These worker bees are putting in overtime
As the world’s population grows, the demand for food is only going to increase, meaning farmers will have to get more efficient if we want everyone to be fed. To do that without becoming overly reliant on pesticides requires some serious innovation as well.
That’s where Bee Vectoring Technology (BVT) comes in. By using bumblebees as natural delivery systems to distribute an all-natural inoculating powder directly to crops, BVT is able to drastically reduce the agricultural use of chemicals while increasing crop yields, shelf life, and overall efficiency.
GOOD had the chance to sit down with Michael Collinson, BVT’s CEO, about how his method can help solve the world’s food problem while maintaining an ecological conscience.
Do you think you’ll be able to eliminate the need for pesticides altogether?
We have two different areas inside our company. The first is that we have the ability to deliver biological controls, and actually any kind of control, to crops through bees. And the other aspect is one of the biological controls that we own helps as a preventative process eliminate a lot of fungicides that are used on a lot of things like strawberries. So, yes, you’ll be able to eliminate a lot of regularly used pesticides on certain crops because this is a preventative process—it makes sure you don’t get the disease in your crops in the first place. That’s the difference between what we do and what is currently being done in agriculture.
It seems your main focus currently is strawberries. Are there other crops where this method is applicable as well?
We’re actually doing trials right now in North and South Dakota and Serbia and Ontario, Canada, with sunflowers, which we’ve done in prior years. And we’ve had extremely good results with that product as well. So it’s not just berries or fruiting crops like that—we can also affect pretty much any pollinating crop that we can focus on. But, as you can imagine, there are so many crops we could work on, we decided just to focus on a few key crops and get those working first. Then we can add different crops as we proceed.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]It’s a bit like using FedEx. They’re in the business of picking up and delivering parcels. Same thing with the bees.[/quote]
How expensive is the switch to BVT, and will farmers still have to use some amount of pesticides?
There’s no cost difference between what they’re currently using and our system. Currently, they’re using pesticides and fungicides to control pathogens, and that’s a cost to them. Our cost is no greater than what they’re currently spending—and in some cases it’s less. But at the same time, they end up with other attributes to their product that they don’t get with the fungicides or pesticides that are currently being used. You often end up with increased yields; you end up with a longer shelf life for the product, which is critical when you’re delivering product; and you also typically end up with bigger and better crops, so there are other benefits aside from just the cost of it. And our product is in fact organic, so you can actually get more money for your crop if you’re using just our product.
To answer the question, do you still have to use other chemicals? Yes, for other types of pathogens that we don’t control, you would have to use other pesticides. But I think we can substantially reduce the use of pesticides on high-value crops.
I’m by no means an agriculture expert, but it seems like switching to an eco-friendly, cost-effective alternative would be a no-brainer for farmers. Is there anything preventing them from making the switch?
Typically speaking, farmers are very—and rightly so—reluctant to try new products. They’ve spent their life being told products work and they don’t end up working. So what they typically do is try out small trials, and if you do well with that small trial, they give you more space, etc. It takes two or three years for a farmer to say, ‘you know what, this is really working, you can have my entire crop.’
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]You’ll be able to eliminate a lot of regularly used pesticides on certain crops because this is a preventative process.[/quote]
Imagine you’re a strawberry grower and you’ve got a hundred acres and each acre is worth up to sixty thousand US dollars. Along comes a guy who says ‘I’m using bees and I’m going to deliver a biological control to your crop,’ and you’re thinking that’s terrific, but why don’t we try it on two to three acres first and see how that works… It’s sort of an adoptive process and it’s fairly typical in agriculture to do that.
Obviously, your product is very different from pesticides in that it’s a living organism. What kind of challenges do farmers face who might not be used to working with these insects?
This is not like taking two kilograms of powder and mixing it in a six hundred gallon tank of water and then spraying it on your crop. There are clearly some different application issues here. What we found is that, for the most part, growers and farmers, once they understand the process and see how it works, it’s a pretty simple process and it eventually becomes pretty seamless. It’s a bit like everything; when you first start driving a car, you don’t just jump in and off you go. It takes a little bit of training, so that is part of our adoptive process is to train growers and farmers how this works and of course all the intricacies of dealing with things like bees.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Our cost is no greater than what farmers currently spending—and in some cases it’s less.[/quote]
You should also note, though, that there are a lot of crops that use bees. If you’re in California for example—almonds as you know are a huge crop in California—eighty percent of all commercial honeybee hives in the US get transported to California in February. So people are very used to using bees as part of the process.
Where do the bees come from?
We’re technically not in the bee business. We don’t rear the bees; there are companies that specifically have been set up over many years to rear these bees. This distribution system is in place, and they are used extensively already—most greenhouses in North America use commercially reared bumblebees.
It’s a bit like using FedEx. They’re in the business of picking up and delivering parcels. Same thing with the bees. They’re in the business of nectar and pollen, and what we’re doing is just asking those bees on their outbound trip to deliver a small amount of beneficial microbes to crops. So it’s a very similar kind of a process.
If more people were to adopt this method, could that mean more organic produce will be available at a lower cost for consumers?
That could be the case. The cost of raising an organic crop is somewhat different than a crop that uses a lot of pesticides. We get controls to companies who are raising organics that sometimes don’t actually have those controls in place. So we offer them some solutions to their problems. So ues, ultimately this might be able to reduce our cost in organics.
So, if you’re a farmer and you wanted to try this method out today, could you?
They can get in contact with us and we’d be happy to work with them.
Images via BVT