2013 a bad year for bees in Canada

What beekeepers fear most - a dead hive. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bbcworldservice/ Some rights reserved.

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.

“Although there may be a pesticide more toxic to honeybees, I am not aware of one,” said Greg Hunt, a Purdue University entomologist who has studied how honey bees are exposed to the chemicals in Indiana, explaining that exposure to four billionths of a gram will have a 50 per cent chance of killing a bee, according to a 2011 study.

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.



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  1. Thanks Lucy. This story borders on the terrifying…such losses in bee populations are going to be reflected in reductions in food production, and there is no greater fear in my book.
    As an avid gardener, I spend almost all- day, every-day, out doors. I have watched the bees for years now, and have seen the shrinking honey bee populations first hand. Two years ago, there were NONE in my garden, The last two years have been a little better. This year I spent a lot of time noticing the bumble-bees, and yellow jackets doing their work, and it got me to wondering. Which bees are pollinating which plants? What crops are absolutely dependant on the European honeybee? Is there a chart?

  2. We've been keeping a hive or two of pet bees for nearly 2 decades on and off. Even in an area where there isn't too much use of pesticides it's difficult to keep them alive. Mites are a huge problem for us. We don't like to treat for mites with chemicals but we also lose our hives regularly. It's a lot of work to keep bees healthy and just a couple weeks of inattention can lead to disaster. We see many varieties of wild bees on our property, more than I can keep track of – which is a good indication of low pesticide use nearby. Not too many farms around here. Home gardeners should be more aware of use of chemicals in their own yards because of the affect on insects. Killing inescriminately could be worse than allowing a short term infestation in your garden. I wish everyone would just stop buying chemicals and end the home-use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides.