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Bees Act as Doctors to Prevent Cherry Disease

Sep 26, 2014 01:07 PM EDT

Bees in Australia are now adding "doctor" to their job description, as they are being used to prevent disease in cherry blossoms.

University of Adelaide researchers are introducing a method to use bees to deliver disease control to cherry blossom, preventing brown rot in cherries.

"All commercial cherry growers spray during flowering to control the later development of cherry brown rot. Instead of spraying fungicide, we're using bees to deliver a biological control agent right to the flowers where it is needed. This uses an innovative delivery method called entomovectoring," project leader and bee researcher Dr. Katja Hogendoorn explained in a statement.

The Australian cherry industry is worth $150 million, and brown rot is seriously detrimental to cherry growers, who are forced to use fungicide to combat the disease, otherwise risk food spoiling and lower crop yields.

But bees, of all things, are offering a solution. The biological control agent researchers used contains spores of a parasitic fungus that prevents another fungus that causes the brown rot from colonizing the flower. Tested by cherry growers in southern Australia, they would sprinkle the spores into a specially designed dispenser that has been fitted in front of a beehive. The bees pick up the spores between their body hairs and bring them to the flowers.

These "flying doctors" have been used before in Europe to control strawberry grey mold, but this is the first time they've been successfully implemented in Australia, and cherry orchards in general.

"The bees deliver control on target, every day," Hogendoorn said. "There is no spray drift or run-off into the environment, less use of heavy equipment, water, labor and fuel."

Researchers hope that this technique can become available for disease control in almonds, grapes, strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear and stone fruit as well.

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