Scientists in the Canadian province of British Columbia have been battling massive die-offs of honey bees last winter by breeding and developing “genetically superior” bees, according to local media.

Speaking to Canadian media corporation CTVNews, Iain Glass – a honey bee geneticist – explained that he is working with local beekeepers to breed bees with genetic traits to better withstand a “perfect storm of threats” hitting Canadian bees.

These threats include: modern agricultural practices; global warming; relocation stress; and pests such as the parasitic Varroa mite.

According to CTVNews, Glass and his colleagues breed superior bee colonies through a technique known as “reproductive isolation”.

This involves bringing a hive of drone bees with highly valuable genes and a group of queen bees ready to mate to a remote area with no other bees present.

Such a process is time-consuming, however, as a full colony of “adaptive bees” would take at least four years to breed.

“It’s basically animal husbandry,” Glass told the Canadian broadcaster.

There will be plenty of genetic variation among the bees in the colony because a typical queen bee can breed with anywhere from five to 20 drones, allowing scientists to track and maintain specific traits from the hive, the geneticist added.

Dramatic bee losses

The past winter in Canada apparently resulted in “astounding” losses of bees with beekeepers forced to import thousands of bees from the US and New Zealand, CTVNews noted.

Ireland too has suffered dramatic losses to its bee population.

The bumblebee populations recorded in 2017 were the lowest they have been since monitoring began in 2012.

The current overall trend from 2012 to 2017 is a year-on-year decline of 3.7%, leading to a total loss of 14.2% from 2012 to 2017.

Ireland has 21 species of bumblebee. These insects are vital pollinators of crops and wild plants, according to Juanita Browne, All-Ireland pollinator plan project officer, who commented on the issue back in May.

Without pollinators, the crops farmers can grow will be limited. 100 crops provide 90% of the world’s food – 71 are pollinated by bees.

“Without pollinators, it would also be impossible to grow our own fruits and vegetables at home and wildflowers would disappear, making the countryside a less attractive and colourful place,” she said.