Precision agriculture makes you think of satellites, self-driving tractors, and computers. Now there is something new, a different way to apply fungicide to strawberries using one of the world’s oldest agricultural practices, bee keeping. But you say, that’s not new, but bee vectoring is.
This is how it works. As the bees leave the hive, they pick up small particles of a biocontrol agent, a fungicide in the case of strawberries. Now as the bee pollinates the flower it also leaves a bit of the fungicide on the flower. This can work on any flowering crop like raspberries, apples, coffee, cranberries, cucumbers and possible sunflowers and some canola.
This concept was first pioneered by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, in the 1990s. They developed a biocontrol agent that is diluted. This power-based diluent is put in a container and placed in a dispenser. Some of these dispensers are designed to snap onto specially constructed bumblebee hives. As the bees leave the hive they must pass through the dispenser. The prepared powder clings to their hairy bodies. It’s carried with them as they fly off to collect pollen or nectar from the flowers. When they land, the powder rubs off on the bloom where it protects from gray mold. Honeybee hives are treated the same way. Other pollinators can then spread it further as they flit from flower to flower. This works great in the green house. Only a few growers were able to try it out in 2020. Now they need to find out how well it works in the real world and make sure it doesn’t adversely affect wild bees or other pollinators.
Currently, one company, Bee Vector Technology based in Mississauga, Ontario, has a system registered by the EPA for field use in America’s main berry growing regions. They expect it will be widely available in 2021. They plan to have it registered in Switzerland and Mexico for this year and hope to get approval for Canada and the European Union soon.
This is what the company says about this use of bees. “Our delivery system uses bees to disrupt the gray mold cycle by delivering a strain of Clonosyahys rosea, BVT-CR7, combined with a diluent called Vectorite directly to the source of the infection on the flowers. Since it’s targeted, it’s very efficacious. You’re not wasting any product. We have been able to demonstrate that you can reduce the amount of product over the course of the blooming season by up to 98%. Plus, it is a biological product. It can be used in either conventional or organic berry production.”
Just think what that could mean for a berry farmer. Less use of machinery, fuel, water and labor used in spraying crops. The bees are doing all the work they would be doing anyway. The company does admit that the products are expensive and quite short lived but the bees aren’t delivering the stuff willy-nilly. They are applying it directly and continuously just where it needs to be. Not only that, the bee-treated berries are larger. It also increases the crop yield by 28-30 % and workers don’t get exposed to chemicals.
Bees are smart creatures. The company discovered some hives spend a lot of time kicking the diluent out of the dispenser and on the ground in front of the hive. “Do it yourself. We’re not hauling your powder around.” Also, bees don’t like to work in the rain so the farmer will have to do it himself if he gets an extended period of rain. What a neat idea, letting bees kill mold as they pollinate our food.
Bev Johnson is a Master Gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension. Her column appears in the Weekend Edition.