- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
The three-year grant, titled "Strengthening Honey Bee Health and Crop Pollination to Safeguard Food Availability and Affordability" and headed by principal investigator Boris Baer, a UC Riverside professor of entomology, also includes the San Diego and Merced campuses. “I'm very excited about so many different kinds of bee expertise joining forces through this project,” Baer said.
"Most excitingly, this funding will not only support research that will help improve pollinator health so crucial for California's agriculture, but it will provide opportunities for training of students and postdoctoral scholars,” said co-principal investigator, Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, which operates the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. “Work focused on improving honey bee stocks via novel tools aligns well with ongoing work in the Niño lab and will further cement collaborations with beekeepers and growers.”
Honey bees pollinate more than 80 agricultural crops, accounting for about a third of the American diet. Researchers attribute the widespread collapse of bee colonies over the past decade to several factors, including pesticide exposure, spread of parasites and pathogens, habitat destruction and environmental changes. Population declines have resulted in decreased pollination services and increased food prices. Worldwide declines continue despite substantial efforts of researchers, beekeepers, conservationists, and growers to identify the issues facing pollinator communities and develop innovative solutions.
The UC scientists plan a three-pronged approach to resolve the issue: develop better breeding programs, better medications and treatments, and better tools to monitor bee health in the hives. Small “listening and smelling” devices will be placed inside the hives to monitor bee health.
In the successful grant proposal, part of the Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI), the researchers wrote:
"Safeguarding honey bees and their pollination services requires beekeepers to be better able to manage the health and survival of colonies, which requires research into the causal factors and interactions affecting pollinator health, and the development and implementation of novel tools in close collaboration with industry partners. To do this, we will form a California wide, cross disciplinary research network and
- experimentally study the ecological and molecular factors and their interactions that affect honey bee health and their interactions to identify biomarkers of their health
- use the knowledge gained to develop and deliver new, effective solutions for stakeholders, including remote sensing of bee health, a marker-assisted breeding program, and the development of novel medications,
- build a research industry nexus to conduct collaborative research. We will also develop and deploy new extension and outreach modules that will be offered through UC Cooperative Extension statewide. We will support California beekeepers to build and maintain a sustainable and profitable beekeeping industry, which has implications for food security on a national level."
Niño, who works closely with California beekeepers, launched and directs the California Master Beekeeper Program, which uses science-based information to educate stewards and ambassadors for honey bees and beekeeping.
The co-principal investigators also noted in their grant proposal that "The current coronavirus pandemic and impending recession is putting more pressure on agriculture to provide sufficient and affordable food. Honey bees are key to such efforts, and supporting a California based beekeeping industry also decreases the state's dependence on managed pollination from elsewhere, thereby creating new jobs and income."
Funding also will help provide research opportunities for undergraduates, including underrepresented students, with the goal of ensuring that the pipeline of students who enter research, academia, industry, and multiple other professions reflects the diversity of the communities in which they learn and work.
Co-principal investigator James Nieh of UC San Diego, said he and his students will be testing how nutritional supplements may help bees that have been exposed to pesticides and on how to harness the natural honey bee microbiome against a very common bee gut disease.
“We want to use what evolution has already given us to deal with bee disease because this should be a more natural and sustainable approach,” said Nieh, a professor in the Section of Ecology, Behavior and Evolution, Division of Biological Sciences. “Researchers have also focused a great deal on the harms caused by pesticides and this has helped improve some aspects of regulation," he said in a UC San Diego news release. "But we need to develop treatments for bees that are exposed to these chemicals because we will not realistically be able to eliminate all pesticide use.”
Co-principal investigator Joshua Kohn of UC San Diego said research in his lab is aimed at understanding the complex genomes of feral honey bees in Southern California. These bees have genomes that are a complex mixture of genomes of honey bee varieties from Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Kohn said in a UC San Diego news release. He described the feral bees as "highly genetically diverse and ecologically successful." Their genomes, he pointed out, likely hold variation useful to breeding domesticated honey bees with increased levels of resistance to the common diseases that currently plague the honey bee industry.
“This network of bee researchers comprises a unique mixture of expertise that can apply highly multidisciplinary approaches to benefit the honey bee industry essential to the production of many of California's most economically important crops,” Kohn related.
Other co-principal investigators are Kerry Mauck, Tsotras Vassilis, and Kim Hyoseung, all of UC Riverside. Marilia Gaiarsa of UC Merced is a co-investigator.