Bees could play a role in integrated pest management (IPM) of oilseed rape by distributing fungicides for sclerotinia control, according to Canadian-based company Bee Vectoring Technology (BVT) CEO Michael Collinson.
Commercially-bred bumblebees leave their hive via a specially designed tray filled with a naturally occurring fungus with plant protection properties in powder form.
When the bees land on flowers to pollinate them, they leave behind a sprinkling of the fungus which then colonises the plant before the pathogen takes over.
This raises the plant’s own protection mechanisms which helps build resistance to sclerotinia.
Mr Collinson says because bees deliver the biocontrol straight to where it is needed, less fungicide is wasted.
The system is already being used in Canada in oilseed rape (canola) and sunflower crops. Company trials have shown an increase in yield and up to 27 per cent increase in germination in sunflowers.
Other crops which can be protected using BVT’s system include tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and almonds.
The company chose bumblebees over honeybees for a number of reasons; they are fairly easy to rear commercially and are used in almost all commercial greenhouses as pollinators. They are also bigger and can carry more of the powder, they don’t need special training to handle, fly in colder temperatures and are less aggressive.
BVT is working to combine its dispensing system with biological controls made by other companies. Tests are underway with products which can control certain insect pests such as aphids, moths and worms.
“Using bees to distribute fungicide could make an important contribution to an IPM strategy in the future,” says Mr Collinson.
There are concerns about the long-term impact of pesticides on bees, which are still being explored.
Lucy Rothstein, CEO of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, says: “From a conservation perspective, we would urge that new technologies are properly tested and deployed in the right way to make sure they do not put any added pressure on wild or managed bees which are already struggling with the pressures of habitat loss, climate change, diseases and pesticide exposure.”
Mr Collinson agrees, pointing out the importance of bumblebees to the business.
He says: “BVT’s first priority is to ensure excellent bee health and would avoid formulating harmful products with our carriers.”