Pest Control on the Wings of a Bee

March 19, 2016 02:10 AM
Pest Control on the Wings of a Bee

Pollinators delivering crop products via airmail

Bumblebees scurry out of a hive, collecting a beneficial fungus on hairy legs as they exit, and deliver a health package to crops across a swath of farmland. The activity is dizzying: A single bumblebee can visit hundreds of flowers per trip, and a single colony can make 300,000 trips per day. 

Bee Vectoring Technology (BVT) uses crop pollinators to deliver pest and disease control. No pesticide, synthesized protein or genetic modification required. 

BVT’s inoculum dispenser system uses a removable tray filled with Vectorite, a powdered mixture containing a fungus that acts as an inoculant. Bumblebees pick up Vectorite particles as they leave the hive and deliver the goods to individual flowers during normal pollination. Drastically less use of chemicals and machinery; no water required.

A tremendous amount of chemical can be saved by BVT. Precisely how much depends on crop type. BVT is currently running a test in Florida strawberries, which are sprayed 20 to 30 times each season at $30 per spray per acre. “We’re in a position to significantly reduce those spray costs and increase environmental benefits,” says Michael Collinson, CEO of BVT. “We’re also looking at other products to control mites and thrips.”

        Bumblebees pick up inoculant particles          from a removable tray as they leave the hive    and deliver the goods to flowers.

How many hives are necessary per acre? The ratio is crop-dependent. Bumblebee hives typically contain 200 to 300 bees. Sunflowers need one hive per 3 acres; strawberries need one hive per acre. Currently focusing on strawberries, tomatoes, blueberries and sunflowers, BVT relies on an organic strain of a naturally occurring fungus, BVT-CR7, found in many plants and soils. The fungus doesn’t attack or kill,  but it blocks disease, allowing plants to build up health. 

Bee vectoring has been researched for several decades, but BVT is the first company to commercialize the technology. After EPA registration, Collinson hopes to expand BVT to additional crops, more bee species and multiple pathogen controls.

“Vectoring is a good idea if the material isn’t harmful to bees, plants or people. It’s an elegant technology to deliver inoculum right to a flower head,” says Donald Steinkraus, entomologist, University of Arkansas. “Pesticide waste is a continual problem, but when a bee delivers to a flower, it’s an incredibly precise means that can’t be achieved otherwise.”

Honeybee vectoring has been used in South America to combat the coffee berry borer beetle (CBB), which takes a massive $500 million drink from the $50 billion global coffee market each year, Steinkraus says. The main agent to attack CBB is a fungus, and South American farmers are using honeybees to spread the fungus to coffee trees. 

Of the world’s 115 top crops, 87 require pollination, Collinson adds. BVT is attaching its technology to the ongoing pollination process, essentially hitching a ride on bumblebees. 

Regarding safety, Collinson emphasizes a total organic process. “BVT substantially reduces the pesticide load on crops and benefits bees. We’re focused on bee safety first. No bees? Then we don’t have a business.” 

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