B.C. beekeepers are for the first time participating in a worldwide study on bee mortality, hoping to illuminate the causes of widespread winter die-offs that have hammered the local honey and pollination industry since 2005.
The European Union-funded action group COLOSS – short for "colony loss" – will collect data from Canada and much of the United States this year in an effort to explain troublingly high bee-mortality rates being experienced on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Canada is harmonizing its own data collection on colony loss with the EU effort, which gathers information from 44 countries to better understand the factors that cause die-offs, according to Dr. Stephen Pernal of Agriculture Canada.
Beekeepers in the Fraser Valley and much of Canada experienced a recovery this spring with minimal mortality, but pockets of the province such as Creston Valley and southern Vancouver Island were hit hard.
"I’ve personally talked to keepers on the Island that have lost 90 per cent of their colonies, which is catastrophic," Pernal said. "That is the region of the country that has experienced the heaviest losses."
The causes of colony collapse have been attributed to a constellation of physical and environmental factors. In the last decade, beekeepers in North America have been battling the effect of the Varroa destructor mite, which infests colonies and may weaken their resistance to bee-specific viruses. The recent discovery in western honeybees of the Nosema ceranae mite, previously thought only to infest Asian honeybees, has further muddied the waters.
A large-scale study may reveal patterns in the complex interactions of parasites and viruses that have plagued bees for the past decade, Pernal said. A scientific paper on the results of the survey is expected to be released this summer.
Honey production across B.C. has dropped by 40 per cent since peaking in 2004 at 4.4 million pounds, dropping as low as 1.7 million pounds in 2008 following two winters of extremely high mortality.
"The long-term average for bee-colony mortality is about 15 per cent, but in the last few years that has jumped to about 30 per cent or more," said B.C. government apiculturist Paul van Westendorp. "It’s safe to say that honey production has dropped as a result of that."
The pollination that bees do is a vital link in the agriculture industry, a service whose value government estimates at more than $300 million in increased production in B.C. alone. Many crops are minimally productive without the use of pollinators, which is why commercial beekeepers can charge from $50 to $150 per hive to place their colonies near crop lands during the flowering period for most berries and orchard crops.
Surrey bee-keeper John Gibeau has spent $300,000 over the past five years – including $100,000 this spring alone – replacing colonies that died mysteriously during previous winters. Gibeau keeps 2,000 colonies
"There’s no shortage of pollinators right now because beekeepers have responded to the demand by buying bees," he said. "You can buy a colony for $200, you can rent it out for $100, and one third die every year, so you just have to build that cost into your business plan."
Like many of the Fraser Valley commercial beekeepers, he benefited from improved parasite control and a warm winter. Gibeau’s Honeybee Centre lost only three per cent of its colonies this past winter, but that was after losses of 60, 60, 30 and 30 per cent over the previous four years.