Brussels, 19 Jul 2006
Honey is one of humankind's oldest food projects. In Greece, apiculture, the science of beekeeping, took place in early prehistoric times and there are a plethora of myths related to it. Honey was even found in Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt. Today, beekeeping is a profession and hobby throughout Europe and beyond.
Numerous European and national regulations control honey quality, but the increasingly polluted environment, together with the rise in use of agrochemicals, honey is at risk of being polluted. A further threat is the broad spectrum of chemicals used to treat honeybee diseases, which can contaminate honey with highly toxic compounds.
The BEE SHOP project brings together a network of nine leading European honeybee research groups and industrial partners, funded under the 'Food Quality and Safety' thematic priority of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The project's primary ambition is to reduce potential sources of honey contamination caused by bees foraging in nectar contaminated with insecticide, and by the treatment of honeybee diseases using chemicals (chemotherapy). 'Since there is an increase in honeybee diseases, novel chemotherapies have been developed,' project coordinator Professor Robin Moritz told CORDIS News. 'Typically most bees are susceptible to diseases, but there may be strains that are less susceptible and we are in search of these,' he added. The project has the very ambitious goal of totally eliminating the need for chemicals to control honeybee diseases.
In addition, the team hopes to: identify compounds in honey that cure honeybee diseases; isolate genes that determine disease resistance; understand how foraging in contaminated nectar can be avoided; and develop novel beekeeping techniques to reduce the spread of diseases within and between colonies.
All of the BEE SHOP objectives, in different ways, have the ultimate goals of improving and securing the quality of honey. 'The food chain for honey will therefore be meticulously dissected, from the jar down to every single nectar droplet in the flower to be foraged by the individual worker honeybee. Every step in the food chain will be probed to mitigate contamination at any stage,' say the project partners. Until now, there has been no standard means of quality testing, and this will be addressed by the partners.
A particularly innovative component of the project will be the use of the honeybee genome to develop molecular tools for mating control and the selection of disease resistant colonies. There are particular genes which control specific disease resistance in honeybees. The ability to control mating and select stock would cut out completely the need for chemotherapy. Previous selection programmes for disease resistance have had only mixed success, primarily because the testing and selection of honeybee colonies is extremely time consuming - usually two years per generation.
Since queen bees and drones mate in flight, some 20 metres above ground, mating control is also difficult.
Another way to avoid honey contamination is to control the behaviour of bees while foraging for nectar and therefore control of the sources from which honey is produced. The team will therefore identify genes that control behavioural and physiological mechanisms.
Most of Europe's honeybee research groups are not used to working together, although there have been networks funded under the EU's Fourth and Fifth Framework Programmes. Bringing the groups together benefits all participants. 'Internationally excellent groups are scattered around Europe. This network brings them together, and yes, we profit because of the complementing expertise,' said Professor Moritz.