Another bad year for honey bees in New Brunswick and other parts of Canada has more beekeepers turning to importing bees from countries overseas.

Paul Vautour, director of the Maritime Beekeepers Association and Maritime representative on the Canadian Honey Council, said things had been looking up but said beekeepers are facing serious losses once again.

He said a declining local bee population means paying to have other hives, or colonies, brought in. Bees are essential crop pollinators, and resorting to importation can be expensive.

"It’s the crops that will suffer from it, wild blueberries for example, unfortunately we have to import hives from Ontario and Quebec into this province. What the public doesn't understand, I think, there are probably 20,000 hives or as we call them, colonies … that are being imported from Ontario and Quebec into the northern part of our province here to do pollination and the average price I guess would be about $125 per colony that comes in here," he said.

At that price, importing that many colonies adds up to about $2.5 million.

Vautour said on average, New Brunswick beekeepers saw 25 per cent die-off over the winter, but he said his own bees did much worse.

"Mine were pretty bad. They didn't make it through the winter too well, the clusters were quite small in the hive and with the protracted winter we had, it wasn't as good a winter as we normally get. I had a lot of losses this spring, probably upwards of 80 per cent," he said.

In Fredericton, Vautour said there is only one large beekeeper still in operation, and he suffered big losses this winter. On P.E.I. large beekeeping operations also saw big losses, Vautour said.

"We keep thinking that next year will be better, and next year’s going to be better and we just keep at it. It's the love of beekeeping," he said.

"We have a love for our bees. You’d have to be a beekeeper to understand. There’s something about us. We just don’t give up," he said.

Unlike their neighbours, Nova Scotia bees had a much better winter, making for a promising year. The worst year saw an average of 40 per cent of bees in the province die. This year, only 15 per cent died over the winter.

Big bee die-offs in recent years

Colony collapse disorder involves the sudden death of a large number of bees that leave the hive and disappear, reducing colonies to a handful of bees or no bees at all. The phenomenon has been occurring with increasing regularity since 2006.

"At one time we used to have about 5 per cent to 10 per cent losses. Since 2007 we’ve been having worse losses than that, probably around the 50 per cent and less range. Thirty-five per cent would be a good year for me, I think, but that’s a terrible year in any other times," said Vautour.  

After years like this, Vautour said that beekeepers will import queens from places as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and Chile. Beekeepers take the the strongest, surviving hives, divide them and add the new queen.

Many factors in bee colony collapse

Vautour said there are a myriad of factors that scientists have linked to bee colony collapse in recent years.

For instance, drought at the end of last summer resulted in little honey-making nectar coming into the colonies. The new bees that emerge in the early fall that will live in the hives throughout the winter are left at a disadvantage, with less honey to sustain them over the winter.

Vautour said though this past winter wasn’t particularly cold, it was drawn-out. Bees are one of the few insect species to remain active over the winter. In colder winter months, bees eat the honey produced throughout the summer, then form clusters to stay warm. Long, cold spells force bees to stay together to stay warm, keeping them from moving around and feeding on honey stores.

Weather is one of many causes of mass bee die-offs. Pesticides are another possible cause.

A few weeks ago, the European Union proposed a two-year moratorium on nicotine-containing pesticides that many scientists agree are the driving force behind Europe's dramatic bee decline. The EU’s decision has prompted calls in Canada to implement a similar ban on neonicotinoids used on corn and canola crops.

Recent studies have suggested that fungi and viruses or parasites may also be to blame.