Townships beekeepers lose nearly 90% of hives to invasive parasite

Liliane Morel and Stephen Crawford, owners of Three Acres apiary in Dunham, Que., are hoping for a helping hand from the crowdfunding community and perfect weather this summer to make up for a near-total loss of their hives.

Owners of 3 Acres apiary in Dunham, Que., launch crowdfunding campaign to help restore bee colonies

Stephen Crawford said he's had to buy 30 hives and plans to buy at least 30 more to replace the bee colonies wiped out by mites. (Radio-Canada)

For the first time since they became beekeepers nearly three decades ago, Stephen Crawford and Liliane Morel have to buy bees to produce their honey this year.

"I've always reproduced my bees myself," said Crawford. "This year that will be impossible."

The co-owner of Les Trois Acres/Three Acres apiary in Dunham said he lost close to 90 per cent of his bees over the winter to varroa destructor — a parasitic mite which weakens the bees and transmits viruses, ultimately killing the hive.

Crawford said he's been dealing with the mite for about 20 years but has always managed to keep it under control.  

"I've had years where I've lost between 20 and 30 per cent of my bees," he said, "but never anything this big."

The beekeeper explains the near-total destruction of his hives this year by a problem with the timing of the treatment against the mites.

Crawford said the loss of hives translates directly into a loss of revenue.
Stephen Crawford said nearly 90 per cent of his bees died over the winter, and those that remain are weak. (Radio-Canada)

Help from community

Liliane Morel, Crawford's wife and the co-owner of Three Acres, said one hive costs between $240 and $250, and she estimates it will cost close to $30,000 to recover their losses.

"We're not sitting on a gold mine here," said Morel. "We have to start from scratch the way we did when we started out 28 years ago."

The couple has developed a line of beauty products, and they make honey wine, which they're hoping will help get them through the year.

Crawford and Morel have also launched a crowdfunding initiative in the hope of raising enough money to restore their bee colonies.

Their goal is to raise $20,000 in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, they still have to deal with the mites.
Liliane Morel said Three Acres probably won't harvest the spring production, leaving the honey to the surviving bees instead. (Radio-Canada)

Organic or bust

There's only one way to do that, according to Université Laval biologist Sabrina Rondeau — pesticides that target ticks and mites.

"Chemical acaricides are necessary," Rondeau said. "We don't have any efficient organic methods to counter the parasite yet."

But Crawford refuses to go the chemical route, even if it's more trouble.

"I use an organic acid," he said.

"It requires a bit more time and work to get the treatment done, and it does take care of the mites, but there isn't much room for error."  

Crawford said he knows the mite is here to stay, and he believes genetic improvements to make the bees stronger against them will eventually prevail.
Three Acres apiary in Dunham, in the Eastern Townships, opened 28 years ago and now specializes in honey-based products. (Radio-Canada)

Year ahead still uncertain

Morel said there's no way to know how fruitful the coming season's harvest will be.

"We're crossing our fingers we'll have a good summer," she said.

"If it rains the bees don't go out, and if it's too dry, the plants don't have nectar, so we need a perfect balance."

The couple said if the crowdfunding initiative is successful, they hope to expand their business next year.