11/20/2015 07:21 EST | Updated 11/19/2016 05:12 EST

'Beenomics' researchers help beekeepers breed custom bees

Canadian beekeepers are getting help in breeding the ultimate bee - with custom traits including the ability to survive a harsh Canadian winter.

The Beenomics Project is headed by Amro Zayed at Toronto's York University and Leonard Foster at the University of British Columbia. It's aimed at developing tools that would allow beekeepers to read the genetic code of individual bee colonies and find out how they compare for certain traits. They would then breed the  bees to select for particular qualities, such higher honey production, better disease resistance and the ability to survive the winter.

"Winter is a big one," Zayed told CBC's The Current.

Last year, almost of half of Ontario's honeybee colonies didn't make it through the winter, he said. On average, about a quarter of honeybee colonies across Canada die before spring.

"If a colony's been dealing with a lot of pathogens and pests — if they're already stressed — they might not have enough energy resources in terms of honey to get over this very long winter of ours," Zayed said

Beekeepers have already come up with a list of 12 traits they're interested in improving. In addition to those already mentioned, they include lower aggression and better hive hygiene – the tendency for bees to groom parasites like mites off each other, preventing disease.

These aren't as easy to breed for as, say, the size and coat colour in dogs and cats, but the good news is they're almost all partly controlled by genetics, Zayed says.

Next summer, researchers across Canada will measure those traits in 1,000 honeybee colonies across the country and sequence their genomes to figure out which genes control specific traits. Researchers will also be looking at the role of different proteins found in bee tissues.

The findings won't be used to create a single super-bee in the lab. Instead, the information can be used by beekeepers to create their own custom breeds, Zayed said.

"We're just creating a set of tools that beekeepers can use to propagate the bees that do best in their conditions and where they live," he said.

Despite the evidence that honeybees can be harmed by exposure to pesticides, pesticide resistance is a trait that the researchers won't be looking at. Zayed says beekeepers would rather that pesticides be regulated – something that would also protect wild bees – than breed honeybees to resist something that wild bees can't.

"We think it's probably ethically wrong," Zayed said.