British Columbia

B.C. beekeepers grapple with 32% winter colony loss, according to survey

The province's annual voluntary survey of beekeepers has found nearly a third of B.C. bee colonies died over the winter, marking another difficult year for the industry and hobbyists.

The province's 'spring survey' for beekeepers has shown yet another bad year for colony survival

B.C. beekeepers are describing significant colony losses again this year. A provincial survey found an average loss of 32 per cent over the winter, but some beekeepers suspect the toll is even higher. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The province's annual voluntary survey of beekeepers has found nearly a third of B.C.'s bee colonies died over the winter, marking another difficult year for the industry and hobbyists.

Paul van Westendorp, the provincial apiarist who oversees the so-called spring survey, said if those types of losses were experienced with any other type of livestock it would be considered a catastrophe, but the 32 per cent mortality rate is pretty close to the trend over the past few years.

According to the survey, beekeepers on Vancouver Island, in the Fraser Valley and Okanagan all reported losses in the same range, while some in northwestern B.C. reported higher losses. Van Westendorp said with fewer people reporting in northwestern B.C., he's not sure those results are accurate.

"It's not a very good year," he said, adding that he initially expected even worse colony loss over the winter, after hearing about dramatic losses in other part of the country.

'It's devastating'

Jeff Lee, who co-owns a honey company in Creston and also contracts out his bees for pollination services, says he usually has between 300 and 500 hives depending on the time of year. 

But he says he's lost as many as 35 per cent, close to the provincial average this year.

Jeff Lee and his wife, Amanda Goodman Lee, own Honey Bee Zen Apiaries in Creston, B.C. According to Lee, the business lost as many as 35 per cent of its colonies this year. (Supplied by Honey Bee Zen Apiaries/Facebook)

Lee, who is also first vice-president of the B.C. Honey Producers' Association, says his bees survived the winter well, with just 10 to 20 per cent dying, but then a cold spring drove up his losses.

For Marion Dobson, a backyard beekeeper in Mission who had 15 hives last year, the losses were crushing. Dobson had only two hives left in the spring. 

"It's devastating, you know. You've put in so much effort and you want them to succeed and you feel like you've failed them," she said. "I probably won't even get honey this year."

Marion Dobson, a backyard beekeeper in Mission, B.C., says most of her bee colonies survived the winter but struggled through a cool, damp spring during which she lost 13 of her 15 colonies. (Marion Dobson)

Like Lee, Dobson said her bees fared OK over the winter, but then began to die in the spring with the wet, cool weather.

"When it's cold and rainy, the honey bees can't fly. They can't get their pollen, they can't get their nectar," she said.

Beekeepers often blame the varroa mite and the viruses it carries for colony mortality. Lee lost nearly 90 per cent of his hives to the pests in 2018, nearly putting him out of business, but Dobson is confident the mites weren't to blame in her case this year.

The varroa mite began to appear in B.C. around 1990, according to van Westendorp. It's a parasite, but it's also a problem because of the viruses it carries.

Lee and Dobson are both blaming the spring conditions for their hives that didn't make it. For van Westendorp, however, the dead bees across the province can be blamed on a combination of factors.

There are the mites, of course. He says since the mites' arrival in the 1990s, normal annual losses went from 10 per cent to what we currently see. But there were also challenging climatic conditions last year, including the extreme heat dome in B.C., some drought conditions and a bad wildfire season.

"Studies have shown that when you subject queens to very high temperatures, the sperm viability is impacted," van Westendorp said.

He explained that when it's smoky, plants don't release nectar and bees don't go out, and when it's a drought, bees spend their energy collecting water instead of nectar.

Smoke from the Tremont Creek wildfire near the town of Ashcroft, B.C., billows high into the atmosphere on July 16, 2021. Wildfire smoke causes plants to stop releasing nectar, and bees stay in their hives, according to Paul van Westendorp, provincial apiarist. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Even larger losses feared

Both Lee and Dobson suspect the actual bee mortality in B.C. exceeded the results of the spring survey. Lee has spoken to beekeepers in the Kootenays who described total loss, and Dobson said people she's hearing from have suffered major losses.

Lee said many beekeepers may not want to publicly admit how badly their operations have done this year.

"It's getting a lot harder to keep your bees alive," he said.