The plight of the honeybee

Local bee populations devastated over past winter — several factors to blame

Paul Rodgers

The past winter was devastating for bee populations around the region — and around the province — and the repercussions are serious, especially in areas like the fruit-producing Creston Valley.

Lance Cuthill from Cranbrook, a representative of the East Kootenay Beekeepers, spoke recently at a meeting of the East Kootenay Invasive Species Council about alarming losses of bees suffered by many other keepers around the region, including himself.

Cuthill said he lost around 40 per cent of his bees and added that Jeff Lee of Swan Valley Honey in the Creston Valley, a prominent honey supplier and pollinator of that area, lost around 70 per cent of his.

“The serious repercussions are the lack of pollinators now in the Creston Valley, which is a heavy producer of cherries, apples, apricots, and all the kinds of fruit that we eat,” said Cuthill. “When you lose 70 per cent of the main pollinator in the valley then that has repercussions of not having the fruit, without pollination you simply don’t get the fruit.”

As he is not operating in a fruit valley here in Cranbrook, the main problem for Cuthill is the financial ramifications of replacing 50 to 60 per cent of his bees. He explained that one queen costs $42, while a small package of bees containing a queen costs $260.

“It’s very expensive to try to get started and then you’re buying bees that are imported from Hawaii or New Zealand and those bees are not adapted as well, in my opinion, as our own local stock. We’re better off to buy queens and bees if we can buy them locally or in British Columbia.”

However, Cuthill said that according to reports he’s seen from going to the B.C. Honey producers semi-annual meeting, the winter was difficult for beekeepers across the province, with estimates of around 50 per cent of total bee populations being lost.

“We have a difficult time trying to restock or replace those bees,” Cuthill said. “If any other kind of agriculturists were to lose 50 per cent of their stock, for instance a cattle farmer, that would be disastrous, but with bees we are able to split hives and buy queens and try to build them back up again.”

Jeff Lee in the Creston Valley also faced a substantial financial cost, purchasing 50 colonies from the Kootenays and another 150 from Australia. He is now in the process of rebuilding and spreading.

“We’re able to rebuild because we have a commercial loan for it,” Lee said. “If you have five hives and that’s your hobby and you lose all five hives, to repopulate those five hives would cost you over $1,500.”

Pictured: Hives of bees in the Cranbrook area. The past winter was difficult for beekeepers across the province, with estimates of around 50 per cent of total bee populations being lost. Barry Coulter file photo

Cuthill, who has worked with bees for 42 years, attributes his losses to this past winter’s weather patterns.

“What the situation is with honeybees is they’re not native to this country,” Cuthill said. “They were brought here from the Mediterranean and originated in Africa and so they do not hibernate.”

He explained that to survive the winter, bees go into a tight cluster and they rotate from the outside of the cluster to the inside when they get cold, all the while maintaining heat and eating about 60 to 70 pounds of honey over the winter.

When they are in that tight cluster and it warms up, the cluster breaks up and they move out to try and find more food that may be on the outer edges, but if temperatures suddenly plummet again, they are unable to reform easily again and the outer layers die off.

This winter, Cuthill explained, was a little different. It got so warm that the bees actually began to raise offspring in December, using up their food supply to feed the larvae. When it went back to around minus 30 in January, not only could the cluster not get properly back together, but they had depleted their food stores.

“This was one of the worst winters,” Cuthill said, “but we’ve had winters similar to this in the past and we haven’t lost bees. And what I believe happened is that our bees are not as robust or as healthy. I think that too many generations have been subjected to sprays and insecticides and so on, to the point that our bees are simply not as genetically strong as they used to be — that’s a personal opinion not a fact.”

Lee, who is also vice president of the B.C. Honey Producers Association (BCHPA), indicated that weather is just one of the problems faced by bees and their keepers. The varroa mite, for example, is a basic problem that’s been around since the 1980s, but is getting worse.

“Some of the chemicals, or some of the treatments that we have, don’t work,” Lee said. “It’s a known problem — you can develop resistance with varroa.”

Adding to that, another issue is that the varroa carry viruses. Lee explained that there are perhaps a dozen different viruses that can affect bees. Varroa are blood suckers, so they will puncture the bee and transmit the virus.

“One thing we can do is to reduce the varroa loads in our hives, but getting rid of varroa means getting rid of your bees, because you’ll never get 100 per cent, and if you do, at a 100 per cent you’re now effecting the bees themselves. So varroa is the significant problem. Viruses are the add on that you see expressed later on in the season.”

Then there are the microscopic parasites nosema, both apis and ceranae, the latter having jumped over from the asian bee.

“Nosema ceranae has now taken over for the most part, and it’s a much harder one for us to deal with because we don’t have an effective treatment plan for it. The stuff that was working on apes may not necessarily work on ceranae.”

Then there’s the wasps. Lee said that B.C. has seen higher than normal wasp populations in recent summers, and the predatory wasps tend to finish off weak hives that have other problems.

“You see a scale of trouble starting with problems like the disease profiles, the varroa, then the viruses then the nosema then you have wasps that finish them off and then you have the odd time that bears get in and things like that.”

Yet another problem, and one that has always existed, is the use of pesticides.

“In the Creston Valley area, cherry farmers have moved over the years from really bad pesticides, like the lead sprays and then the organophosphates and things like that, to just the merely bad which are the things like the neonicotinoids.”

He added that some neonicotinoids are now being banned in certain places as well, because they’ve been shown to not specifically target the species they’re intended to, and they can have an adverse effect on native pollinators.

“As beekeepers we face a huge challenge in trying to keep this livestock alive. I’m on the board of the honey producers association … we’re trying to figure out ways to deal with all of these layered on problems.”

Cuthill said he “believes that our bees do need help,” pointing out that should we lose bees altogether, it means losing one third of the pollination, and that one third of the human diet is a result of pollination.

The government of British Columbia’s website states: “Crops and flowering plants cannot live and reproduce without the help of bees and pollinators” and that “honeybees play a major role in agriculture as pollinators of crops, contributing an estimated $538 million to the B.C. economy and over $3.2 billion across Canada.

While major honey producers like Lee are able to bounce back from substantial losses — Lee is fully committed to the Creston Valley’s fruit growers — these are recurring and complex problems that need to be addressed.

Cuthill teaches introductory beekeeping courses and sees more people getting into it, but says that it’s harder and harder for them to keep their bees alive, sometimes resulting in the new keepers getting discouraged and quitting.

He said that one major thing that can be done by everybody, from farmers to the average homeowner, is to avoid using sprays on plants while they’re in bloom, as that is when bees are out foraging. He also said that rather than completely removing the flowers and weeds along highways — done as a safety measure because of wildlife visibility — receding them could be a better option.

“We can’t afford to have a flowerless landscape,” said Cuthill. “Bees are too important to us to not consider it.”

In a recent letter to the Creston Valley Advance, Lee explained that beekeepers as a whole want orchardists to understand that pesticides are not good for bees, saying “Why would you poison the very animal you are paying a beekeeper to deliver your fruit crop?”

In 2018, Swan Valley Honey indicated to their grower clients that they couldn’t tolerate any spraying of their bees, telling them that they were required to provide 24 to 48 hours notice to allow them to safely remove their bees before any spraying occurs, adding that in some instances, they discovered that orchardists ignored those requirements.

Lee said that better communication would help prevent that sort of thing from happening — his company understands that orchardists need to protect their crops, but it is a two-way street.

Lee’s hives have also been selected for a research project supported by prominent mycologist Paul Stamets from the University of Washington. Stamets’ research has shown that by using certain combinations of fungi, you can reduce certain viruses and cause bees to live longer.

The research is set to commence immediately and is made possible by the provincial government’s Investment Agriculture Foundation, Stamets who provided the extracts, the National Bee Diagnostic Centre who is providing the sampling, and Swan Valley themselves — all in it is about a $20,000 project.

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