Agricultural startup BVT bets on bees to protect crops

A Canadian company based in Mississauga, Ont., is using bumblebees to protect strawberry crops from a deadly mould by having them apply a natural fungicide it developed during the pollination process - a method it says could help cut down on the use of chemical pesticides.

Bee Vectoring Technology is using bumblebees to apply natural fungicide to crops threatened by botrytis fungus

A bumblebee lands on a strawberry plant at Organics Family Farm in Markham, Ont. The farm is part of a research study testing a biological fungicide that is delivered by bees. (CBC News)

On a perfect sunny afternoon in late May at Organics Family Farm in Markham, Ont., David Passafiume is carefully dotting his newly planted strawberry field with eight man-made bumblebee hives.

The hives are constructed out of lightweight corrugated plastic, and inside each hive is a colony of bees that, over the next few weeks, will work non-stop to help protect his crop from a grey mould called botrytis while at the same time keeping his strawberries certified organic. (In order to remain certified, the farm can't use chemical fungicides.)

Just a few botrytis spores are enough to wipe out an entire field of strawberries if left untreated.​

Protective powder

The hives are part of a research study being conducted by Bee Vectoring Technology, or BVT, a startup biotechnology company based in Mississauga, Ont. 

They are placed in the field, and as the bumblebees exit the hive to pollinate flowers, they must walk through a small tray of grey powder that sticks to their legs. When they land on a flower, some of the powder falls off.

The powder is a proprietary compound produced by BVT that contains a fungus the company says is safe for humans, animals and the bees. When it's deposited by the bumblebee onto the strawberry plants, it blocks the botrytis fungus that will spoil the fruit.

The upside to using bees to treat plants is that this method uses no water, requires no heavy machinery and delivers the protective compound directly to the fruit with very little waste, says Ashish Malik, CEO of BVT.

"It's a very sustainable delivery system," said Malik.

The use of the bumblebees and the fungicide developed by Bee Vectoring Technology allows the farm to keep its organic certification, which prohibits the use of chemical pesticides. (CBC News )

In the field, you can observe just how efficient a bee can be as it moves from flower to flower.  A single bumblebee hive of 300 bees can come into contact with approximately 10 million flowers over the bloom period.

Still work to be done

Although the idea of using bees to deliver biological pesticides to plants has been around for about 20 years and agricultural researchers have been running small-scale experiments during that time, BVT has only recently tested it in the field in Europe and North America.

In mid-2016, BVT's microbe was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use in field tests, and it's expected to be approved for general use in early 2018.

As the bumblebees exit the research hives, they are forced to wade through a powder that attaches to their feet and is then deposited onto the strawberry plants when the bees land on them. (CBC News)

But in Canada, the road to full government approval by Health Canada is longer and more demanding. Not only does BVT have to prove its product is safe — for bees, people and the environment — it also must prove that it is an effective fungus control and delivery system.

Keeping an eye on all this is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The federal department says it is intrigued by this technology but admits there is still a lot of work to be done.

"In general, the technology is really in its infancy, but it has an enormous potential," said Roselyne Labbé, a research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 

Much of the work now will be focused on finding the right compounds to control the specific pests that target various crops.

Even Malik admits that traditional methods of spraying crops will likely still continue, but he says bees will be another useful tool in a farmer's tool kit.

Bees might benefit, too

Like at many tech startups, there is a sense of excitement at BVT. The initial trials the company has conducted have shown positive results. Farmers using BVT's system and researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada feel there is merit to the idea, but more testing and refining of the technology is needed before it can be brought to market.

Beyond what's being tested in the field currently, there is potential for various species of bees to be used to deliver other useful compounds.

The powder BVT has developed includes a fungus that has the ability to block another type of fungus known as botrytis, which spoils the strawberry fruit. (CBC News)

Another potential area of study is whether or not BVT's precise delivery of biological pesticides could be beneficial to the bees themselves.  

Spraying for pests with traditional neonicotinoid products and methods has been shown to be harmful to be bees and other insects and is thought by some to possibly contribute to what is known as "colony collapse disorder," where the majority of bees leave the hive and eventually die off.

By using bees to deliver lower levels of pesticides in a more targeted way, farmers may get the protection they need for their crops while at the same time keeping excess amounts of chemical pesticides out of the environment.

Pesticide use is an issue that has been top of mind for Canadians, at least according to one recent survey.

Expansion could be next

Malik has been with BVT less than a year but sees "tremendous potential" in the company's technology.

He hopes to expand outside North America and break into big markets in Latin America and Asia. To do that, BVT may have to partner with a much larger multinational company to help scale up.

Ashish Malik, CEO of BVT, says the bee delivery system may never replace the traditional method of applying pesticides but could be another useful tool in a farmer's tool kit. (CBC News )

At the farm, Passafiume's daughter, Brittany, takes a break from hand weeding the strawberry field that can't be sprayed with traditional fungicides if the farm is to retain its organic certification. As someone who spends long hours working in the fields, she says she thought BVT's system seemed like a "healthy alternative" to chemical pesticides. 

The Passafiumes have been using it for three years now. 

"It's been incredibly successful," she said.


Shawn Benjamin

Field Producer

Shawn Benjamin lives in Toronto. He has worked at the CBC for just over 15 years. Currently, he is a field producer working in the Business Unit of CBC News.


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