British Columbia

Smoky summer and cold spring cause uncertainty for northern B.C. bees

A Prince George beekeeper has lost two-thirds of her bees after unseasonably cold temperatures following last summer's wildfires.

'They could have starved, they could have froze,' says Prince George beekeeper

Beekeeper Cori Ramsay lost two of her three hives this spring. (Cori Ramsay)

A Prince George beekeeper says she and other beekeepers in the region opened their hives this spring and discovered many of their bees had died.

"They could have starved, they could have froze . . . they could have been diseased, they could have had an infestation of mites," says Cori Ramsay, chief beekeeper at Sweet River Honey, a hive operation.

Ramsay said she she isn't sure of the cause, but fluctuating spring temperatures may have played a role.

Ramsay announced last year that she would be expanding her small operation of one hive, to three, tripling her potential honey production. But as the region began to thaw in the spring, she found she was down to one.

The bees in two thirds of her expanded operation have died.

Cori Ramsay says each hive produces about 300 pounds of honey in one year. (Cori Ramsay)

Spring temperatures fluctuate

Barry Clark, another Prince George beekeeper, started with 65 hives this year.

So far, Clark has only checked 12 of his hives. In one, all the bees were dead. He says early spring is a tough time of year for the bees during any year.

"The reality is, those 12 I checked, there could be others that have died since because we lose more bees in March and April than we do through the winter usually."

In winter, bees cluster together, beating their wings to produce heat. When temperatures are warm, they may come out of that formation and if they don't return on time before another freeze, they die.

Sweet River Honey Chief beekeeper Cori Ramsay planned to expand her business this year by two hives, only to have many bees die this spring. (Sweet River Honey, Prince George)

Environment Canada says this March has been a few degrees colder than other years in the Prince George area, with temperature changes fluctuating between freezing and thawing on a daily basis. 

Colder-than usual temperatures coupled with spring-freeze thaw may have contributed to the bees' deaths, say beekeepers.

Long winter after summer wildfires

Environment Canada meteorologist Armel Castellan says temperatures aren't forecast to rise significantly, which may also have a negative impact on bees' health.

Another factor affecting bees' numbers is smoke from last summer's wildfires.

Clark says the bees struggled to harvest nectar last summer as B.C. experienced the worst wildfire season on record.

He says the smoke could be seen on his farm just outside of Prince George.

Smoke is commonly used by beekeepers to keep the bees in their hives when they inspect them. The bees' instinct is to stay in the hive and feed when there is smoke present, in anticipation that they might have to abandon their hive due to fire. 

"Out where I live, it was so smoky a few days, you couldn't see across the field and I know the bees weren't coming out. They were staying home and eating everything."

Smoke is a common tool used by beekeepers to keep bees contained when they check their hives. Smoke from wildfires can have the same effect on a much larger scale. (© WMB 2014)

Clark says a shortened harvest and long winter may mean the bees will starve before temperatures warm. Clark can't say whether the bees have starved this year because he hasn't checked all his hives, but it is a risk, considering this year's cold temperatures.

Beekeepers can add food supplements to their hives so the bees don't run out, but they have to weigh the risk of starvation against exposure to cold.

"Some people have lost 50 or 60 per cent of their bees over the last few years during the winter . . . but if you can keep it below 20 per cent, you're considered to be doing pretty good."



Audrey McKinnon is a former host and reporter at CBC Radio. She currently lives in Prince George, B.C. where she works as a writer and artist.