Bee M.D.: fungus-wielding insects prevent cherry disease

By / 24th of September, 2014

RESEARCHERS from the University of Adelaide have repurposed a bee-delivery disease control system to prevent brown rot in cherry orchards - potentially bolstering the world's flagging bee population at the same time.

The technology has been used in Europe to control strawberry grey mould, however this breakthrough could lead to effective disease control in almonds, grapes, strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear and stone fruit.

“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," says project leader and bee researcher Dr Katja Hogendoorn.

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

The biological control agent contains spores of a parasitic fungus that prevents another fungus that causes the brown rot from colonising the flower.

Every morning, the cherry grower sprinkles the spores into a specially designed dispenser that has been fitted in front of the hive. The bees pick up the spores between their body hairs and bring them to the flowers.

Dr Hogendoorn says the use of bees has many environmental and economic benefits compared to spraying fungicide.

“The bees deliver control on target, every day,” she says. “There is no spray drift or run-off into the environment, less use of heavy equipment, water, labour and fuel.”

Dr Hogendoorn says adoption of the technique will have the additional benefit of building up the honey bee industry and the number of managed hives. This will help prepare Australia for the expected incursion of the Varroa mite which is causing great damage and cost to bee and horticultural industries around the world.

“Brown rot is caused by a fungus which significantly impacts the $150 million Australian cherry industry through costs of applying fungicide, yield loss and fruit spoilage,” says Dr Hogendoorn, a postdoctoral research associate with the University’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine.

“The ‘flying doctors’ technology is used successfully in Europe to control strawberry grey mould, but it’s the first time for Australia and the first time in cherry orchards anywhere,” Dr Hogendoorn says.

With increasing availability of suitable biological control agents, future application of the ‘flying doctors’ technology is expected to become available for disease control on a multitude of crops.

The ‘flying doctors’ project is funded by the Australian Government through a Department of Agriculture Innovation Grant. 

It was demonstrated publicly for the first time at a field day today hosted by Cherry Growers of South Australia and the researchers at Lennane Orchards, Montacute.

Key contacts

Dr Katja Hogendoorn Postdoctoral research associate University of Adelaide School of Agriculture, Food and Wine
61 08 8313 6555
Robyn Mills Media and Communications Officer University of Adelaide
61 8 8313 6341