Saving our honeybees with their own DNA: UBC research

Honeybee colonies around the world are collapsing and it’s been going on for about a decade.

It’s one of the biggest crises facing the world’s agriculture sector and University of British Columbia scientists are hoping to use an old method to solve this new problem.

The number one cause is a parasite known as the Varroa mite. Not only do these little blood suckers drain bees of their energy and cause mutations and death in larvae, they spread disease throughout the hives. Up to now the only line of defence has been the use of pesticides.

But there are draw backs–usually what is deadly to the mite is also toxic to the bees and then there is the problem of resistance. It doesn’t take the mites, or the viruses they carry, very long to become immune to the chemicals.

At UBC, Dr. Leonard Foster in the Department of Biochemistry has been working on a 21st-century solution over the last 11 years. His work involves using the honeybees’ own DNA to help them survive.

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Dr. Leonard Foster is using science to give natural selection a helping hand. Linda Aylesworth/Global News

“We are trying to develop tools to allow us to look at natural variations that exist in the bee world and from that, pick out the bees that seem to be strongest in traits that we value most, which might be disease resistance or ability to survive the Canadian winter.”

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Once the genes and proteins responsible for those beneficial traits are identified, they would selectively breed them into colonies.

Dr. Foster emphasizes that this is not genetic modification because they would only use genes that naturally occur in some honeybees. In effect, they would be giving natural selection a helping hand.

One trait they have already identified is a type of “hygienic” gene. Bees that have it can sense when larvae in the hive are under attack by mites. They then act by removing the infected larvae from the population.

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“By removing the dead or dying larvae quickly, you are removing disease from the colony and generally it keeps the level of disease down.”

The four-year project, which is funded by Genome Canada and Genome BC, is among the most advanced of its kind in the world. Researchers hope to identify 12 traits in the first three years, then begin testing their effectiveness in bee colonies soon after.

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