Scientists to Breed Genetically Modified Bees: Here's Why


Canadian scientists are set to breed honeybees to make them resistant to disease and harsh winter conditions with a $7.3 million budget. The move is poised to bring economic benefits to the country, particularly to food security.

Currently developed genomic tools at the University of British Columbia will enable breeding of made-for-Canada-honeybee that can resist pests and disease - something that will greatly accelerate selective breeding and slash years or decades off the process.

Canadian honeybee colonies and others around the world are facing massive die-offs in recent times, partly due to the proliferation of varroa mites and the diseases they transmit.

Around one in four honeybees also yield to the Canadian cold, pushing beekeepers to import from the United States. This increases the likelihood of bringing in diseases as well as Africanized "killer" bees.

"It is very clear that we have to develop innovative solutions for bee health because bee declines will have serious consequences for Canada's economy and food security, warned research lead Amro Zayed of York University.

The UBC team will analyze the genetic makeup of 1,000 bee colonies and will look for and breed 12 traits to help honeybees survive in the Canadian environment - and therefore be beneficial to the economy. In addition, it will also create a test to identify those with Africanized genes since bee importation isn't always preventable.

"We want to develop a molecular diagnostic for the signatures of different traits such as disease resistance and honey production so beekeepers can use that to guide their selective breeding programs," explained molecular biologist and co-study lead Leonard Foster.

The research is believed to provide economic gains of $8 to $15 million annually, particularly to beekeepers and the food and agricultural industries.

Of the over 700 native Canadian species, bees are the most common pollinator, helping create a diverse plant population. Beekeepers produce retail items such as honey and beeswax, as well as provide honeybees to farmers to ensure enough crop pollination.

In Ontario, for instance, 100,000 honeybee colonies are operated, generating about $897 million of the almost $7 billion agricultural crop sales of the province every year - around 13 percent of total annual crop value.

According to Genome British Columbia, which partly funds the genomic project, the research will make a difference to British Columbia's agricultural community.

"Moving this research from laboratory to hive, with the help of Canada's bee breeders, is a key goal. Within a year of completion we hope healthier bees will be leading honey bee colonies," said Genome BC president and CEO Alan Winter.

Photo: Paul Rollings | Flickr

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