Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia beekeepers importing thousands of international bees

Don't be confused by a sign at the border, imported bees are allowed in Nova Scotia with a permit and thousands packages of bees will be shipped from Australia and New Zealand, part of efforts to strengthen the local population.

Bees from New Zealand, Australia, Chile and parts of the U.S. are helping bolster local populations

A provincial program to encourage bee expansion only applies to beekeepers with at least five years experience who use their bees to help pollinate crops.

Joe Goetz is unpacking some precious cargo, introducing tens of thousands of Australian honey bees to new living quarters at his farm in Windsor Forks. 

Goetz, who owns Scotian Bee Honey, imported about 300 1.5 kilogram packages of bees from Tasmania, at an estimated cost of $68,000.

He's one of the many beekeepers in Nova Scotia hoping to populate new hives with the help of international bees, shipped in packages with at least one queen bee and thousands of female worker bees.  

"Winters here are sometimes a little hard and we can experience fairly high losses and what we want to do is be built up in the spring, when the fruit trees flower ... right when we need it the most," he said. 

Don't be confused by a sign at the border. Imported bees from approved regions are allowed in Nova Scotia with a permit. This year thousands packages of bees will be shipped into the province, part of efforts to strengthen the local population. 

Bees from the land down under

In additional to splitting apart hives mid-season — a process that can create a new colony — beekeepers start new colonies with bees from New Zealand, Australia and Chile. Some import queen bees from California or Hawaii. 

The Department of Agriculture says there were about 25,360 hives in the province last year and in part due to international imports, the number of hives in Nova Scotia has grown by about 7,800 since 2012 — about a 44 per cent increase. 

At a time when research shows bee populations are threatened, Jason Sproule, the provincial apiculturist, says the international bees help local beekeepers compensate for winter losses when they can't purchase domestic bees. 

He says they can also introduce queens with appealing genetic characteristics, such as being resistant to the tiny Varroa mites, which suck honey bees' blood

"Any time you import bees, the objectives are to minimize [the risks] and to mitigate them as much as possible. Purchasing packages is relatively safe. We're importing from regions where [some] diseases have not been found before," he said. 

Sproule says it's too early to tell how bees fared this winter, but early signs point to it having been a good winter. That following last year, when he estimates beekeepers lost on average 16.4 per cent of their bees, up from the usual range of 10 to 15 per cent.

Joe Goetz, who owns Scotian Bee Honey in Windsor Forks, says imported bees from countries with healthier bee populations helps ensure strong colonies. (CBC)

Shortfall of local bees

But there's still a shortfall of local bees. The province approved imported 5,000 hives from the Niagara Region to ensure there's enough hives to pollinate blueberry crops — a move opposed by beekeepers concerned those hives will bring a beetle that ferments honey, east

Sproule says those imports are a "sensitive issue." 

"I'd like to see Nova Scotia's bee industry grow, and grow to a point where it significantly lessens our reliance on imported bees," he said.  

Part of the province's efforts as a pollination expansion program. During the last fiscal year, the province spent $259,000, money it says helped create about 2,100 new hives. 

People can apply for rebates on equipment, new hives and new queens, even material to keep keep bears away from colonies. 

Honey producers aren't eligible unless they rent their hives to the blueberry industry during the month-long period in the spring when lowbush blueberries flower. 

Goetz says he's used the program in the past and it helped him expand his colonies. This spring he hopes his new arrivals will help populate 50 new hives, bringing his total to about 450. 

This summer Nova Scotia blueberry growers will rent about 5,000 hives from Ontario to help pollinate their crops. (Sabrina Fabian/Radio-Canada)

Bees can survive up to 2-week-long journey

Inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency upon arrival, the bees arrived to Toronto by plane and were trucked to Nova Scotia. The packages arrived in boxes with screens on the side to allow for air circulation. 

Inside there is a queen bee in a little cage, and she's fed with a bottle containing sugar water. 

"That sustains them for the journey, they can last a week, two weeks in there," he said. "We cut the screen, take the queen out, take the water bottle out, the feed, put that in the hive and then we dump them in and feed them and very rapidly they say 'well this is the new home' and they start building a new hive."

His newest crop of bees will be stationed in an apple orchard first and then they'll move on to help pollinate low-bush blueberries in late May or early June. 

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past nine years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca