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Sniffer bees help hives survive

Lorraine Graves   May-08-2018

Leonard Foster works at UBC to breed sniffer bees with the help of Genome BC.

Photo by Chung Chow

Seafair resident Leonard Foster loves bees and keeps them too.

For his bachelor’s degree, he studied under world-renowned bee expert Dr. Mark Winston at Simon Fraser University.



Foster is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at University of British Columbia’s Michael Smith Laboratories, and with the support of Genome BC and Genome Canada, he works to prevent bee deaths.

He uses molecular genetics in the lab and some fancy bee breeding techniques in the field, to produce “sniffer bees, like sniffer dogs for infection,” he said.

“When an adult bee is able to smell that a developing young bee is infected or infested and remove it from a colony, the pupae and larvae are removed before they hatch.”

The Varroa mite, which looks like a miniscule brown dot on a white baby bee—the larvae and pupae that are supposed to grow into adult bees—has now reached British Columbia.

While visiting hives one warm day in spring, the first thing Foster sees is dead bees on the landing pad outside the box.

“They should be flying around on a day like this,” he says.

Foster thwaps the sides of the dormant hive with a knowing hand, to wake up the bees. Nothing. He opens the lid and pries a frame apart with a practiced move, lifts it out and examines it. Foster sees the hive is not dormant. It is dead. The mite has done its worst. It has wiped out the entire colony. The abandoned honey glistens, fermenting in the hive.

To prevent colony death, Foster uses molecular detection techniques, funded by Genome BC and Genome Canada at his UBC lab to discern which bees have the specific smell detectors to find each mite-infected larva.

“I’ve looked at antenna of bees to identify different receptors for odors (pheromones). (These detectors for different scents) are impossible to tell apart visually so we have to look at the genes present in the antennae in these bees,” says Foster.

These sniffer bees are important because they go in and clean sick bee larvae and pupae out of the hive so the mites can’t spread throughout the colony. Left unchecked, the mites can kill an entire hive.

Why does Foster do his work? Bees matter.

According to master beekeeper Brian Campbell, one in three bites of food we take depends on honey bees.

In fact, Campbell says, honey is almost a byproduct for most beekeepers. They make their money, and we get our food, because the hives are rented out to farmers whose crops must be pollinated by bees to produce fruit. Beekeepers pack up their hives and move them to a new field as new plants come into bloom.

Basically anything with a visible flower, with petals and sometimes scent, evolved that way because their pollen is too heavy for the wind to carry. For fertilization, they need bees to carry the pollen between blossoms. The flowers are not for us. They are to attract the bees the plants need to produce fruit.

We do not have enough native bees to do the job so, it’s up to honeybees to keep fruits and some vegetables on our tables. If the hives die off, those foods will be in very short supply.

Genome BC and Genome Canada know how important these pollinators are. That is why they have given Foster $7.3 million to support his work.

For his work, Foster won the Genome BC Award of Scientific Excellence last year at the Life Sciences BC Awards.

“We have shown that it works and that we can select using this method for bees that are more disease resistant,” Foster says. “We did a couple different trials. They were so effective that we could start off with diseased colonies and they would survive for a whole year with no other treatment. This offers promise.”

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