Newfoundland is home to an unusually healthy population of honeybees. The bees have attracted the attention of researchers seeking to understand the causes of widespread honeybee deaths around the globe. Honeybees have a vital role as pollinators of food crops so it is critically necessary to keep a large enough population of healthy bees to fulfill this role.
Nancy Ostiguy, associate professor of entomology at Penn State University, is the lead author of a study published recently in the journal PLOS ONE. She and her team found that the bees in Newfoundland are free from the pests and chemical contaminants that are so destructive to bees in other areas, and thus provide a unique opportunity to tease apart the differences between the healthy and unhealthy populations.
Newfoundland’s geographical isolation has so far protected its bees from the most serious biological threats. These include the Varroa destructor mite and the Nosema ceranae fungus. The mite and fungus have not been found on the island and are unlikely to make their way there through natural means. Bees can only be imported with a permit, and then only from countries that are known to be free of the Varroa destructor mite; this guards against accidental transfer of these pests into the area.
The most destructive chemical threat to honeybees is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are commonly used on large corn or soybean farms, and can have deadly effects on surrounding hives. Dave Jennings, a director with the provincial Natural Resources department, explains that Newfoundland’s terrain is too rocky and its growing season is too short to allow farming on a scale that would use these pesticides.
As Newfoundland beekeepers continue to be vigilant in guarding the health of their hives, researchers will continue to study them, with the goal of understanding and arresting the decline in the number of the world’s honeybees.