Could we breed better bees?

A leading Kiwi geneticist says new technology may help us build populations of honey bees that are more resilient and make better pollinators.

Bees remain the backbone of our primary sector, contributing about $5 billion to the economy annually and supporting one third of everything we eat.

While temperate regions lose colonies each winter due to pests, diseases, toxins and weather, the latest stocktake showed bee hive loss in New Zealand was low-to-average compared with other countries.

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In a new study, just awarded $6.3 million through the Government's Endeavour Fund and led by Otago University's Professor Peter Dearden, researchers will look to genomic and selection approaches to see whether we can make our bees even hardier and more efficient.

"We have some efforts in selective breeding in the beekeeping industry, but these are rare because artificial insemination, required to successfully ensure the bees you want to breed are breeding, is relatively tricky," Dearden said.

A PhD researcher funded by Callaghan Innovation and working jointly with AbacusBio Limited and Taylor Pass Honey Company had however investigated genomic and selection protocols, which the new project would build off.

"Overseas there have been limited attempts to carry out this kind of work, but we will be the first to use whole genome data and modern selection technologies to improve bee stocks," he said.

"We really want to apply the kind of breeding technologies that have been so successful in, for example, cow and sheep breeding, as we know these have been a massive benefit to those industries.

"Bees aren't, however, cows or sheep, so we have to tweak the way we deal with them to cope with their difficult genetics."

That would also require some smart new knowledge about bees to ensure the team got everything right - including dealing with freezing sperm, assigning paternity in bees and working with hives, rather than individual bees, as a unit of selection.

"There is a lot in this grant which is applying known technologies, but a lot more that will explore bee biology to help us improve them."

The project would see Dearden working alongside Crown research institutes, companies involved in livestock genetics and pollination, and beekeepers themselves.

"Some of the work will involve breeding lines of bees to see how fast and far we can get, but this will be backed by lots of genome sequencing, and complex statistics to ensure we are using the best evidence we can to improve stocks."

One of the biggest challenges would be developing a technology and method that would be efficient and valuable enough for the beekeeping industry to take up.

"We also have a big challenge facing us in breeding bees that have improved pollination capability - that will be an interesting challenge."

But, if successful, the study could prove a major boon for the industry.

"The benefits this project will bring is a structured breeding programme that should improve the value of bees to beekeepers, improve pollination of our horticultural products, and leave us with more robust, less sensitive bees."

Dearden is also leading another study granted $940,000 by the Endeavour Fund, aiming to super-charge two biocontrol agents to provide long-term, effective pasture pest control.

It targets two introduced weevils - the Argentine stem weevil and the clover root weevil - which attack New Zealand pastures but are largely kept in control by two parasitoid wasps which lay their eggs within them.

However, control by one of the wasps is failing as the weevil out-evolves the wasp that kills it.

Dearden's project aims to combat this by "switching" the from their current asexual reproduction to sexual reproduction - something which appeared possible because such mechanisms had evolved frequently in the wasps.

By switching to sexual reproduction, and selecting for improved efficiency against even resistant weevils, Dearden and his team hoped to maintain the biocontrols we already have, while reducing the need for insecticides, genetically-modified methods of insect control, or the introduction of new biocontrol species.