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Can 'worker flies' help Japan beat a honeybee shortage?

While popular with growers, squeamish consumers remain a hurdle

Fruit growers in Toyoda, Aichi Prefecture are using flies to pollinate strawberry flowers. (Photo by Koji Uema)

TOKYO -- Faced with declining numbers of honeybees, farmers in Japan are turning to a special breed of flies to pollinate crops.

Negative preconceptions aside, the practice is drawing attention as a new way to pollinate, one not affected by weather or stinging bees. Still, whether fly-based pollination can win over squeamish consumers enough to gain widespread acceptance is yet to be seen.

Japan Maggot Co., a medical venture that got its start at Okayama University, is raising pollinator flies in strictly controlled environments at a warehouse in a residential part of Okayama in southwestern Japan. According to the company's 59-year-old Takuya Sato, the shiny green flies are "sanitary."

Known as phaenicia sericata, or the common green bottle fly, the insects are most active in sunlight in the autumn, which their breeding devices at the company closely replicate. The flies are fed beef, poultry and sugared water to get them to lay eggs, which are raised separately and shipped as pupa to farmers, who then raise them into adult flies.

Japan Maggot has been raising green bottle fly larvae for medical purposes, mainly to help wounds in diabetic patients to mend by cleaning the wound and secreting antibacterials -- a process that can prevent amputations.

As pollinators, the flies work much like bees, flying to the flowers of fruits and vegetables to spread pollen, while nurturing themselves on nectar. Japan Maggot has named them Bee Fly.

Unlike more sedate and weather-sensitive bees, flies can work in a wide range of temperatures and are less affected by weather conditions. (Photo by Koji Uema)

The company produced some 40,000 pupae in fiscal 2011 when it began shipments, increasing this to 12 million in 2019. It now supplies flies to about 500 farmers, mainly strawberry growers.

"I could ship nice strawberries thanks to [Bee Fly]," said Taiki Naruse, a grower in Aichi Prefecture. Naruse started using the flies in the autumn of 2019, letting 2,000 loose inside his greenhouses. "They don't sting," he laughed.

Decimated honeybee populations around the world have thrown the spotlight on Fly Bee as a possible substitute. With massive honeybee deaths occurring since the 1990s, a quarter of bees in the Northern Hemisphere are estimated to have died. Experts have yet to determine the exact cause for the phenomenon, but it may be linked to parasite-invested larvae failing to grow into adults, or the effects of agricultural chemicals.

Flies offer distinct benefits to growers. Unlike bees, which become less active and tend to stay in hives during hot, cold or cloudy days, flies can toil in temperatures ranging from 10 C to 35 C and under different weather conditions, according to experts.

To produce a neatly bell-shaped strawberry, a pollinating insect needs to walk around the flower and evenly deposit pollen on the pistil. Naruse decided to use Bee Fly because many strawberries he grew in early 2019 were malformed. Bee Fly helped solve the problem, earning the grower the highest quality "Shuhin" grade for more than 90% of strawberries harvested this winter.

Takeshi Nakano, 48, a marketing official with Japan Maggot, said Bee Fly will be a "savior." But it is an uphill climb to get people to shed their deep-rooted images of flies as super spreaders of diseases like vector coli, prompting the company to brand Bee Fly as a fairy-like mascot.

Strawberry growers have benefitted from Bee Fly, produced by Japan Maggot. (Photo by Koji Uema)

Nakano acknowledges it might take more time to win over the public. "I wonder how consumers will react if they know how we are using the flies," he said. Although Bee Fly is clean and harmless, "it's considerably difficult to rid people of their preconceptions."

Will the day ever come when worker flies instead of worker bees do most of the pollinating in Japanese greenhouses?

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has noted that the number of honeybee colonies raised in Japan has remained mostly level over the past several years, standing at about 215,000 in 2019. Most of the colonies are for collecting honey. But an accurate accounting of colonies to produce pollinators is unknown due to the absence of data.

"While more and more people keep bees as a hobby amid booming demand for honey, professional beekeepers supplying bees as pollinators are faced with a shortage of successors to farms," one apiarist said. "They're trying to make ends meet by cutting the number of pollinators they deliver to farmers, but the situation has kept getting tougher every year."

The beekeeping business in Japan was seriously damaged in 2019 as two super typhoons destroyed numerous beehives. An infestation of mites also took its toll. As a result, "there are farmers unable to procure as many bees as they need," said an official at the Japan Beekeeping Association.

The farm ministry said it will figure out supply and demand for honeybees to prevent shortfalls, in cooperation with local governments and beekeepers.

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