Strengthening Honeybees through Genomics

November 5, 2015 – There is no field in biomedicine that appears to be advancing more rapidly than genomics. Mapping our DNA and that of the planet’s many species is creating new bodies of knowledge that researchers are turning into advances in agriculture, bio-pharmaceuticals, animal sciences and medicine. We are not only finding ways to cure human diseases through gene targeted therapies, but we are also looking at ways to help other species deal with disease and population decline challenges.

One of these is honeybees. The role honeybees play on this planet is enormous. Bees pollinate most of what feeds humans as well as our farming livestock. And bees have been decimated by colony collapse disorder and winter die offs. In Canada alone 25% of domesticated bee colonies die every winter. That’s why Genome Canada through its provincial partners in British Columbia and Ontario is funding genomic research to improve the health of bee colonies and their survival rates.


Canadian honeybees

Today Canada imports honeybee populations from the United States every year to offset the die offs that occur in domestic bee colonies. Researchers at York University in Toronto, and University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, are studying the genetics of bees to predict colony behaviour. The goal to improve upon nature by manipulating the bee genome.

For the $7.3 million Canadian that Genome Canada is giving the researchers it expects to get a return of between $8 and $150 million per year in economic benefits within the agri-food industry. Honeybees in Canada produce 34 million kilograms (75 million pounds) of honey annually. Their pollination activities contribute $4.6 billion to Canada’s economy every year.

An additional benefit from research on the honeybee genome, the scientists hope to develop a test to detect African killer bee genetics in any imported bee population. This is important because of the significant import of American bees into the country and the growing presence of Africanized bees in the United States. The map below from 2011 illustrates the significant spread of these bees throughout the American South. Their march northward is measured in hundreds of kilometers per year. With climate change the threat will increase and as long as Canada continues to import bees identifying African genetic traits in bee populations will be very important for apiarists and farmers.


U.S. African killer bees range


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...