Bumblebees deliver what fungicides can’t. That’s important because the use of fungicides has led to resistant strains. One fungus, botrytis, is devastating strawberries. It destroys a crop by leaving a grey mould over the berries and costs the farmer hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A small Canadian company, Bee Vectoring Technologies, is employing bees to deliver a beneficial fungus that displaces the harmful one. Once the good fungus, clonostachys, sets up shop the bad one is crowded out. A trial of the technology is now underway in a strawberry crop in North Carolina as reported in the Globe and Mail (May 3, 2016).
John Sutton, a retired plant pathologist, started work on the beneficial fungus in 1988. The problem was how to get the good fungus deep into the blossom that produces the fruit. Fortunately, that’s just what bees do. “They’re really good delivery vehicles,” said Dr. Sutton, “I mean, they’re better than FedEx.”
It took years for Dr. Sutton and his colleagues to isolate the most effective variety of clonostachys and generate it in large quantities. Because it’s a natural organism, it can’t be patented but the delivery system can. Because bees don’t naturally carry fungus around, a delivery system was devised in which bees walk through trays of good fungus. It clings to the bee’s legs and then they deliver it to the blossoms.
For farmers who are used to chemical solutions to fungal problems, the system requires some getting used to. “All this sounded good on paper,” said Colorado-based consultant Greg Faust who is helping Bee Vectoring market their system. “Now we’re putting it up against the tests and it’s performing quite well.” For farmers who aren’t used to handling bees, it’s a new mindset.
It may be a new mindset for farmers but the system will resonate with consumers who want for fewer chemicals. It’s a marketer’s dream. What could be more endearing than the image of bees carrying good fungus to blossoms and kicking out the bad ones?
The system shows promise in protecting other crops as well, such as sunflowers which are attacked by another bad fungus called sclerotina for which there is no effective control.
As often happens, good Canadian ideas languish because of lack of financial support. The little Canadian company went public last year and is trying to raise capital. It hopes to have their system approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the next 18 months.
“The clock is ticking now,” said Michael Collinson, CEO of Bee Vectoring. He is busy flying to sites in the U.S. Mexico, Croatia and Spain to promote the system. A European competitor is promoting a similar system so it’s important that they get to market soon.