As I come to the end of my term as a Project Apis m. Costco Canada Scholar, I am reflecting on the lessons I have learned over the past three years of my PhD training, and the new challenges that lie ahead. The support I received from Project Apis m. and Costco Canada during my PhD has been instrumental in my development as a beekeeper and a scientist, and has prepared me to tackle new problems in apiculture in the future.
I started my PhD in honey bee toxicology research with a bit of an unusual background. I had been a practicing small animal veterinarian who returned to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada to study veterinary pathology – the branch of veterinary medicine which specializes in the diagnosis of disease in animals. Although there was no honey bee lab at our veterinary school, my supervisor, Dr. Elemir Simko, had the vision that veterinary pathologists could apply their diagnostic training in traditional veterinary species to study disease in honey bees. Together with my supervisor and another enthusiastic graduate student, Dr. Ivanna Kozii, we began the first honey bee pathology lab at our veterinary school, and the course of my PhD was set in motion.
In the beginning, our honey bee lab was focused on understanding the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on honey bees, with the aim of identifying the safe dose range for these pesticides in the environment which optimizes both honey bee and crop health. Our province of Saskatchewan is considered ‘Canada’s breadbasket’, and grows much of Canada’s cereal grains in our fertile plains. We also grow a lot of canola (otherwise known as oilseed rape), which is a bee-attractive crop that has helped make Saskatchewan beekeepers world-famous for their mild, light-colored canola honey. Alarmingly, a study from our university found high levels of neonicotinoid-contamination in the honey and beebread in our area (1). Considering that most of the canola in Saskatchewan is grown from neonicotinoid-treated seed, our laboratory set out to determine if this widespread neonicotinoid-use could be harming honey bee health in our province. This kind of diagnostic investigation is familiar to us as veterinary pathologists who are frequently asked to diagnose the cause of mortality in livestock or wildlife exposed to environmental toxins.
During my PhD, I conducted both colony-level, field experiments, as well as laboratory-based experiments on individual worker adults and larvae to investigate the effects of chronic neonicotinoid exposure on honey bees. Taken together, my experiments showed that only high neonicotinoid doses of 20 ppb or greater are harmful for honey production, overwintering, and survival of worker brood and adults. I found no harmful effects of mid-range doses of neonicotinoids which would be most commonly encountered in the environment. As Canada continues to revise government regulations on neonicotinoid-use, I am glad that my research was able to produce peer-reviewed data which supports evidence-based decision making by policy makers.
Beyond the research data generated through my PhD, I learned many more lessons about how to do effective honey bee science. For example, my PhD project taught me the importance of remaining unbiased and objective when studying in a media-friendly and controversial area such as pesticides and bees. I learned how to collaborate with other researchers, beekeepers and industry scientists to address complex problems like colony loss. I also appreciated how field and laboratory experiments can give conflicting, yet complimentary results to the same question, emphasizing the importance of both approaches.
Our honey bee pathology laboratory has grown and developed markedly since its inception, and we are presently shifting our research focus to the diagnosis of infectious disease in honey bees, with a particular emphasis on American foulbrood. Beekeepers in the United States and Canada now require a veterinary prescription to obtain antimicrobials for management of American Foulbrood. As a result, there is a need for increased cooperation and understanding between beekeepers and veterinarians. To this end, our laboratory has established training courses in honey bee disease for veterinary students and veterinarians, as well as initiated a new surveillance project for American foulbrood in Saskatchewan honey.
As I finish my PhD and begin a new career as a diagnostic veterinary pathologist, I do not plan to leave honey bee research behind. I am excited for new collaborative projects in my laboratory studying European foulbrood which is a re-emerging disease in honey bee colonies pollinating blueberries in Canada and the United States. Using a field strains of Melissococcus plutonius, the bacteria which causes European foulbrood, we plan to test and compare the virulence of these strains by infecting honey bee larvae in the laboratory. We are also investigating whether pesticides encountered during blueberry pollination predispose colonies to develop European foulbrood.
I sincerely thank Costco Canada and Project Apis m. for supporting me in the early stages of my career, and I will continue to grow and blend my beekeeping and veterinary knowledge to improve honey bee health.
In honey bee spirit,
1. Codling G, Al Naggar Y, Giesy JP, Robertson AJ. Concentrations of neonicotinoid insecticides in honey, pollen and honey bees (Apis mellifera L.) in central Saskatchewan, Canada. Chemosphere. 2016;144:2321–8.
The PAm-Costco Scholar Fellowship Program in the USA and Canada has awarded over $855,000 to impressive up-and-coming bee researchers who are committed to a better future for bees. These scholars have already made significant contributions and important discoveries through their research, been recognized with awards of merit, published peer-reviewed academic articles, and continue with dedication to solve the mysteries and challenges that bees and beekeepers face.
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