Spare the dandelions, save some bees: after brutal year, bees need help

Paul Vautour, a beekeeper from the Irishtown area near Moncton, said opening his bee hives this spring was "not pretty."

New Brunswick beekeepers 'disheartened' to open their hives and find 30 to 80 per cent were dead

Moncton-area beekeeper Paul Vautour says it was very disheartening to open his hives this year and find as many as 80 per cent of them hadn't survived the winter. (Radio-Canada)

Paul Vautour, a beekeeper from the Irishtown area near Moncton, said opening his beehives this spring was "not pretty."

"I saw a lot of empty hives with a lot of dead bees in there and it was pretty disheartening," he told Information Morning Moncton.

Vautour estimates that more than 80 per cent of his bees were dead, and said it's the third time he's been through something similar with his hives.

"I can remember the first time it happened to me ... and every time I opened the hive I said, 'Another one bites the dust,' but now we just have to knuckle down and start splitting our hives."

Losses as high as 80 per cent

Chris Davey of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association says he and his bees will be happy when dandelions and other wild flowers start popping up. (Radio-Canada)

Chris Davey, vice-president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association, said the winter losses this year are much higher than normal across the province. He blames the "rough start" partly on the late spring.

So people who mow their lawns when they see the dandelions should not do that — let them blossom and when they're finished just mow the stems down and your lawn takes over again.- Paul Vautour

"It's been cold and windy for us in this particular region so the bees are having a hard time to get going," he said.

"The dandelions are just starting to come out, so once they get out, we'll probably be in much better shape, and they'll have a little bit more natural pollen to bring in to start feeding what they have to feed." 

​Vautour said the other factor is the drought last summer, which limited the amount of pollen bees could collect in August and September, which in turn limited the amount of "royal jelly" they could produce to feed bee larvae.

Many New Brunswick beekeepers have reported weak clusters of bees or completely dead hives with losses this year as high as 80 per cent. (Radio-Canada)

"The flowers were not giving up any nectar because they didn't have the moisture ... and the bees didn't collect all the pollen they needed to raise the larvae, so those larvae did not develop well," Vautour said.

"So we did not have a good crop of honey bees to keep the hive going for winter."

Learn to love dandelions

Vautour said the young bees in the hives just couldn't make it until spring, because spring was so late in coming.

"Climate change is probably the factor for that ... small beekeepers with 10, 20 hives have been wiped out virtually and some of them have none left," Vautour said.

Vautour will now turn his attention to splitting his hives as he tries to rebuild his beehives in the Irishtown area, near Moncton. (Radio-Canada)

Now beekeepers like Vautour will split their hives, which involves putting a new queen into a hive that doesn't have one.

He said regular people can help beekeepers like him to rebuild their hives by planting wildflowers and by embracing the much maligned dandelion.

"When I see the fields full of dandelions, I know I will never lose another beehive." Vautour said. "Bees just love them."

"So people who mow their lawns when they see the dandelions should not do that — let them blossom and when they're finished just mow the stems down and your lawn takes over again."

Chris Lockhart, president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association, said the drought last summer led to low honey production last fall, and means there are fewer bees to rent to blueberry producers for pollination this spring. 

He said climate change is making beekeeping more challenging than ever.

"We already have a lot of pressures with different diseases and varroa mites and now we have to battle the climate more than we ever have ... you'll have major ups and downs and it's really hard to plan for stuff and it's difficult when you have several bad years right in a row."

With files from Nicholas Pelletier and Information Morning Moncton