Alberta bee lab working to keep Canadian hives buzzing
National Bee Diagnostic Centre tests for colony-killing parasites and diseases
Every week, Patricia Wolf Veiga receives hundreds of dead bees in the mail.
And she's quite all right with that.
"I have some experience with beekeeping from back home. I'm originally from Brazil and my family had a farm and we had honeybees."
These days, Wolf Veiga observes the insects from behind a microscope at the National Bee Diagnostic Centre (NBDC) in Beaverlodge, Alta., 40 kilometres west of Grande Prairie.
It's here that scientists poke and prod at dearly departed members of Canada's honeybee population to better understand what's killing them.
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While beekeepers always expect to have some wintering losses, things started to turn for the worse about a decade ago.
"They went from 10 per cent as a generally accepted loss to 25 to 35 per cent, which was causing considerable financial hardship," said Bruce Rutley, director of Grande Prairie Regional College's Centre for Research and Innovation, NBDC's main partner.
"The request for the facility came from Canada's beekeeping industry, who were seeking help identifying why their bees were dying, why their over-wintering losses were occurring at the extent that they were," Rutley said.
While no one cause has been determined, it is well documented that pests, pathogens and parasites are an ongoing threat to Canadian colonies.
"They need to know about bee pathogens — how to identify them ... because they can spread the disease, and how to treat them," Wolf Veiga said to CBC Radio's Daybreak Alberta.
That's where the NBDC comes into play. It's the first laboratory in Canada to provide a full array of diagnostic services for honeybees.
Since opening its doors in 2012, the Alberta lab has become increasingly busy. In its first year, the facility conducted about 1,800 diagnostic tests. Rutley said that number is expected to hit 20,000 by the end of 2016.
The centre primarily tests honeybees, but also other species such as bumblebees, leafcutter bees and mason bees.
"What was happening before were individual laboratories, provincial laboratories and university labs were doing some of the testing. There was no one lab in Canada that was focused on honeybees, that was able to do full-spectrum testing at a commercial speed."
Depending on the number of tests they request, beekeepers can get their results back in as little as seven days. The cost ranges from $15 to $220, plus shipping.
National Honey Bee Health Survey
The NBDC is also heading a comprehensive four-year survey of native and foreign pests, diseases and parasites affecting our country's pollinators.
Now in its third year, the National Honey Bee Health Survey has collected samples from apiaries in every province but Saskatchewan, which declined to take part.
The ultimate goal is to collect samples from 0.5 per cent of all registered hives in Canada.
The results will help researchers, scientists and beekeepers develop recommendations for provincial health management.
The results of the final survey won't come out until sometime in 2018.
Until that happens, we won't know if the Alberta lab is changing the trajectory of Canada's bee population. The good news, however, is that Canadian bees are already making a bit of comeback.
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Bee colonies on rise
According to Statistics Canada, the number of colonies increased by 3.3 per cent between 2015 from 2016. The latest data from 2015 counted 295,000 hives in the province — 45,000 more than 2006.
Alberta's bees are currently strong and healthy with the winter of 2014-15 seeing Alberta's lowest-ever bee winterkill at just 10 per cent, according to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
The province also launched a mobile bee health app last year to help beekeepers detect, diagnose, manage and treat honeybee disease and pests.