How DNA could be key to stopping the dangerous decline of Canada's bee colonies

As honey bee colonies across Canada continue to die off at alarming rates, scientists at York University believe that solutions to the problem could be hiding in the insects' DNA.

In October, the university is launching a breakthrough project to help beekeepers diagnose their ailing colonies. 

The goal is to fight back against a potential population decline that could devastate both the environment and Canada's agriculture industries.

"We have a bee health crisis and we don't really know how to improve it," said Amro Zayed, an associate professor at York University and co-lead on the project.

Researchers estimate that Canada's honey bees pollinate around $5.5 billion worth of crops every year, ranging from fruits and vegetables to canola seeds. They also produce 90 million pounds of honey annually.

But today, around 25 per cent of all honey bee colonies die each winter, around twice the rate that experts consider sustainable.

What's more, the worsening colony deaths often mystify beekeepers, who can only explain symptoms of the decline, and not the root causes behind the deaths.

"When colonies die, often we're kind of guessing at why they died," Zayed told CBC Toronto.

DNA could unlock critical 'biomarkers'

Zayed and his team, which also includes experts at the University of British Columbia, say explanations for colony deaths could be found by examining the DNA of specific bee populations.

Examining that data could yield what genomics experts call "biomarkers," signs of stress encoded in the honey bee genome that are effectively switched on or off by environmental factors.

Andy Duback/The Associated Press

To test for those indicators, the new project will create a system that allows beekeepers to send live worker bees to diagnostics centres, which will analyze the bees for clues embedded in their DNA.

The $10 million project begins in October and is expected to be complete by 2023. A coalition of genomics and conservation organizations are funding the project.

Scientists say offering a diagnostic service to beekeepers across the country is key to the project's success, since there are a wide range of factors believed to be killing off Canada's bees.

"The stressors that are killing a honey bee colony near corn in Ontario are going to be different from the stressors affecting a colony that's pollinating blueberries in B.C.," Zayed explained.

The current diagnosis system involves post-mortem analysis if dead colonies, which experts call expensive, slow and incomplete.

By diagnosing a living colony's health problems, the project creators say beekeepers will soon be able to proactively take action before their colonies die off.

"Ideally that will prevent the large colony mortality that Canadian beekeepers experience," Zayed said.

Although one in four colonies die every year, Zayed said the overall number of bees is not yet in decline, since beekeepers can create new colonies by splitting the surviving ones and importing new queen bees to maintain the hive.

York University

Wild bees also at risk

While honey bee health is in decline, wild bee populations may be facing an even more uncertain future, in part because those species are not tightly managed like their crop-pollinating cousins.

"They're much more threatened than honey bees are," said Annemarie Baynton, a program manager at the city of Toronto's environment and energy office. "Once they're lost they can't be replaced."

Toronto is home to some 360 species of wild bees, which are increasingly threatened by habitat loss.

"As cities, we're constantly developing, we're paving over green space, we're building over green space, so we're losing the natural habitat," Bayonton said.

To combat those losses, the city launched a new program this year called PollinateTO, which is set to build 37 new pollinator gardens at a cost of up to $5,000 per project.

The gardens are scheduled to be planted in the spring, and the city is aiming to build 100 new bee-friendly spaces after the next round of grants are handed out.