Alberta honey producers facing one of worst years on record for bee deaths

Beekeepers and honey producers in Alberta say winter mortality rates this year have been some of the worst they’ve seen.

Mites and bad weather have ravaged honey bee hives

One of the main factors in winter bee mortality in Alberta this year is the varroa mites that feed on bees. (Prairie Field Honey/Facebook)

Beekeepers and honey producers in Alberta say winter mortality rates this year have been some of the worst they've seen.

Some are facing 45 to 50 per cent losses, with other beekeepers reporting that up to 90 per cent of their colonies died over the winter months due to mites and late season cold snaps.

A typical year might see somewhere closer to 10 per cent of honey bees not making it to the spring. 

"I have heard too many stories and accounts where their hive losses are just devastating," said Grace Strom, owner of the Greidanus Honey Mill in High River, Alta. "This is a big deal."

Strom says she hasn't been as hard hit as most this year as she took extra precautions to get her mite numbers down before winter. That's after half of her bees died in 2018 in similar circumstances. She says it took three years to recover financially.

Then came the perfect storm for breeding mites last year, with an early spring, hot summer and late fall, said Strom.

Those changes in the weather allow mites to breed more successfully than usual, causing catastrophic losses for beekeepers and honey producers.

"This is probably the worst I've seen in 15 years," said Strom. "It's the worst we've seen it in recent history."

From hobbyists to big honey producers, beekeepers are experiencing the same catastrophic losses to their hives this spring. (C and D's Honey/Facebook)

The bad news for beekeepers is climate change is going to make the bad years more frequent, which could put some out of business altogether.

A more immediate expense for producers to tackle right now is replacing the bees they've lost. That's being complicated by the pandemic.

"Because the losses are so widespread in Canada, there's not a lot of domestic availability of honey bees colonies," said Shelley Hoover, a research associate at the University of Lethbridge's department of biological sciences.

"You can import colonies from places like Chile, New Zealand and Australia, but COVID has been impacting the number of flights available. If there's not enough planes, then importing bees becomes very difficult," said Hoover.

It's also expensive. 

"If you have to repopulate 90 per cent of your honey bee colonies, that's a huge financial hit. And if they have to do that year-on-year, then we see operations going out of business," she said.

Hoover says the cutoff date for census information on mortality levels doesn't happen until mid-May.

"We won't know the full extent of the mortality levels until at least a month from now."