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Bumblebees Have A New Job: Delivering Organic Pesticides

If you’re already out pollinating, why not just carry a little extra?

The humble bumblebee might help disrupt the multi-billion dollar synthetic pesticide industry. A new system uses bees to help deliver natural pesticides and beneficial fungi directly to plants–and because bees are so much more precise than the typical sprayers on farms, they can use a tiny fraction of the pesticide and make plants stronger.

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“Imagine you have an apple orchard,” says Michael Collinson, president and CEO of Bee Vectoring Technology, the Vancouver-based startup behind the technology. “Because apple trees have a very large canopy, even though you may spray it and use a special type of spray that doesn’t go everywhere, you still won’t touch every bloom. Whereas the bees deliver product every single day, to every single bloom.”

The new system, originally developed by researchers at the University of Guelph, uses a tray filled with a patented mix of natural, beneficial microbes. The tray goes in a beehive that farmers already have. When bees head out to pollinate crops–their main job–they walk through the powder on the way, and end up delivering tiny helpful spores to flowers as they make their rounds.

Because the bumblebees deliver the powder directly to plants, they also help avoid runoff, a common problem with traditional pesticides. Typically, pesticide is mixed with hundreds of gallons of water and then sprayed everywhere. “99% of that is going to end up in the wrong place,” he says. “One percent ends up where it’s supposed to be, but 99% ends up in the water, or on the ground, or other non-targeted area.”

Normally, farmers can only spray once or twice while apple trees are in bloom, and because sets of trees bloom at different times, it’s easy to miss about half of the orchard. The bees can deliver their organic pesticide continuously, so fruit ends up stronger and more likely to make it to make it to the grocery store.

The special mix of powders also includes beneficial fungi that helps eliminate common diseases like botrytis, which causes mold. “When you go and buy strawberries and you put them in your fridge and they go gray and fuzzy, that’s botrytis,” says Collinson. “If you use our product from the beginning, you control that disease, and therefore you stop the fruit from actually starting to decay a lot sooner. In some cases we can make 10 to 12 days extra shelf life.”

The company has done years of testing to make sure the process is safe for bees. The materials in the powder are something that bees would naturally come across. “The bees are actually already carrying it, but they don’t carry it that often,” he says. “So what we’re doing as a company, what happens once in a while in nature, we’re making it happen consistently.”

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Because the process uses so little product–and free labor from bees–it’s priced competitively with traditional pesticide. The company’s main target is conventional farms, even though they qualify for organic use as well. “We are extremely cost-effective, and more importantly, our product is extremely efficient at controlling the pathogens that are out there,” says Collinson.

He sees the product as the beginning of a shift away from chemical pesticides. “we know that as the world population grows and we have to feed more and more people every day, the need for higher yields and higher quality in crops is paramount, and we’re certainly looking for non-chemical ways of doing that,” he says. “So we can find biological ways that work in concert with nature. I think that’s where most of the major chemical companies are starting to look, because it costs so much money to bring a new chemical to market.”

Bee Vectoring Technologies recently raised $3.1 million to bring their products to market.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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