Beekeeper breeds bees fit for Vancouver Island life

As B.C.’s agricultural industry struggles with bee shortages from the harsh winter, a local beekeeper is hoping to concoct the perfect bee for life on Vancouver Island.

The tens of thousands of imported bees in B.C. lack resistance to local diseases, says Vancouver beekeeper

Master beekeeper Iain Glass is looking to breed bees with a resistance to the Varroa mite. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As B.C.'s agricultural industry struggles with bee shortages from the harsh winter, a local beekeeper is hoping to concoct the perfect bee for life on Vancouver Island.

Iain Glass is undertaking a three-year project with local beekeepers to selectively breed bees with traits suited for the West Coast.

The province's chronic bee shortage has forced beekeepers to import tens of thousands of bees from as far off as California, Hawaii and New Zealand.

"The problem with these imported bees is that they don't have local resistance at all," Glass said on CBC's On The Island.

"They're coming into an area that they are unfamiliar with as far as the disease of the pathogens."

Top bee traits

Glass is primarily eyeing the bee's resistance to its main nemesis, the Varroa mite. The parasitic mite is "like a drug injection as far as the viruses it carries," he said.

Also of concern is the bee's hygienic behaviour. That's its ability to remove dead or diseased larvae from the hive's brood comb, the beeswax structure where the queen bee lays eggs. 

"You can think of it as keeping a very clean house," Glass said.

That behaviour is only present in about 10 per cent of bees, he said.

Without it, destructive diseases such as American foulbrood spread, which can often only be remedied by torching the hive.

To test for the behaviour, beekeepers freeze a small part of the honeycomb with liquid nitrogen and place it back in the hive.

The bee is considered hygienic if it removes 95 per cent of the frozen chunk within a day.

Glass is also looking for bees with grooming behaviours. For instance, if there's a mite on one bee, another bee might chomp on the mite's leg and kill it.

Freezing a chunk of the hive with liquid nitrogen. (Iain Glass/Supplied)

Chronic shortage

Vancouver Island has chronically struggled with its bee population, with beekeepers reporting losses as high as 90 per cent in some years.

The shortage has an adverse effect on B.C.'s economy. A 2016 report, for instance, found that blueberries could add up to $20 million more to the economy if they were fully pollinated.

"The problem is very serious," Glass said.

Glass said the work he's pursuing has proven successful in research facilities, but he'll need buy-in from local beekeepers.

"This has to start at a grassroots level and build the appropriate momentum."  


With files from CBC's On The Island