Major colony losses have Canadian beekeepers feeling spring sting

Canadian beekeepers are finding major colony losses as they open their hives this spring, which may present a threat to the honey supply and has some calling on Canada to open to the importation of bees from the U.S.

Beekeepers in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario report major losses, with mites and other factors blamed

Jayse Derraugh, co-owner of Derrco Apiaries, tends one of his bee hives in Anola, Man. Half of his bees did not survive winter, a problem beekeepers across Canada are facing as they reopen their hives this spring. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

This spring when Jayse Derraugh opened up his hives, the familiar drone of hungry honey bees wasn't what it's been in past years — there was far less buzzing.

Derraugh discovered half of his bees were dead, and another third may not survive.

"We're not going to cry because we'll recover, but that means a tough year," said Derraugh, co-owner of Derrco Apiaries in Anola, Man.

"If you're able to recoup your numbers to the previous year, that might be your best-case scenario, and you might not make any money."

Derraugh blames his bee deaths on varroa mites, virus-carrying parasitic arachnids that feed on honey bees, which he says may have got a foothold in hives after an early spring and a hot summer in 2021.

Other Canadian beekeepers are finding major colony losses too, which may present a threat to the supply of honey — and other pollinator-dependent products — and has some calling on Canada to open to the importation of bees from the U.S.

"Nationally, we have some issues," said Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council. "A number of beekeepers are experiencing some pretty severe losses."

Scarlett said Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario honey producers have lost an average of 40 to 45 per cent of their bees this year. 

In Alberta, the province with the most bees, out of 300,000 colonies, about 100,000 to 120,000 didn't survive winter, Scarlett said.

Saskatchewan is faring better by comparison, but estimates there still peg losses at about 30 per cent, he said. 

Losses are in the range of 60 per cent in Quebec.

A clearer picture is expected to emerge this summer with the annual colony loss report by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists.

A hot summer that created a longer breeding season in 2021 may have also created conditions heading into fall that allowed mites to procreate more and decimate colonies. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The same scourge that ripped through Derraugh's Manitoba colonies is suspected to be the culprit in losses in other provinces.

Scarlett said a longer than usual warm season last year presented a "perfect summer for breeding bees and breeding mites."

Both had more time to establish and reproduce than most years, said Scarlett. 

A colder than usual winter in Manitoba may have also had the effect of weakening bee colonies, but the mites are resilient enough that frigid conditions do little to pare down their numbers, he said.

"We're going to have some severe implications, particularly on the pollination side," he said.

The trend underscores the need for new, more effective miticides, he said.

Ron Greidanus bee farms near Stettler, Alta. (CBC)

Ron Greidanus said the losses underscore why Canada should open to bees from the U.S.

"The border remains closed because there is a perceived difference in disease profile between bees in Canada and bees in the mainland United States," said Greidanus, from near Stettler, Alta. 

"However, that … way of thinking has become razor thin."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said honey bee imports have to be controlled so they don't pose a risk to Canada's beekeeping industry or human health. The department is working with the industry to find ways of supporting beekeepers amid the losses.

Ian Steppler, chairperson of the Manitoba Beekeepers' Association, said some commercial beekeepers in the province have approached the association with the same suggestion as Greidanus.

Ian Steppler, chairperson of the Manitoba Beekeepers' Association, tends to his bees on his honey farm in Miami, Man., in 2021. (A Canadian Beekeeper’s Blog/YouTube)

Steppler said bringing in bees from the U.S. has been barred for nearly four decades due to pest concerns.

Manitoba producers will meet later this month to see if they can come to a consensus on American bees.

"Why it's so controversial right now is because it's a matter of producers being comfortable with apparent pest problems, or if we can maybe mitigate those issues, or if maybe situations have changed since the last time we examined those issues."

Derraugh said stock from the U.S. may be his only hope of salvaging this season.

"Especially in emergency situations like this, it could save our industry," he said. "It could save a lot of [bee] farmers' livelihoods." 

Jayse Derraugh says after overwinter losses bringing in American bees to replace his dead bees might be the only way he can salvage his season. (Karen Pauls/CBC)