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New Bayer centre takes multi-pronged approach to bee health

“We care about bees ” was the take-home message Bayer CropScience delivered at the grand opening of the North American Bayer Bee Care Centre at Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 15, 2014.

The US$2.4 million centre represents just a small part of Bayer’s total investment in bee health over the past 25 years. In fact, Bayer has budgeted US$12 million for bee health programming in 2014 alone.

All the dignitaries at the opening event spoke of the importance of bees to agriculture and food production; none more directly than Jim Blome, president and CEO of Bayer CropScience LP North America, who said: “Honey-bees are essential to modern agricultural production.”

Steve Troxler, ag commissioner for the state of North Carolina said: “Bees are the spark plugs of agriculture.” He compared their importance to gas engine spark plugs, pointing out that while they are very small components, they are essential to the engine’s operation.

Bees are likewise critical to agriculture. Many fruit, nut and vegetable crops require bees for pollination. In the United States, these crops alone are worth billions of dollars annually.

Bees are crucial for the success of Bayer CropScience. For example, all canola hybrid seed production, including the InVigor varieties, would be impossible without pollinators. The role of bees is so important to the company that, according to Murray Belyk, manager of scientific affairs with Bayer in Regina, Bayer CropScience has become the largest single user of pollination services in Canada.

“The bee care centre is devoted to bee health in general,” says the centre’s manager, Dr. Dave Fischer, adding that the facility features pollinator-friendly gardens, a research and learning apiary, a honey extracting facility and a full research lab for furthering bee health work. There is also an interactive learning area, office space for researchers and graduate students and meeting space for visiting beekeepers, farmers and educators.

The new centre will greatly expand Bayer’s ability to research bee health issues and concerns, enable the company to share new information and revise best management practices, and share its findings with all stakeholders. According to Fischer, it offers a “coordinated program to bee health.”

Belyk outlined the CARE program that the centre embraces that consists of four components: Communication between beekeepers and farmers; Awareness of weather and environmental conditions that could impact bees; Reduction of the exposure of bees to pesticides; and Ensuring planting accuracy.

A primary focus of the centre will address the impact of insecticides on honey-bee health. Over the past few years, a number of laboratory studies have attempted to link neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” to colony losses.

Neonics are safer for both humans and the environment than many of the older chemistries, such as organophosphates. Fischer points out that most of the early neonicotinoid studies were done on small numbers of bees in laboratory settings. He says more recent studies have been unable to reproduce any irregularities. “Plenty of studies find neonics are safe when used as labelled and by following best management practices,” Fischer says.

The centre will enable Bayer to further refine best management practices and investigate new ways of protecting and improving the health of bees. Here is a small sample of work currently underway at the Bee Care Centre:

  • Improved seed treatment application equipment, designed and promoted by Bayer CropScience that reduces exposure of seed treatment products to the environment. This equipment is now used in countries around the world.
  • Introduction of a “fluency agent” to replace talc as a seed lubricant. This product works by significantly reducing the risk of pollinator exposure to insecticide dust, which can be released from some corn planters. Bayer has made it available to all corn and soybean seed dealers. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency will require all corn planted in Canada in 2014 to switch from talc to Bayer’s agent. Supply will be sufficient to meet the needs of Canadian growers.
  • Developing a smartphone application for growers and beekeepers to improve communication and understanding of bee yard and hive locations, by collaborating with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and DriftWatch.
  • Testing of a new chemistry for Varroa mite control.
  • Research aimed at finding repellents that growers could use to keep bees away from areas where insecticides have recently been applied.

The Bee Care Centre will also research a long list of factors that impact bee health, including pests and parasites, microbial diseases, inadequate diet and even climate change. It is not simply addressing chemical issues and solutions but will promote an integrated pest management approach of chemical, cultural, mechanical and biological solutions to bee health issues.

Most of all, the North American Bayer Bee Care Centre will be a place that brings together everyone working on bee health issues. According to Annette Schuermann, head of the Bayer Bee Care Centre in Monheim Germany, the North Carolina facility will complement the chemical-focused bee health work underway at her facility and the biological focus of the work Bayer is doing at the University of California (Davis). “This new centre can merge both,” she says. “Everyone can come to this Bee Care Centre and learn from each other. It will connect the dots between growers, beekeepers and the public.”