Canadian ag-tech start-up Bee Vectoring Technology (BVT) has successfully developed a commercial alternative to pesticide spraying, using bees to carry and distribute an organic, inoculating powder during their pollination route.
The bumblebees walk through a specialty tray of the fungal biopesticide called Vectorite before exiting their hive, going on to drop these spores on each plant they visit. The naturally occurring fungus is then absorbed by the plants, enabling them to block any destructive diseases.
The concept was first developed by professors at the University of Guelph some 20 years ago. The professors are now retired and have been advising BVT since its creation in 2012.
BVT CEO Ashish Malik told Fresh Fruit Portal that the application technique is more efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional crop spraying methods.
“There are many biological products that are being used by farmers these days, but the way they’re applied is the same way that traditional chemicals are also applied, which is that you’re using spray equipment,” he said.
He said this often results in a lot of wasted product and water runoff, in addition to a lot of water being used to begin with.
“Certainly our product could be applied that way – and it would still be fully organic and would work – but we’ve taken it one step further because not only do we have this organic pesticide but what we are all about is a very targeted delivery without the use of water,” he said.
As with traditional application methods, more than one active ingredient can be used at once.
Malik also highlighted that not only do the biopesticides protect against insect and bacterial pests, such as botrytis, but they have also been shown to stimulate growth and boost plant vigor.
In 2016, having already done some early proof-of-concept studies, BVT carried out trials with third-party researchers on crops including blueberries, strawberries and indoor tomatoes in a range of countries such as the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Spain and Italy.
“All the work that we’ve done has shown that we have equal or better effect on the crop as compared to the chemical-only program,” he said.
“In some cases we’ve actually shown that we can be a direct substitute, in other cases what we’ve shown is that you can use the bees and the chemical program and get a really large bump in yield.
“This is all about additional productivity [and] profit to the grower in an environmentally responsible way.”
The company is also working on a traditional spraying formulation for its microbes, which Malik said would be useful to protect against diseases that don’t typically affect crops during the bloom period when the bees are used.
Extensive studies of the biopesticide on bee safety have demonstrated there is no danger to bee populations, he added.
“You and I could take a scoop of this and eat it without problems,” he said.
“To the extent that this system gets commercialized and the farmer can reduce the amount of chemicals that are being sprayed on the crop, you’ve got this nice sustainable model where the bees are actually helping themselves.”
BVT will soon be commercially launching its technology for strawberry and blueberry growers in the U.S. Southeast and is aiming for a submission in the European Union in 2019.
The company is also in talks with potential business partners in countries around the world, including large indoor crop producers or berry producers, and Malik believes the application method will help farmers adapt to some of the biggest challenges facing the produce industry.
“This is another tool that the farmers can use to increase productivity in a sustainable way – fewer chemicals, less water, less machinery,” he said.
“We think we’ve got solid technology. We have patents on five different aspects of our technology, over 60 patent applications worldwide, so it’s been well received. In the industry as well we have many partnerships going on and we’re very excited about the future.”