A team from The University of Western Australia, in partnership with industry group Better Bees of Western Australia, has secured $800,000 to study male fertility in honey and feral bees.
The research is important to ensure future food production. Team leader Dr Boris Baer of UWA's Collaborative Initiative for Bee Research (CIBER) said the four-year study, mainly funded by the Australian Research Council, would examine male fertility of managed and feral bees at a molecular level.
"We need to do this because one-third of what we eat is the result of pollination by bees," Dr Baer said. "The importance of honeybees for pollination and consequent food production is remarkably undervalued. To illustrate this: A single honeybee colony can cumulatively fly and transport pollen up to 450,000 kilometres every day carrying out up to 67.5 million potential pollinations, being a fundamentally important step during food production .
"Honeybee populations are on a worldwide decline and if this continues, we will likely see a steep rise in the cost of even the most basic foods we now take for granted given that more than 80 crops of agricultural interest depend on bee pollination. We need to protect the diversity of healthy and affordable food we all expect to find when we open our fridges. Australia has so far been spared major problems as observed overseas but it is expected that this will not last.
"Our project expands a close collaboration between UWA and the largest honeybee-breeding organisation in WA. We hope that scientific research into bee reproduction, diseases and immunity will ensure a future supply of managed and healthy honeybees - and in turn prevent food costs from soaring."
Male fertility of the lineages of honeybees currently bred by Better Bees will be compared with that of feral bees, which are able to survive in WA's harsh climate and to withstand parasites without human help. The feral bees might become of value if they could provide genetic material to improve future breeding, for example to enhance immunity or fertility in managed bees.
"We'll measure male fertility in managed bees against that of the ferals using proteomics, a biochemical technique that will be able to show us which lineages are good and which might have problems," Dr Baer said.