- Researchers at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food are collaborating with industry to develop a natural, sustainable biocontrol which targets pests without harming honeybees and other beneficial pollinators
- Estimated global crop loss to pests – including insects, plant viruses and fungi – is around $100 billion every year, equating to a 40 per cent loss in global agricultural production
- New pesticide alternative could help achieve food security whilst protecting vital pollinators
A natural, sustainable alternative to pesticides that targets specific pests, without harming beneficial pollinators such as honeybees, is being developed with the help of researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield.
Working in collaboration with industry partner and leading agricultural company, Syngenta, experts at the institute are helping to develop a pioneering biocontrol that uses dsRNA-based biocontrols to target plant pests.
RNA is a molecule essential for the coding, decoding, regulation, and expression of genes. RNA-based biocontrols exploit a naturally occurring process called RNA interference (RNAi) in which double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) essentially stops the production of a critical protein in the target pest.
There is a significant need for innovative approaches to crop protection, driven by the need for greater food production, pest expansion linked to climate breakdown and the push for more sustainable farming practices.
New research published by the scientists in Analyst, a Royal Society of Chemistry journal, suggests this new approach could be key to addressing the threat to food security posed by plant pests, which account for a 40 percent loss in global agricultural production and costs $100 billion every year.
Professor Mark Dickman, from the Institute for Sustainable Food and Director of Research at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, led the study. He said: “The RNA biocontrols we are working on with Syngenta can help to address the sustainability challenge for farming. The idea is that dsRNA is applied to the crops, then along comes the pest, which eats the crop. The dsRNA molecule then kills the pest by triggering the RNAi mechanism. The advantage of this is that we can be highly selective. We have the ability to target a specific pest while protecting beneficial species, such as honeybees.
“A key challenge will be making enough of these biocontrols which are natural, biodegradable and sustainable, and to deliver them to the crops. We’re currently working on production strategies to make the RNA biocontrols and methods to analyze this important product.”
Mike Bean, Head of RNAi Platforms at Syngenta, said: “Syngenta has been developing the science behind RNA-based biocontrols for several years, led by scientists at our Ghent Innovation Centre in Belgium. We partner with a number of leading academic institutions and industry organizations to help address the many challenges involved in moving from concept to product.
“We are delighted to work with the experts at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food on some of the dsRNA production and analysis challenges as we continue to develop the high-quality science and data that will be needed to bring this innovative and exciting product to market for the benefit of farmers.”
The Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield brings together multidisciplinary expertise and world-class research facilities to help achieve food security and protect the natural resources we all depend on.
The study, Analysis of long dsRNA produced in vitro and in vivo using atomic force microscopy in conjunction with ion-pair reverse-phase HPLC, is published in the journal Analyst and can be accessed via: DOI:10.1039/C9AN00954J
It’s Commonplace to See Chefs Dressed in White — White Jackets, that is.
But it’s rare to watch culinarians zip up full-body white beekeeping suits with netted hoods as if they’re preparing to battle aliens from outer space.
Yet, if you dine at Polaris, the rotating restaurant with the blue dome above the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, you just might look down at the hotel roof a few stories below and catch a glimpse of a couple of chefs stepping into these white spacesuits. They’ve become pollinator crusaders.
Chefs are increasingly bringing attention to the importance of honeybees in our food supply. According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, nearly one-third of our food is the direct result of pollination by insects. The honeybee holds enough significance in Georgia agriculture that it has been the official insect of the state since 1975. Many chefs support the cause by sourcing locally produced
Executive chef Thomas McKeown checks one of the beehives in the rooftop bee garden at Hyatt Regency Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Blue Dome honey
Bees have been buzzing 25 stories above Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta since hives were installed at the Hyatt in 2013. When Thomas McKeown became the executive chef there in 2015, he agreed not only to oversee culinary operations at the property, but also its four hives and the 350,000 bees that are permanent residents of the hotel.
For McKeown, keeping bees on-site and showcasing that honey at the Hyatt — along with products from 70 other local food and beverage purveyors — is “a unique thing for guests to understand what Georgia is all about. There are not that many places in Atlanta where you can see your food and eat it too,” he said.
When McKeown suits up and checks on the hives, he looks for several things, such as the activity of the bees, their health, signs of pests, and, this time of year, the prized honey.
That honey makes its way into specialty Blue Dome brand honey ice cream churned by Marietta-based High Road Craft Ice Cream and available only at the hotel’s dining venues and sold in pints at its grab-and-go market in the atrium. The honeycomb is featured on meat and cheese boards at Polaris. Conference organizers can even plunk down extra bucks for a honey break table between meeting sessions. A sort of glorified coffee service setup, the honey table is a spread of sweet and savory nibbles all prepared with the hotel’s honey: honey-roasted almonds, pecan honey cakes, honey-drizzled peach slices, honey and goat cheese mini pockets and more.
Items such as pecan honey cakes use honey from the rooftop beehives at Hyatt Regency Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Turning a river into a runway
In late April, two beehives were installed at Ray’s on the River, the upscale restaurant that sits on the banks of the Chattahoochee River just south of I-285 in Sandy Springs. The project was the brainchild of its executive chef, Scott Hemmerly.
“I wanted to be able to say that we produce and grow honey that we use in everything from vinaigrette to cocktails,” Hemmerly said. “Just walking around here, I felt like, ‘Man, how could it not work here?’ There are so many plants and everything to support a hive.”
A Google search for beekeepers led him to Brooke Vacovsky, a member of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association, certified beekeeper and founder of Southeast Beescapes.
Once Vacovsky was hired — she charges a $500 fee for the installation plus a yearly $1,000 maintenance fee that includes two hive inspection visits a month, honey harvesting services and disease diagnosis and treatment — the first step was to determine where to place the hives at Ray’s.
Safety was a priority for Hemmerly. “For Easter, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, we’re pushing 2,000 people on the property all day long. Even if it’s not a holiday, for regular Sunday brunch, we’re doing 500, 600 people, and they’re scattered on the lawn. I don’t want to have kids that are not overly supervised getting off the beaten path and accidentally disturbing the hive.”
They settled on a spot just feet from the river and a good distance from the manicured lawn and garden. “It’s far enough away to where you’d really have to run up and kick it over,” Hemmerly said.
Besides the safety of guests, the bees’ own needs dictate site placement, Vacovsky explained. Bees require access to a food supply, known as forage, which consists of nectar and pollen from blooming plants. Flora already grows naturally within the flight range of the bees at Ray’s, but Hemmerly also planted pollinator-friendly berry bushes, tomatoes, peppers and fragrant herbs like lavender in the restaurant’s garden.
Water, too, is essential. According to Vacovsky, a hive can go through up to 3 gallons of water on a hot day. The restaurant’s proximity to the river eliminated that problem.
She also elevated the hive so that the bees “had a space to go out and over something. In this case, the Chattahoochee is kind of a runway for them to come out onto.”
With Vacovsky’s help, the colonies have grown from 9,000 to 50,000 bees per hive.
But that growth has come with learning curves. Initially, the hive wasn’t getting enough sunlight, which affected production and stunted the growth of the colony. “Bees have a circadian rhythm similar to ours that is defined by the sun,” Vacovsky said. “When the sun rises and hits nicely on the front of the hive, they get up first thing in the morning and are productive. If not, they get a little lazy.”
After tree branches around the hives were trimmed back, the population exploded.
The sweet story of nectar
Since this first year is all about establishing the hives at Ray’s, honey won’t be extracted there until next spring. And when it is, Hemmerly has grand plans for a honey harvest dinner. “I want an estate table down on the lawn. Forty people, 20 on each side. And just line the table with ingredients from the garden. It would be really super great to have honey as a part of every dish, every course,” he mused.
Meanwhile, owner Ray Schoenbaum still sees a way to tell the story now. As Vacovsky and Hemmerly inspected the hive on a hot day in late June, Schoenbaum pointed to the low metal fencing that formed a perimeter around the installation. He wanted something prettier. A picket fence perhaps. And, for sure, signage to explain the project to guests who happened upon the hives.
There is certainly an educational component that Atlanta’s beekeeping chefs are tapping into.
David Bartlett, chef de cuisine at Southern Art and Bourbon Bar in Buckhead, has a special device that he uses for show and tell about the honey produced by bees at his home in Gwinnett and served at the restaurant.
Beehives are made of a series of thin frames that are inserted vertically into a box, like an upended dresser drawer. The bees fill the frames with honey and, when the frames are full, they cap them, sealing them with wax.
But a picture is worth a thousand words. So, Bartlett engaged a woodworking friend to build him a “honey luge” — a wooden contraption on which he can rest one of the frames from his own hive. When honey drips down from the frame, it slides into a honey pot to the sweet delight of Southern Art diners.
Bartlett brings out the honey luge during weekend brunches. “It’s a good focal point to tell a story around. People are really interested when you talk about the honeybees and what they are responsible for,” he said.
For Mother’s Day, he brought in a mobile hive enclosed in glass. “It gives anybody a chance to see what they do. It is a really cool experience,” Bartlett said.
However, the experience gave Bartlett a bit of anxiety. “My worst fear was that thing falling over,” he admitted. Yet Bartlett is a mobile beehive veteran, having worked with bees and similar displays since his tenure at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, where bees were kept on the third-floor rooftop. “No guest has ever been stung during one of my displays,” he said.
Bees were also the center of attention at a recent dinner at Bacchanalia hosted by chef-owner Anne Quatrano, who, along with her husband Clifford Harrison, has been keeping bees at their farm in Cartersville for more than 20 years. The couple especially depend on the bees to pollinate the trees in their orchard.
“You kind of need them,” she said. “Without them, you don’t get fruit.”
Dubbed “Give Bees a Chance,” the four-course dinner was a fundraiser for the Whole Kids Foundation bee grant program, which supports educational beehives at schools and nonprofit organizations.
More than 80 guests supped on dishes — from roasted duck and crab fritters to a blackberry dessert — touched with the honey from Quatrano’s farm as well as that supplied by event sponsor Savannah Bee Co.
Similar to special events at Southern Art, a glass-encased nuc (short for nucleus) box holding a small colony of bees was on display during the dinner at Bacchanalia.
“You could see them at work. Honeybees are really gentle and sweet,” Quatrano said. “It’s great to teach people that they are not to be feared, so they don’t kill them.”
Quatrano and Harrison have lived with bees long enough that they are practically part of the family. Harrison, the primary beekeeper, does not use a suit when visiting the hives. The bees hang out around the saltwater pool on the property, stopping to quench their thirst.
She recounted a time when she picked up a new hive and had to transport it in a rental car because her truck needed repairs. The bees were as behaved as a well-trained dog as they buzzed around the interior of the car while Quatrano drove. “They were all around my head, but they never stung me. Some of them sat on me. They are friendly and nice.”
Who’s with me?
When a restaurant takes on a new initiative — from recycling programs to house-made charcuterie — the success of the project takes buy-in from staff.
It’s not enough that McKeown has taken a class with the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association or that he’s got the help of pastry chef James Gallo, who previously kept bees when he worked at a restaurant in New Jersey, or another pair of willing hands in sous chef Adam Sheff. The front-of-house at Polaris need to know about the bee venture so that guests can appreciate the uniqueness of the honey that makes its way into dishes at the restaurant or can inquire about the hotel’s rooftop bee mural painted by Georgia State University. And the sales and marketing teams need to know what differentiates the property from other downtown hotels if they want to attract and win accounts.
In late June, members of the Hyatt sales and marketing teams gathered in the massive kitchen in the bowels of the hotel to watch McKeown and his crew extract honey. They had invested in their own extractor, and it was the first time they’d be harvesting honey in-house. Gallo cut the beeswax off capped frames, heavy with the weight of honey. McKeown inserted them into the machine. The frames spun around and around. He opened the spigot at the base and raw honey poured out into a 5-gallon bucket, the work of 350,000 busy honeybees.
“That’s an extension of our staff,” McKeown said.
(Beyond Pesticides, August 23, 2019) The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a report criticizing EPA’s oversight of states’ Managed Pollinator Protection Plans (MP3s). OIG conducted an audit, on which the report is based, to evaluate agency performance in overseeing MP3s, voluntary plans adopted at the state level with the goal to “reduce pesticide exposure to pollinators (generally, honey bees managed and contracted out to growers for pollination services) through timely communication and coordination among key stakeholders.”
- EPA has no means to evaluate the national impact of MP3s.
- The agency has not developed a strategy to use data from a planned fall 2019 survey (see more below on the AAPCO/SFIREG/EPA survey) to evaluate either the national impact of MP3s or the agency’s support of state MP3 implementation efforts.
- EPA focuses primarily on acute risks (those that occur during a single exposure to a specific pesticide), and gives insufficient attention to chronic exposures to pesticides and to native pollinator protection activities.
The history of the MP3 program starts in 2014, when President Obama issued a memo establishing a Pollinator Health Task Force (PHTF), directing federal agencies to take action to improve the health of honey bees and other pollinators. The memo required EPA to: assess the effects of pesticides on pollinator health; engage states and tribes in the development of pollinator protection plans; encourage the incorporation of pollinator protection and habitat planting activities into green infrastructure and Superfund projects; expedite review of registration applications for new products targeting pests harmful to pollinators; and increase habitat plantings around federal facilities. In response, EPA proposed the establishment of Managed Pollinator Protection Plans by each state as a primary vehicle to achieve improved health status of pollinators.
The MP3s were conceived as a means to enhance communication and mitigate exposure risks, with the expectation that expertise within the respective states could help design solutions for local and regional circumstances. In most states, development of the plans was relegated to the state agriculture department, which are often also responsible for pesticide regulation oversight and enforcement. Also in response to the Obama directive, EPA presented a widely criticized proposal on reducing acute exposure risks to pollinators — meant to address bees likely to be exposed from application of acutely toxic pesticides.
Beginning in 2015, EPA encouraged states to convene relevant stakeholders and develop MP3s, and worked with the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials (AAPCO), and an AAPCO committee called the State FIFRA Issues, Research and Evaluation Group (SFIREG), to offer guidance on plan development. The final step in the process set out by the PHTF was for EPA to measure the effectiveness of state MP3s, through state review of factors such as overall pollinator health, exposure risks, and behavior and communication as barometers of efficacy. By the start of 2018, 45 states had developed (or were in the process of developing) such plans; see coverage of states MP3s here. By May 2019, AAPCO and SFIREG and EPA created a survey to evaluate MP3s; the plan is to distribute the survey to state pesticide agencies in the fall of 2019.
As Beyond Pesticides noted back in 2015, the MP3s would likely vary widely from state to state in terms of their approaches and compliance requirements. As it turns out, states are “all over the map” in terms of what their MP3s set out.
Stakeholders — state, tribal, and local governments, farmers/growers, beekeepers, landowners, nongovernmental organizations, pesticide applicators, have been brought into the MP3 process at the state level. Some of those have noted that the efficacy of the plans in terms of genuine protection of pollinators could be compromised because of EPA foci on acute risks and on managed pollinators. MP3s are limited to managed pollinators not under contract pollination services at the site of application — meaning that the well-being of wild and native bees goes unaddressed by the plans.
The OIG report states, “According to the stakeholders we interviewed, impacts from pesticide exposures are complex and a threat to pollinator health,” and “The focus on acute, site-specific pesticide risks and contracted pollinators means that related areas — such as chronic contact with pesticides and native pollinator protection activities identified in the NPMG — may not be receiving an appropriate level of attention.” In addition, advocates such as Beyond Pesticides have identified shortcomings in EPA’s role. One is that the MP3s, including their development of Best Management Practices (BMPs) mandated by the Presidential memo, were allowed to be entirely voluntary. Allowing states such latitude was predicted to be, and has been, inadequate to the task of protecting pollinators.
For example, in 2016 Beyond Pesticides wrote to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) to say that its MP3 fell short of adequate protection of pollinator populations in the state, particularly by not taking a strong stance against the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Beyond Pesticides recommended that MDAR adopt the recommendations of the state beekeepers’ Pollinator Protection Plan Framework. (See public comments on the Massachusetts MP3 here.) Additionally, Beyond Pesticides encouraged MDAR to: protect and monitor native pollinators; create pollinator habitat that is free of pesticide contamination; and improve regulatory enforcement and compliance statewide. Discouragingly, in 2018 in Massachusetts — where beekeepers lost 65% of their honey bee hives, a rate 25% higher than the national average — the state Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have restricted the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in the state to protect sensitive pollinators.
Some of the concerns voiced by Beyond Pesticides and other stakeholders about EPA’s oversight of MP3s in the states appear to have surfaced in the OIG report, which concluded that “EPA needs to decide how it will measure, support and assist in the implementation of MP3s.” The report made five recommendations to be carried out by the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention:
- Develop and implement a strategy that will use Managed Pollinator Protection Plan survey data to measure the national impact of the Managed Pollinator Protection Plans.
- Using survey data, determine how the EPA will assist states with implementing their Managed Pollinator Protection Plans.
- Using survey data, fully communicate to states what Managed Pollinator Protection Plan implementation assistance is available from the EPA and how this assistance will be provided.
- Determine whether and how the EPA will help states address additional areas of concern — such as chronic pesticide risks and other limitations identified by stakeholders — through their Managed Pollinator Protection Plan implementation efforts.
- Determine how the EPA can use the Managed Pollinator Protection Plan survey results to advance its National Program Manager Guidance goals and its regulatory mission.
The dire state of our pollinators, and insect biodiversity generally, makes protective regulation and activity profoundly urgent. Follow developments in pollinator protection through Beyond Pesticides’ Daily News Blog, its BEE Protective webpage, which includes actions the public can take, and via its quarterly journal, Pesticides and You. The public can also contact federal elected officials to insist that they support the Saving America’s Pollinators Act, HR 1337, which would cancel specific bee-toxic pesticides, and establish a review and cancellation process for all pesticides that are potentially harmful to pollinators. More ideas for community-based pollinator protection can be found here.
Show Us Your Beekeeping Plates!!
That’s the Editors License Plate…BEEMAG. He has a personal plate that he pays extra for, and he makes a contribution to the Ohio State Beekeepers Association so he has that extra bit on it, too. What we want from you is YOUR STATE’S Plate, with your beekeeping message on it. But this can work 3 ways….a simple personal plate that says something like BEEMAG. Or a regular plate that advertises your state association, like the OSBA does here, or your plate like this one that has both. Be Proud of your state, your plate and your message. Show the world your BEEMessage. Send a cell phone shot to email@example.com, with PLATE in the subject box. We’ll share it with the world.