The fungicide prevents brown rot, caused by the fungal spores of Botrytis cinerea and monilinia species, and which has a big impact on the $150 million-a-year cherry industry.
The so-called “flying doctor” bees are a world first for cherry orchards and could be used for other flowering crops.
Lead researcher Katja Hogendoorn said the technique, known as entomovectoring, had been used in Europe in strawberry farming, but this was the first application in Australia.
“It has been successful in suppressing diseases, just as good as spraying,” Dr Hogendoorn said. “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.”
To spread the biological control agent, growers sprinkle the spores of the “fungus-fighting fungi” in a dispenser tray fitted to bee hives.
The bees then walk through the spores, collecting them between their body hairs as they exit from the hives.
Dr Hogendoorn said the university was also researching any potential impact on the bees from carrying the spores, but that if there was any it would likely be temporary.
Cherry Growers Association of South Australia president Andrew Flavell, who grows cherries and apples in the Adelaide Hills, said growers were encouraged by initial data obtained from 11 trial sites across the region.
“It’s a totally new concept that hasn’t been used before, but it holds quite a bit of promise. It is quite exciting for us,” Mr Flavell said.
“They (the bees) are working all the time, anyway, so if we can use them to control disease at the same time that is fantastic.”
The project has been funded through a Department of Agriculture innovation grant.
Read more on The Australian.