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Renderings of the 15,000 square foot honey bee research centre, which will include a research laboratory, honey shop, pollinator gardens and a classroom.Supplied

A new state-of-the-art facility at the University of Guelph will be dedicated to researching, monitoring and educating the public about honey bees, and will be a key tool in the fight against declining populations.

Construction on the Honey Bee Research Centre broke ground Wednesday morning. The $16-million facility will include up to 200 hives, a research laboratory, a shop for honey and hive products, pollinator gardens and walking tours plus a classroom where honey bee enthusiasts can learn how to become apiculturists (beekeepers).

The centre is part of the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences. The 15,0000-square-foot facility will replace the current honey bee research centre – a 1950s bungalow with a research lab in the bedroom and honey extracting station in the basement.

“This innovative, state-of-the-art facility will change how we manage hives and do research,” said John Cranfield, associate dean of external relations, Ontario Agriculture Collage. “But the new facility will also allow us to scale up education programs, for anyone interested in how to manage hives.”

Honey bees and other pollinators are essential to food production, providing one-third of the pollination necessary for the food we consume.

Honey bees are also vital to Canada’s economy. Honey production alone adds $278-million to the economy, with $44.6-million in exports. However, when combined with the pollination of orchard fruits, berries, vegetables, forage and canola oil, the honey bee adds $7-billion to the Canadian economy annually, according to a Statistics Canada report from 2021. The economic contribution is likely to be higher, as these estimates cannot account for the value added by natural pollinators.

However, since 2007 colonies (which hold between 20,000 and 80,000 bees) have dropped 35 per cent annually in North America and most of Europe. In the winter of 2021 Canada experienced its largest honey bee colony loss in 20 years. Alberta alone lost 51 per cent of its colonies, according to a survey from the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists.

Numerous factors are leading to this population decline, including pesticide use, loss of habitat and severe weather events such as the storms, flooding and hailstorms caused by climate change.

“Bees can only tolerate so many problems at once,” said Paul Kelly, research and apiary manager at the Honey Bee Research Centre. “Climate doesn’t help, neither does exposure to pesticides. These compound the issues, coupling them together, and that’s what overwhelms the species.”

The University of Guelph’s honey bee research program discovered that the number 1 threat to the pollinator was a parasite called Varroa destructor, also known as the Varroa mite. According to the Canadian Honey Council, beekeepers in Alberta and Manitoba had lost an average of 40 to 45 per cent of their honey bees by April of last year. Quebec was on track to lose 60 per cent due in large part to the mites.

Mite reproductive rates are determined by spring weather conditions, with early warm springs leading to quick reproduction and vast populations that can wipe out honey bee colonies over the fall and winter.

Varroa mites decimate bee populations by latching onto adult bees, sucking out the blood and protein reserves and transmitting a virus that destroys the insect’s immune response. Infected bees live half as long as normal bees. The danger posed by the mites has only increased recently, as climate change leads to earlier and warmer springs.

The University of Guelph’s honey bee research centre found that some pesticides, dubbed “neonics,” widely used in agriculture to protect crops from insects, curtail the bees’ ability to fight varroa mites.

The centre discovered that honey bees with higher levels of a gene that compels them to scratch more vigorously are better at removing mites from their bodies. This is because mites flatten and tuck themselves between segments of the bees’ abdomen. Currently, only 15 to 20 per cent of honey bees are able to remove the mites by scratching.

Researchers are therefore breeding honey bees that are better scratchers, which will increase the population of bees with greater resistance to the mites. So far, the breeding program has been implemented in Ontario, with hopes more provinces will follow suit.

But the better facility is needed to continue this kind of research. For example, the new centre will include several rooms for incubating bees. These rooms will allow researchers to conduct more controlled tests and extensive monitoring of bee behaviour and health. A bigger building will also be key to expanding collaboration with other researchers and, through classrooms and tours, spreading awareness about the challenges faced by honey bees.

“Bees are the supreme example of interdependence in nature,” said Prof. Kelly. “We have plants that need pollination, and bees that provide that pollination so that humans and animals can eat. It’s all connected. But we have to have good, healthy bees to get that job done.”

The new honey bee research centre is scheduled to open in April of 2025, just as spring bee season begins.

Editor’s note: Two corrections were made to this article. The department of the university where the centre is based was changed from the department of food, agriculture and resource economics to the school of environmental sciences. The title for John Cranfield was changed from associate dean, to associate dean of external relations at Ontario Agricultural College.

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