Hamilton keepers feel the sting of drop in bee population

Nearly a third of bee colonies died this past winter. Many wonder what that means for Hamilton, and for our food supply.

Across the region and the world, the number of bees are decreasing

Les Simonffy inspects his bees' honey production. The bee population in Ontario is decreasing by as much as 35 per cent annually, experts say. (Matt Moir/CBC)

Les Simonffy gets out of his truck and trudges across a worn patch of grass towards the lonely corner of a densely wooded property. With every step closer, the buzzing grows louder and louder, until what at roadside seemed like a faint hum sounds more like a symphony. 

It is in this secluded spot in rural Ancaster that Simonffy lovingly cares for his honeybees. All one million of them.

"I used to play golf with my buddies, but I much prefer being here with the bees. I feel like I’m a part of nature when I’m out here," says Simonffy as he strolls through his shaded apiary, casually swatting away a swarm of at least a dozen bees buzzing around his head.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly a third of bee colonies died this past winter. (Matt Moir/CBC)

Simonffy developed an affinity for bees as a 14-year-old boy in Hungary. Now the Ancaster resident is the president of the 80+ member Golden Horseshoe Beekeepers Association.

And though one million bees sounds like a lot, it’s about 225,000 less than he had at this time last year. 

"I had 42 hives last year, but I lost 12 over the winter. [Beekeepers] used to lose about 10 per cent of our bees every winter, but now it’s a lot more."

What Simonffy describes — a nearly 30 per cent drop in the number of his bees — is what scientists see with bee populations all over the world.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that nearly a third of bee colonies died this past winter. Government agencies in Britain and Europe have reported similar numbers. 

Death heard around the world

Profound drops in bee populations have significant global consequences.

Many fruit, vegetable and seed crops depend on pollination, and honeybees are one of the world's leading pollinators. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of food worldwide, 71 are bee-pollinated, according to the United Nations.

All together, bees pollinate about $30 billion worth of crops every year. 

Dan Davidson, president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association, told the CBC that Ontario’s bee population has declined considerably over the past five years.

"I had 42 hives last year, but I lost 12 over the winter," says Ancaster beekeeper Les Simonffy. (Matt Moir/CBC)

Before 2007 "we were losing about 17 per cent per year.  But in 2007, something changed and we’ve been losing about 30 to 35 per cent since then," said Davidson.

Reasons are complex

The causes behind the precipitous drop in population are varied and complex. They range from parasites to malnutrition to pesticides.

Ernesto Guzman, a bee expert at the University of Guelph, told the CBC that "the evidence available for southern Ontario suggests that the varroa mite [a microscopic parasite originally from Asia] is the main culprit of honey bee mortality cases."

Davidson believes that insecticides used on corn and other crops are the biggest danger to the bee population.

"The problem with the insecticides is they don’t break down very quickly so they’re accumulating in the environment," he said. "And that’s where the bees get their water and their food. If they haven’t already, it’s going to take over the No. 1 problem for bees and beekeeping. Varroa mites have been our No. 1 for a lot of years, but we’re going to see insecticides take over."

Davidson has spent considerable time at Queen’s Park in recent weeks, lobbying government to impose stricter limitations on the use of insecticides. But he acknowledges that it is a difficult battle due to what he calls the "powerful" agricultural lobby. 

'You're banging your head against the wall'

Something must change though, he says, or the future of beekeeping in Ontario will be bleak.

"People are giving up, there’s no doubt about it. Especially if there’s no chance of these chemicals being taken out production, there’s no reason to keep on beekeeping. You’re banging your head against the wall."

Back in Ancaster, Simonffy is more sanguine. Though quick to lament the loss of so many bees, he is confident in the insect’s evolutionary perseverance.

"Bees have been around for 20 million years, so we won’t kill them off this quickly."

"I hope," he added.