Grande Prairie Regional College students tackle honey bee decline

A bee diagnostic centre is looking to save our most useful insects.

Grande Prairie Regional College Bee Diagnostic Centre

The first month of Kaitlin Patterson’s summer was spent crushing up dead honeybees by hand. It got easier when she was able to use a “stomacher machine,” similar to a blender, to speed up the task. “Instead of having the bees in a bag, mashing them by hand, we’d put them in this machine,” says Patterson. “Where we would normally be able to do 30 samples in a day, we got up to 120 done in the same timeframe.” With the welfare of the world’s honeybees in drastic decline, this might seem callous. It’s not. It’s science—and it’s an essential element to help the insects regain their numbers.

The 20-year-old nursing student at Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) spent the summer working at the National Bee Diagnostic Centre-Technology Access Centre (NBDC-TAC), operated by GPRC through its Centre for Research and Innovation. Patterson was tasked with gathering and prepping bee samples at the Beaverlodge Research Farm (40 km west of Grande Prairie), for tests to diagnose many colony ailments, from deformed wing virus to varroa mites.

Much of the work is part of the National Honey Bee Health Survey, a four-year program that started in 2014 to study and document the frequency, concentration and spreading of pests and pathogens. The lab work mainly focuses on the western honey bee—brought to Canada in the late 1600s.

“It’s the noise that’s intimidating,” Patterson recalls of her field trips to collect samples from hives at the research station. The lab workers are fully geared up in sting-proof outerwear, which explains why it’s not the image of thousands of honeybees crawling on her that first springs to mind. Instead, “even when I got back to the lab, my ears would still be buzzing for hours.”

PROFILE: Grande Prairie Regional College | Grande Prairie, Alta. | Founded 1966

Victoria Sajtovich waited two years to get her shot at working in the bee lab. The 18-year-old now studies in the bachelor of science program at the University of Toronto, but as a Grade 11 student at Grande Prairie Composite High School she heard a talk given by Carlos Castillo, applied science manager at NBDC-TAC.

“I was just so enthralled with his research, this idea of doing molecular diagnostics on bees, that I honestly just waited and then applied for the summer student position.” During her two-month stint, Sajtovich was in charge of several diagnostic tests, mainly testing for varroa mites, an infectious parasite that sucks on a bee’s blood—similar to how mosquitoes bite humans—which can lead to deformities. “It’s like having a dinner plate on your leg,” she details.

Sajtovich also looked for nosema spores, a fungus that when ingested by honeybees can wreak havoc on their digestive system. “It’s like bee diarrhea,” explains Patricia Wolf Veiga, diagnostic technician at NBDC-TAC.

Honeybees can often be treated for these diseases, explains Wolf Veiga. In the case of the bacterial diseases American and European foulbrood, a course of antibiotics might be the cure—if the bacteria are not an antibiotic-resistant strain, which is also a serious problem. But the NBDC-TAC team doesn’t give recommendations. They give beekeepers the analysis found from the test results. It’s up to the beekeepers to give treatment and seek the advice of their provincial apiculturist.

While approximately 475,000 colonies are located in the Prairie provinces, producing 80 per cent of Canada’s crop, beekeepers from all over the country can ask these diagnosticians for hive help. They just have to mail a sample, dead or alive, to the NBDC-TAC for a confidential assessment of colony health. As colonies began to decline several years ago, “beekeepers were asking us what kind of support they could have,” says Castillo. Being able to diagnose potentially hive-killing pathogens and pests was Grande Prairie Regional Colleges’ response when it opened the bee lab in April 2013. “Before this place, we couldn’t give these types of answers.”

As for Patterson, she’s not done with the bees just yet. “I fully intend to try and get my job back next summer.”

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