent indicator of the state of the environment, both on a global scale and to regions in particular. It’s a worrisome thought, given that honeybee populations have been declining, particularly in North America, in the past few years.

Packer says part of the problem is that bees are uniquely vulnerable to extinction because of a genetic quirk they share with wasps that turns some females sterile. Making the task a mammoth enterprise is the comprehensive nature of the effort, requiring participation of regions such as Central Africa or war-torn nations such as Afghanistan where access to samples is difficult, he said.

The insects themselves are also elusive, said Packer. “Many species are known only from their male or female specimens and, until we see them mating, we won’t know for sure if they are the same species. Also, some species appear identical but have different DNA.“So there is a fair bit of chaos,” he said. “We’re looking to create some real order.”

On air

  • Richard Weisman, social science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, spoke about Canada’s history of wrongs, such as the Komagata Maru incident, and current politicians’ efforts to apologize for them, on CBC Radio May 14.
  • Shana Calixte, adjunct professor in York’s School of Women’s Studies, spoke about feminist hip hop music, on CBC Radio May 14.
  • Jim Whiteway, professor in York’s Department of Space Engineering, Faculty of Science & Engienering, spoke about the Mars Phoenix project on CTV News (Atlantic) May 14.
  • Don Dippo, associate dean, undergraduate programs and practicum, in York’s Faculty of Education, took part in a panel discussion about the history of Ontario education, on TVO’s “The Agenda” May 14.