Bumblebees scurry out of a hive, collecting a beneficial fungus on hairy legs as they exit, and carry 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. These are snipers extraordinaire, delivering a booster shot into each bloom. No pesticide, synthesized protein, or genetic modification required. Vigor delivered to crops on the legs of bumblebees.
Bee Vectoring Technology (BVT) uses crop pollinators to deliver pest and disease control. BVT’s inoculum dispenser system utilizes 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.
Teaspoon compared to multiple bags, a tremendous amount of chemical use is saved by BVT. Precisely how much depends on crop type. BVT is currently running a test in Florida strawberries which are typically 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.”
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 three 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 found in a vast array of plants and soils – BVT-CR7. The fungus doesn’t attack or kill, but blocks disease, allowing plants to build up health. BVT is also used for apples and canola. For apples, bumblebees inoculate trees with streptomycin at a rate of 20 grams per acre, juxtaposed against the normal 6 kilogram-rate of conventional spraying. It’s a substantive difference with a wide environmental impact. The bumblebees don’t waste a drop of product and deliver an antibiotic at the bull’s-eye bloom.
Bee vectoring has been researched for several decades, but BVT is the first company to commercialize the technology. At its core, bee vectoring is a simple solution relying on the exceptional work of pollinators. “There are millions of acres of opportunity for this,” says Collinson. “We handle cherries, kiwis, peppers, almonds and anything requiring pollination.” After optimization and EPA registration, Collinson hopes to expand BVT toward 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, an entomologist with the 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.”
Steinkraus points to the use of honeybee vectoring in South America to combat the coffee berry borer beetle (CBB). CBB takes a massive $500 million drink from the $50 billion global coffee market each year, according to Steinkraus. The main agent to attack CBB is a fungus, and South American farms are using honeybees to spread the fungus to coffee trees. “That’s an example of a big acreage application for vectoring,” Steinkraus notes.
Taking stock of the world’s 115 top crops, 87 require pollination, according to Collinson. BVT is attaching its technology to the ongoing pollination process, essentially hitching a ride on bumblebees. Daily waterless delivery targets the flower and is contained in minute amounts. It requires minimal labor, minimizes environmental impact, and requires minimal capital equipment. “BVT takes what happens once a while in nature, and make sure it happens consistently to end up with superior crops,” Collinson describes.
Regarding safety, Collinson emphasizes a total organic process. “BVT substantially reduces the pesticide load on crops and benefits bees. We’re not loading up tractors with hundreds of gallons of water and hundreds of pounds of pesticides. We’re focused on bee safety first. No bees? Then we don’t have a business.”