Manitoba beekeepers fight to come back after extreme honeybee die-offs

Some Manitoba beekeepers are opening their hives, after a long, cold winter, to discover scores of dead bees littering the bottom of their hives, with the survivors huddling together for warmth.

Long, cold winter could be to blame for some beekeepers losing more than half of their bees

Many Manitoba beekeepers are opening their hives this spring to discover scores of dead bees. (AP Photo/Star Beacon, Carl E. Feather) (The Associated Press)

After a long, harsh winter, beekeepers across the province are opening up their hives to a discouraging surprise.

Several Manitoba beekeepers have told CBC News they've recorded extremely high losses after a winter which saw bitterly cold temperatures well into April.

Some found dead bees surrounding their hives in March and April. Others found lifeless carcasses blanketing the bottoms of colonies, with many of the remaining live bees huddled together for warmth.

Chris Kirouac works at Beeproject Apiaries. He said they lost between 25-30 per cent of their bees this winter, compared to about five to 10 per cent in previous years. "Sometimes you come up against mother nature in a very harsh way," he said.

'Spring didn't do us any favours'

Kirouac told CBC that most new beekeepers and individual hobbyists normally suffer from high losses, but he's heard from "very good and experienced beekeepers" and commercial businesses who are reporting tremendous losses this year.
A beekeeper opens up a hive during a demonstration night at the University of Manitoba. (Megan Colwell/Submitted by Rob Currie)

Mark Friesen, president of the Manitoba Beekeepers' Association, said his hives lost more than half their bees this winter.

But not all honeybee farmers encountered extremely high losses.

Beekeeper Bill Bygarski manages about 300 colonies. He said his colonies saw "more than our typical losses, but nothing that would cause us too terrible problems." Although he admits "the spring didn't do us any favours."

Manitoba-wide problem

Leithen Rubbelke inspects honeybee colonies for the province and is also a beekeeper. He lost close to sixty six per cent of his bees.

"We're finding completely dead hives or extremely weak hives," Rubbelke said about the colonies he's inspected across the province. The colonies that did survive are quite weak, he said, which makes it tough to recuperate.

"You're seeing nothing — you're not seeing any flight or activity" in many affected hives, he said.

Rubbelke said these kind of losses are not unheard of, but the prevalence across the province is alarming.

"The question is, what is going on?"

Overall numbers going up

Despite the heavy losses this spring encountered by some keepers, bee experts say honeybee populations are on the rise.

Rhéal Lafrenière, the province's chief apiarist, said beekeepers registered just under 112,000 colonies in 2017 — as opposed to 80,000 colonies a decade ago. Most new permits popped up in Winnipeg after the City approved urban beekeeping.

However he said the number of dead bees is something to be concerned about. 

"At those losses, you get the sense that the sustainability of the industry would be at stake," Lafrenière said.

What can we do?

Sarah Semmler, the director of the Living Prairie Museum, said we can help bees survive by providing ample sources of pollen and nectar for them to eat.
Sarah Semmler says a nicely manicured lawn might look nice to you, but to a bee, it's a "wasteland." (Kelly Ferrand/Submitted by Sarah Semmler)

Semmler also wanted to remind people that it's not just honeybees at risk. 

There are over 855 species of wild bees in Canada. Semmler said, unlike honeybees who overwinter in hives, wild bees need places to nest in the ground to stay dormant over winter, in stems left in gardens and leaf litter. 

They also need native wildflowers and so-called "weeds," like dandelions and white clovers, to eat, Semmler said, calling perfectly manicured green lawns a "resource wasteland" as far as bees are concerned.

"The best thing you can do is just plant some flowers," she said.

"Some pollen and nectar from a dandelion is fantastic compared to just a plain old green lawn with nothing for them to use."