British Columbia

Only the strong survived: resilient bees to pass strong genes onto next generation

Last year's fire season was hard on honey bees, but for those that survived, one beekeeper wants to pass on their strong genes via artificial insemination.

With honey bee populations declining across the globe, strong genes and innovative approaches are valuable

After losing about 80 per cent of her colony in Soda Creek, B.C., last season, the few bees that survived hold strong genes. (Sandra Hanson Design)

Last year's fire season was hard on honey bees, but for those that survived, one beekeeper wants to pass on their strong genes via artificial insemination.

Diane Dunaway, an apiary inspector and beekeeper at Soda Creek's Bee Happy Honey, north of Williams Lake, said last year was the first time in 20 years that she was without a surplus of honey.

The bees refused to fly in the heavily smoky conditions so they ate through a portion of their food supply leaving the colonies short on nutrients for winter, she said.

Dunaway estimates she suffered about an 80 per cent loss of her colony last year, but the honey bees that survived are a hardy bunch with genes that are valuable to future generations.

Diane Dunaway, an apiary inspector and beekeeper at Soda Creek's Bee Happy Honey, has some strong bees left over from last year's hard, smoky season. (Sandra Hanson Design)

She's considering sending some of the surviving male bees, known as drones, from her hives to Vancouver Island breeder Iain Glass, who has been working with local beekeepers to selectively breed bees with traits suited for the West Coast.

"After the fruit fly, honeybees are the second most researched insect in the entire world," Dunaway said.

"They're so important for pollination in our food supply that they are appreciated and we're always uncovering new and interesting information about them."

The practice of artificial insemination isn't very common among breeders, but is helpful for researchers looking to track and maintain a specific characteristic from a hive, according to BC Bee Breeders Association president Liz Huxter.

Diane Dunaway's bees are doing much better this year as conditions are less smoky in the Soda Creek area. (Diane Dunaway/Facebook)

Queens breed with anywhere from five to 20 drones leaving a lot of room for variation, she said, so breeders usually use a technique called isolated mating.

They bring a hive of drones with valuable traits, and a batch of queens ready to mate, out to a remote area where no other bees are kept.

"They all go to the singles bar, you might say, and just hang out and wait  for the virgins to come in and then they mate," Huxter said.

B.C. is home to roughly 450 species of bees, Dunaway said, and as numbers continue to decline due to pests and diseases, innovation is important.

Huxter said people can also help support the bee population by planting flowering trees in their yards.

"Even though your yard might be quite small, the… space and the number of flowers that a tree has versus a small patch of garden is huge," she said.

Dunaway said her outlook is bright for seasons to come because old burn sites often become meadows, which are fantastic for nourishing honey bees.

To hear the full interview listen to media below:

With files from Radio West

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