Habitat loss, poor beekeeping practices and pesticides are among the biggest challenges facing bee populations, experts have told the Commons agriculture committee.
Chris Cutler, an associate professor in the department of environmental sciences at Dalhousie University and also a beekeeper, said another challenge is a lack of information on wild bees, which are vital to food production. There are about 1,000 bee species in Canada.
“In terms of their population dynamics and long-term community distributions and prevalence of different species, we know next to nothing about many of them,” Cutler said. “This is just another cautionary message about making blanket statements about all the bees being in decline. We actually lack a lot of data.”
He said the issue isn’t just limited to those outside the industry, but that beekeepers themselves need to better understand what’s happening.
“Education is the issue that needs to be really tackled among beekeepers,” he said. “You can have hives in the exact same location and half of them will live and half of them will die, and I won’t really be able to understand why.”
There’s a strong sense in the apiculture sector that “beekeeper extension work is key in terms of improving the health of honeybees across the country.”
Kevin Nixon, an Alberta beekeeper and chair of the Canadian Honey Council, said bee issues have received a lot of misleading media attention.
“Unfortunately, most of the media has not been willing to present all the factors affecting bee health, but is aimed at only a single factor, being pesticides,” Nixon said. “There are many factors affecting bee health.”
He cited pests and disease, habitat and nutrition, pesticides and weather and climate all as challenges.
“Most beekeepers on the whole still say that the varroa mite is still the biggest challenge that we face,” he said. “The mite and viruses can decimate a beekeeping operation quite quickly if not managed well.”
Nixon added it’s a frustrating situation for beekeepers with millions of dollars invested in their operation and no solution forthcoming from the research community.
Beekeepers also face rising costs from supplemental feeding of their bees, Nixon noted.
“All regions of Canada go through periods throughout the year when they need to feed their bees, however, it seems like we are feeding more than ever before,” he said.
The main reason for that is the lack of habitat, such as flowers and weeds, that are food sources for bees.
While some pesticides can be toxic to honeybees, there are also many pesticides, which are safe to use around bees, Nixon said.
“When products are used responsibly and the label is followed, most risk can be alleviated,” Nixon said.
Peter Kevan, a professor emeritus at the Ontario Agricultural College and internationally known bee expert, said starvation is a major factor in bee deaths during the winter.
“Starvation is a management problem,” Kevan said, adding it points to the need for better training of beekeepers.
“We really do need a systematic way of monitoring management practices so that we can make comparisons between the regions in Canada to try to understand what can be done better here or there.”
The starvation issue is due in part to the rather conservative nature of the beekeepers.
“Beekeeping equipment by and large has not changed, at least in the field, for about 150 years,” Kevan said. “I think there are some new approaches that could be taken, that need to be taken.”
Kevan also said the effects of pesticides on bees has been poorly monitored and documented. The debate over the use of neonic seed treatments has created a situation where emotions trump logic at times.
“Disagreements have sort of resulted in the situation being clouded by emotionally expressed opinions, backed up with some facts, some factoids, and some fallacies,” Kevan said. “We are not getting a very good picture of the actual problem, unfortunately, because of the way things are unfolding. Everybody has a stake in it and we understand what those stakes are and that everybody’s stake is legitimate. But there has to be some sort of balance, which seems to be somewhat lacking.”