The survival of the struggling bee population could soon be doubly important to agriculture.

While bees pollinate crops, Canadian researchers have found they can also be used to control pest insects and manage disease by dropping off pest control agents while they work.

“We thought we can give added value to the bees by having them deliver microbial control agents,” said Les Shipp, a federal senior research scientist based in Harrow, Ont., outside Windsor.

Shipp found that bees leaving their hives could be forced to walk through a tray of organic pest controls. The pest control sticks to the bee's legs and hair. Through pollination, the bees then deliver a fungus, bacterium or virus to its intended destination.

Both bumblebees and honeybees have successfully distributed the fungus Beauveria bassiana to greenhouse sweet peppers and field canola. The fungus kills pests like whiteflies, aphids and Lygus.

According to Shipp, the Beauveria bassiana spores attach to the body of the pest, germinate and penetrate the body of the insect, eventually killing them.

Bee Tray

Bees are forced to walk through a tray of organic pesticide when they leave the hive. (Courtesy of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

“We’ve been able to use these to control pest and fungal diseases. We’re able to reduce some diseases by 80 per cent,” Shipp said.

The method is called “bee vectoring.” Research was initiated at the University of Guelph years ago and continued in Harrow.

Bee vectoring of Beauveria bassiana received government approval in early 2013. Interest in the method is growing.

'Excitement' among greenhouse owners

Leanne Wilson, science co-ordinator for the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, said bee vectoring was emphasized at the Canadian Greenhouse Conference in Niagara Falls earlier this month.

"There was a lot of excitement about it. I think it’s definitely a growing option," Wilson said.

She said greenhouse operators currently spray their peppers for pests. Bees already pollinate the greenhouse crops, so giving them double duty would save operators time and money..

"For larger greenhouses of, say, 50 acres, that’s a lot of area to cover [with spray]," Wilson said.

Another advantage is that the bees deliver the pest control directly to the flower Sprays on the other hand cover the entire plant, from flower to leaf to stem.

According to the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the benefits of vectoring biological insecticides with bees include:

  • Use of reduced-risk pest control products to control insects and diseases that are potentially devastating to greenhouse crops.
  • Considerable savings in labour costs for greenhouse operators.
  • Targeting of very small volumes of product precisely to where it is needed, so less product is used.
  • Environment benefits, as the bio pesticide replaces older chemical pesticides.

'Hope it reduces spray'

“They’re out there working seven days a week. You’re getting continuous introduction of control agents,” Shipp said. “If you sprayed, you’re only spraying at one point in time, but the bees are there constantly delivering this.

“I wouldn’t look at it as a silver bullet. It’s another tool to control pests and diseases. We hope it drastically reduces sprays.”

The cutting-edge research led to the creation Bee Vectoring Technology in Brampton, Ont. According to Bloomberg, Bee Vectoring Technology was purchased last month by CT Developers, a publicly traded company on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Bee Vectoring Technology is actively working across Canada to produce and commercialize the new pest management technologies.

A call to Bee Vectoring Technology wasn’t immediately returned.

Shipp said bee vectoring can be used on indoor and outdoor crops, including strawberries, sunflowers, blueberries, canola, peppers and tomatoes.

"There's work being done now on outdoor crops, and the potential there is huge,” Shipp said.