In research laboratories, commercial apiaries and even urban bee yards scientists and beekeepers have been trying to beat back the advance of some serious diseases and pests that threaten the honey bee. This isn’t some “rescue society” attempt to prevent the mistreatment of an insect, but rather a long view toward trying to save humanity. I know that sounds grandiose, but when you consider that honey bees are the world’s major pollinators and that between 25 and 35 per cent of the world’s commercial food crops are pollinated by the bee, it’s frightening to think what would happen if the bees all die. That’s not just some fanciful science fiction theory. There’s been lots of evidence in the last five years that the honey bee, apis mellifera, is in decline because of a confusing and alarming array of problems. The worldwide spread of the parasitic mite Varroa Destructor and the growing resistance of other diseases like Nosema and American Foul Brood to standard antibiotics are responsible for a significant decline in bee colonies. Varroa alone is blamed for the continental wipeout of feral bee colonies.
Scientists and beekeepers have risen to the challenge, and here in B.C. some of the best work in the world is being done to find ways to combat — or live with — Varroa and other diseases. One of those is Leonard Foster, a molecular biologist at UBC whose lab is doing two breakthrough studies. One is looking at how to use genetic markers in bees to identify those which can more effectively fight off varroa and other diseases. The other is the sequencing of a “vaccine” using the honey bee’s RNA (similar to human DNA but not as complex) to trigger a response when the presence of diseases is detected.
- Leonard Foster