Scientists set to start $10M project to create health diagnosis tool for bees

honey bee on a daisy
honey bee on a daisy

When Canada’s honey bees are thriving, they produce honey and pollinate valuable crops like blueberries, apples and hybrid canola seeds.

But the health of honey bees is declining, with more than a quarter of honey bee colonies dying each winter. These deaths have left beekeepers and government regulators struggling to find ways to quickly diagnose, manage and improve bee health.

Amro Zayed
Amro Zayed

The solution could be a new bee health diagnosis tool being created as part of a research project led by bee genomics expert Amro Zayed of York University, along with Professor Leonard Foster of the University of British Columbia. On Oct. 1, they will launch a $10-million project to develop a new health assessment and diagnosis platform, supported by Ontario Genomics and Genome Canada.

“We need to think of innovative solutions to fix the bee health crisis. The current tools are just not cutting it,” said Zayed, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, and a York Research Chair.

Honey bees produce 90 million pounds of honey each year and are needed to pollinate some of Canada’s most lucrative crops. Their pollination services are valued at $5.5 billion per year in Canada alone.

The causes of bee decline are complex, variable and difficult to identify. But beekeepers and government regulators need to rapidly identify the stressors impacting specific populations before they can make changes to improve bee health. Currently, the industry uses post-mortem analysis to test for the presence of a few known pathogens or toxins in dead colonies. These tests are often expensive, time consuming and provide an incomplete picture of the stressors affecting bee health.

The research team is looking to modernize the industry by delivering a tool to quickly assess bee health in living colonies that would allow loss-mitigating strategies to be implemented.

“You can identify the stressors affecting a colony, not by searching for the stressor itself, but by looking for specific signatures of stress in the bee – what we call biomarkers,” explained Zayed. “The biomarker approach has a lot of potential for quickly screening stressors affecting bees before colonies decline.”

The researchers will use genomic tools to measure stressor-induced changes in bees to identify biomarkers for specific stressors. By the end of the project, the researchers envision a system where beekeepers can send their samples for biomarker testing and receive a report with both a health assessment and information on the most effective management strategies, which can then be applied in the field to improve the health of their colonies.

The research team comprises 22 researchers from across Canada, including ones from Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the University of Manitoba, the University of Guelph and the University of Laval. The project is funded through Genome Canada’s Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition: Genomics Solutions for Agriculture, Agri-food, Fisheries and Aquaculture. Funding partners include Genome Canada, AAFC, Genome British Columbia and Genome Quebec.