Alberta beekeepers are reporting massive losses of colonies across the province after thousands of bees have been killed off by frigid temperatures and an invasive parasite.
Fallentimber Meadery in Water Valley, Alta., about 90 kilometres north of Calgary, is reporting nearly 25 per cent of its colonies were wiped out this past winter.
“In the winter time, they cluster up, especially when it’s cold out,” Fallentimber beekeeper Mike Dodd said.
“If that cluster is too small, they can’t really move through the hive to access any of the other honey that’s stored in there, so usually when you see bees kind of face into the comb… they’re usually starved.”
However, if it’s not the cold that kills the western honey bees, it’s the parasite called the Varroa Destructor. The invasive species originated in Asia and was first detected in North America during the late ’80s. Dodd says these mites will lay eggs where a queen bee would have laid its larvae, causing havoc on the hive.
“They’ll kind of develop alongside the larva that’s in the cell,” Dodd said. “They’ll feed off that larva. They’re weakening it that way so that when the bee does finally emerge, it’s not as strong as it should be.”
While the meadery says the colony loss is acceptable, other keepers across the province have reported even more drastic numbers, with at least half of their colonies killed off.
Fallentimber Meadery business development and partner Dan Molyneux believes as the bees are killed off, the concern is what will happen to agriculture and local businesses that depend on the insect.
“We’ve never really seen anything quite like this,” Molyneux said.
“We’ve seen some bad years for sure, but we’re holding on. The bees run our business right. We need the bees and we need to make this meade.”
According to Statistics Canada, Canadian honey producers harvested nearly 90 million pounds of honey last year, with Alberta leading the way with more than 36 per cent.
Molyneux says with the number of bees declining and demands up, last year the commodity price of raw honey jumped nearly 100 per cent from $1.70 per pound to $3.20.
“This year we’ll ferment out 300,000 pounds. We can all do the math on that,” Molyneux said.
“It all depends on how much our honey bees produce that we can kind of count on controlling that cost a little bit, but we’re at the mercy of mother nature, we’re at the mercy of the bees and we’re at the mercy of bees being able to be imported into Canada.”
One option for local beekeepers to rebuild their colonies is through importation from other countries.
Right now, the federal government’s food inspection agency will permit healthy queen bees from the U.S., Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Ukraine, Italy and Malta to enter the country.
However, the number of countries Canadian beekeepers can import full colonies of honey bees dwindles to just three — and the U.S. is not on that list.
The Alberta Beekeepers Commission is currently in talks with the government, requesting colonies from northern California be allowed to enter the country.
“We’re looking for essentially a risk-based assessment program that we can put in place that would allow some channel to get bees into the country because of years like this,” said commission board member and Fallentimber Meadery CEO Dustin Ryan.
“There’s really not many other options available for beekeepers to rebuild their stock.”
A statement to Global News from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency states it carried out a 2014 science-based risk assessment regarding exported bee colonies from the U.S.
The findings showed there is a “significant probability of establishment and spread of honey bee pests and diseases in Canada” if imports were allowed.
“What the beekeeping community is trying to do, is again, help support the agricultural community,” Ryan said.
“We can’t do that if we’re in the state that we’re in right now. There’s going to be a tough couple of years to recover from these losses if we can’t find some ways to replenish the stock that’s been lost.”