On David Passafiume's organic farm an hour north of Toronto, there's a crew of hundreds of workers who help spread a natural pesticide to crops. They work almost every day, live on the farm, and don't even get paid: turns out bumblebees are happy to do this work for free.
Bees have always played an important role in agriculture as pollinators: The USDA estimates every third bite of food we eat benefits from honey bee pollination. But a Canadian startup is enlisting bees to help out on the farm in a new way. Bee Vector Technology, or BVT, has designed a system that allows bumblebees to walk through a tray of a natural, mold-fighting fungus on their way out of the hive to pollinate flowers. The harmless fungus actually protects plants from fungal diseases.
The company bills the technology as a cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic fungicides. As more people start paying attention to the chemicals sprayed on their foods, growers are looking for new solutions to protect their crops. But can bees really do as good of a job as pesticide sprayers?
"It works. It's been night and day, honestly," farmer Passafiume told me over the phone. He's been using BVT's system for seven years to protect his strawberry plants from gray mold, a nasty fungus that Passafiume said could wipe out as much as 60 percent of his crop during bad years. Since he started using BVT, he said the amount of gray mold on his strawberries is nearly zero.
"We just don't get it. It just doesn't happen anymore," he said.
The founders of BVT aren't the first to consider using bees to spread organic plant protectors, but they're one of the first to take it to market. BVT has been testing out its technology for years on multiple different crops and recently opened a commercial production facility. Michael Collinson, the CEO of BVT, told me the system should be on the market in North America by late 2017.
Internal studies Collinson sent to me showed that BVT's technology protected strawberry plants from gray mold just as well as traditional pesticides, and actually resulted in a higher yield: more than double the number of strawberries were harvested from bee-treated plants than pesticide-treated ones. These results haven't been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but the general concept behind the technology has been formally studied in the past. Still, there are a number of possible challenges to letting bumblebees dole out natural fungicides.
"One challenge, of course, is ensuring that all or the majority of flowers are visited by bees," said Patrick Byers, a regional horticulture specialist with the University of Missouri Extension who is an expert in plant pathology. "You're also delivering a living organism in environmental conditions. These organisms are vulnerable to conditions—if it's too hot, or too cold, or too dry. You need a way to make sure they arrive to the flower alive."
It's also not clear if the technology could work on a large, industrial scale (Passafiume's family farm grows just 8.5 acres of berries). Byers, who has no affiliation with BVT, told me he wouldn't write the technology off and said it could prove to be a really innovative approach to fending off plant disease, but said there needs to be more research to prove the concept works. Otherwise, it might be hard to convince farmers to change their ways.
But Collinson told me that's what BVT is aiming to do right now: convince farmers that this technology not only works just as well as traditional pesticides, but can actually improve their crops and save money. Not worrying about gray mold means farmers can water their plants more readily. Allowing them to plump up and reducing the amount of pesticides saves money in products, equipment, and labor.
Passafiume is already on board and said it's only a matter of time until other farmers see the benefit.
"There's that mentality where if you're not in the sprayer trying to control stuff, you don't feel like you've done your bit. But I can't imagine, with the results coming in, people won't make the switch," Passafiume said. "I've been stung a couple of times, but that's the only downside."