Prof. Claudia Wagner-Riddle

Protecting dwindling honeybee populations and improving soil health are the goals of two University of Guelph initiatives that received more than $1.4 million in federal support today.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) awarded Strategic Partnership Grants to Prof. Rod Merrill, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Prof. Claudia Wagner-Riddle, School of Environmental Sciences.

The announcement was made today in Ottawa by Kirsty Duncan, minister of science. In total, 94 grants worth $50 million were awarded. They support early-stage research expected to enhance Canada’s economy, society or the environment in the next decade.

 “This is wonderful news for the University that speaks to our research strengths, especially in agri-food,” said Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research).

“Professors Merrill and Wagner-Riddle are working to solve two of today’s major environmental challenges: pollinator decline and soil quality. Not only are they developing innovative and effective solutions, but they are doing so in natural, sustainable ways.”

Merrill will use his three-year, $810,000 grant to develop natural products into agents to treat deadly diseases in honeybees, including bacteria-borne American foulbrood and parasitic mite infections.

Since 2006, North American and European beekeepers have lost about one-third of their colonies every year.

Pollinator declines threaten managed and natural ecosystems, and hurt farmers and beekeepers. Although colony losses remain largely unexplained, many experts believe stress on honeybees makes them more vulnerable to disease.

“This funding from NSERC is very important and timely for our research program,” Merrill said.

Prof. Rod Merrill and members of his research lab

“It will provide the resources for us to engage a team of researchers with varied expertise in the areas of bacterial disease, drug discovery, entomology and pollinator health.”

Wagner-Riddle will use a $614,353 grant to help improve soil quality. She will look at cropping practices that mimic natural ecosystems and improve resiliency to climate change.

Farming can reduce soil quality, even as a growing world requires more food.

Wagner-Riddle’s research team will compare conventional and perennialized annual cropping systems (where the soil is never left unseeded) using corn, winter wheat and soybeans.

Researchers from three U of G departments are involved, as well as scientists from the University of Saskatchewan, Western University and the University of Toronto.

“These are new collaborations and we are very excited about the research we will conduct over the next three years,” Wagner-Riddle said. “Each researcher brings a unique perspective and expertise to this very important topic.”

A recent report on Ontario’s soil health from the province’s environmental commissioner calls for rebuilding soil health expertise and encouraging “soil-friendly” production practices.