Ag start-up pioneers bee-powered crop protection promising better quality fruit to retailers and consumers

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Peter Shaw
Image: Getty/Peter Shaw

Related tags Fruit Vegetable Pesticide Fungus Bees

A Canadian ag-tech start-up that utilises the humble but industrious bumblebee to offer fruit and vegetable growers an alternative to spraying their crops with pesticides has its sights on the European market.

Bee Vectoring Technology (BVT) – which has just set up its European office in Switzerland – has introduced a natural and organic fungicide to help fruit growers destroy the harmful fungi that affect crop yields, such as the dreaded botrytis cinerea ​or ‘grey mould’ which reaps significant yield loss in fruit production.

Developed for over a decade at the University of Guelph in Ontario, BVT says its fungicide – itself a fungus called clonostachys​ that occurs naturally in the environment -- allows growers to produce greater quantities of better-quality fruit and vegetables at a cost price directly competitive with chemical sprayed alternatives.

BVT staff
BVT staff sets up its natural precision agriculture system on a farm in the US

Nature’s best workers

BVT uses bumblebees to carry and distribute the fungicide as a powder during their pollination route. These commercially reared bees walk through a tray of the fine inoculating powder before exiting their hive, going on to drop spores on each plant they visit.

The powder is absorbed by the plants, enabling them to block destructive diseases.  

The innovation was recently granted Environmental Protection Agency approval in the US: the first time, according to the BVT, the US EPA has ever approved a bee delivered crop protection product.

“It is completely natural, uses no water and is harmless to bees, animals and humans​,” a BVT spokesperson told FoodNavigator. He said recent large-scale commercial demonstrations on strawberries have shown that the BVT system delivers comparable, if not improved, disease protection over sprayed chemicals, as well as significant yield increases.

Blueberry crop trials showed up to 77% higher fruit yield compared to the non-treated control, he said. The number of marketable berries per stem was 50% higher than with chemical standard. There was also a 21% cut in incidence of Monilinia blight (mummy berry).

A standard increase in yield is around 25-30%,”​ the spokesperson added. “When you spray plants, they stop growing for a bit, whereas this is more precise. As there's no need to use chemicals so the fruit keeps growing.”

He said the solution was also scaleabale. Typically, growers require approximately three hives of bees to work a hectare of crops. "As long as you have enough bees, they will visit the entire crop. There's a very small amount of product actually needed to inoculate a large area of crop. The reduction in actual materials that are needing to be purchased by a farmer is incredibly low.”

Swiss trial

BVT has just completed a strawberry and raspberry trial with one of the largest organic fruit growers in Switzerland. Simon Rass, co-founder of Rass Wildbeeren, which supplies supermarkets in Switzerland, including two of the biggest, Coop and Migros, told FoodNavigator the BVT system saves him time and has led to more fruit of better quality. He added it was an ideal solution to farmers seeking to avoid the much-publicised problems associated with chemicals such as pesticide drift.

“It’s very easy to handle. There’s no need to spray water or a use a tractor,​" he said. "I don't use oil, or CO2. I must go twice a week to change the powder, that's all. We are happy with the results because we couldn't see any ​botrytis cinerea on the berries. Shelf life is also much better and that's a really important point for the retailers.” 

He estimated that the BVT system allowed him to produce berries rated 90-95% ‘first class’, up from 70-80% previously. "There is no difference in price for my customers but for me it's better because I have more healthier fruits and more fruit generally."

BVT says its innovation currently suits strawberries, tomatoes and raspberries. In the future, it will able to be used in the growing of other berries, stone fruits and vegetables.

BVT is awaiting approval in Switzerland and says it intends to submit for registration in the EU soon. Last month, it was buoyed after receiving a patent by the European Patent Office and is targeting markets in Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Poland and Hungary.

In the meantime, the company estimates current global fungicides market is valued at US$18.7 billion and projected to grow to US$24.5 billion by 2025 amid increased demand for food security by growing populations, advances in farming practices and techniques, and changing climate conditions that lead to disease.

BVT CEO Ashish Malik said: “Europe is a major opportunity for BVT, as growers there are rapidly adopting sustainable practices to reduce chemical use and environmental impacts. BVT’s system is a powerful tool to help them accomplish that.”

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