Matchmaking for healthier bees

While poor hygiene may be a deal breaker in human relationships, in bee colonies it can be a matter of life and death.

While poor hygiene may be a deal breaker in human relationships, in bee colonies it can be a matter of life and death.

Which is why, for two weeks in May, a lab at UBC runs a high-tech matchmaking service for bees: swipe right for hygienic bees, swipe left if not.

“Certain worker bees exhibit something called ‘hygienic behaviour,’ where they recognize nest mates that are infected by a pest or pathogen and remove them from the colony,” said Leonard Foster, a biochemist and professor at the Michael Smith Laboratories at UBC. “This is one way that bees defend against the varroa mite, which is typically responsible for about 40 per cent of Canadian colonies that are lost every year.”

According to Foster, the varroa mite is currently one of the most important factors in bee health, but only about five per cent of bees exhibit the defensive hygienic behaviour.

This is where UBC’s Proteomics Core Facility (PCF), where researchers use mass spectrometers to study proteins, provides some high-tech assistance.

“We believe hygienic bees have a certain class of protein involved in detecting odours associated with pest and pathogen infections,” said Foster, who is also director of the PCF. “These odours trigger a grooming impulse, with the odour molecule binding to a protein and sending a signal.”

Beekeepers from across the Lower Mainland ship bees to the lab to be analyzed ahead of the spring swarm period, when bees mate and new honey bee colonies form.

The researchers study the bees’ antennae, which contain the protein that can signal hygienic behaviour. Because all worker bees in a hive have a single mother, the scientists can gauge the state of the whole hive by looking at a few of these bees.

Once Foster’s team identifies the most hygienic colonies, beekeepers bring new queen bees and male ‘drones,’ raised from those colonies to hives isolated on Bowen Island, where they will mate and produce a new generation of bees.

“This isn’t genetic modification – we aren’t changing the structure of the bees,” said Foster. “We merely finding the most hygienic ones from the natural populations, and allowing beekeepers to match queen bees with the most appropriate candidates.”

Protein analysis is more accurate than behavioural observations and this type of research allows for more effective and faster selective breeding.

“Our research shows that you can predict the behaviour of specific colonies by understanding their protein structures better,” said Foster. “We don’t need to painstakingly monitor colonies wondering if they are going to be hygienic or not. We hope this will provide beekeepers a tool that will make their lives easier.”

Learn more about the work being done at UBC’s Proteomics Core Facility.

Foster working with bees at UBC
Foster working with bees at UBC. Credit: UBC
Foster has a long-standing interest in bees
Foster has a long-standing interest in bees – his parents were beekeepers, and has been working with the insects since he was a teenager. Credit: Leonard Foster
Chemist Jason Rogalski
Chemist Jason Rogalski stands next to a mass spectrometer. Credit: Paul Joseph/UBC