2013 a bad year for bees in Canada
What beekeepers fear most – a dead hive. Photo: BBC World Service, Creative Commons, some rights reserved.
Close on the heels of an earlier Dirt post on efforts to help bees and pollinators comes a flurry of bad news stories about bee health across Canada for this year.
Here's a headline from CBC: "Huge honeybee losses across Canada dash hopes of upturn". This is based on spikes in colony losses. Some provinces were particularly hard-hit. Manitoba's losses were "only" 16% in 2012. For 2013, losses hit 46.4%. (Think about that number, it's close to half.)
Ontario went from 12% to 37.9%. Quebec fared better, but still saw losses increase from 16% to 24%. As CBC reported:
Nation-wide, the winter mortality rate rose to about 29 per cent of honey bee colonies, nearly double the deaths in the winter prior.
It’s a setback that is dashing hopes raised last year by a low national rate of honey bee deaths — 15 per cent. Beekeepers were optimistic that the low mortality might herald a return to the average and more manageable losses the industry used to see.
Colony loss and winter die-off is apparent in the spring, but this is hitting the news cycle in September because the statistics for 2013 are now available. (Read more at the Canadian Association of Apiculturists, including annual loss reports and the figures for 2013.)
It's worth keeping in mind that fluctuations over one year may or may not prove larger trends (losses went down in British Columbia, for example). Also, media sometimes seize upon certain narratives as easy ways to make hay, so to speak.
Case in point: a bee keeper I spoke with some years ago was annoyed with a TV reporter who had come seeking video and quotes that could be plugged into a preconceived story line – a story line the bee keeper did not happen to support. Truth be told, I had something similar in mind. (Chastened, I wiped my slate clean to accept what arose, instead of what I sought.)
Many bee keepers and ecologists think they know the main problem currently killing bees: pesticides called neonicotinoids. As reported by the Toronto Star:
According to the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the pesticide has been used on virtually all corn seeds in the province since 2004.
The pesticide is thought to spread during corn planting season, when machines kick up dust containing the toxic compound, which drifts to nearby areas where bees collect pollen and get contaminated.
The neonicotinoids debate is fractious and involves some of the usual fierce divisions in agriculture: big agribusiness interests verses poorly-funded critics of those modern agribusiness practices. Scientific research piles up on both sides.
The thing with bee losses is, there's not just one thing to blame.
Another aspect to the issue is regulatory: how can bee keepers replace their losses without spreading parasites and diseases further and further?
Canada has banned importation of continental US queens and colonies since 1987, in an effort to prevent the spread of the serious Varroa destructor mite. For a while at least, Hawaii could capitalize on that market. Unfortunately, the varroa mite has since shown up the the 50th state as well, starting with the island of Oahu in 2007. (It seems to be conquering the world.)
As reported in the already-quoted CBC article, some Canadian bee keepers are lobbying to end that policy, including the head of the Manitoba Beekeeper's Association, Allan Campbell. Now that the varroa mite is pretty much found across the continent, many would prefer access to less-expensive sources of replacement stock:
Whereas a one-kilogram package of bees and a queen bee cost upwards of $150 from New Zealand or Australia, the same can be purchased for less than $60 from Florida, a huge savings when a farm faces massive losses like this past winter, says Campbell.
Of course, if there's more being spread than the varroa mite, careful control of what goes where may still be a sensible practice.
This is far from a simple story, even though a fair number of bee-supporters are ready to blame and ban neonicotinoids.
Whatever the answers may be, present difficulties for bees and bees keepers are many and severe.
Tags: agriculture, bees, Canada, science