With the Canadian border closed to U.S. honeybee imports, Manitoba honey producers are relying on overseas shipments to rebuild hives
Early reports indicate average bee loss across the province is above the 30 per cent mark, with some apiarists losing as many as 80 per cent of their hives.
“We don’t have a lot of concrete numbers yet, but based on the information we have, basically about 32 per cent of the colonies did not make it through the winter, and this is before spring dwindle… these are outright losses,” said provincial apiarist Rhéal Lafrenière.
“We generally anticipate that spring dwindle numbers would increase that percentage.”
The harsh, long winter is one, but not the only, factor.
“We really don’t know why these losses are occurring, there doesn’t seem to be any one indicator of what is going on at all,” said Allan Campbell, president of the Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association.
He added many surviving hives are very weak, which makes splitting them problematic. But getting replacements isn’t easy. High honey prices will encourage producers who fared well to hang on to extra hives this summer, and Campbell noted Canadian beekeepers have been banned from importing American honeybees since 1987.
“Right now we can import bees from New Zealand, Chile and Australia, but for three times the price,” said the Dauphin-area beekeeper.
Bee packages — a queen and about a kilogram of worker bees — from New Zealand currently cost about $150 versus $55 in the U.S., said Campbell.
Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives Minister Ron Kostyshyn said he has been in contact with both the Manitoba Beekeepers Association and federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to discuss reopening the Canadian border to U.S. honeybees.
“We’re well aware of the urgency and that’s why we’ve moved forward as fast as we could,” said Kostyshyn.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is conducting a risk assessment to determine if American bees pose any threat to the Canadian industry. The ban was originally imposed to try to stop the spread of the varroa mite. Although it is now present on both sides of the border, some American mites have been found to be pesticide resistant, Campbell noted.
But even if the Canadian border does reopen, honey producers will still be faced with mounting and mysterious bee deaths.
“I think it’s a combination of things, but there is still this unknown factor out there that seems to be affecting bees almost worldwide,” said Lafrenière.
Lafrenière and Campbell cite last year’s dry fall as a factor, as it depleted nectar and pollen supplies. Last year’s early spring may have also allowed virus levels to build up in hives, said Lafrenière.
“In some cases, I suspect varroa mite may have gotten to high levels and even if you control them, there can be a lag period,” said the apiarist. “When levels get high enough, there seems to be this vectoring of viruses.”
A pesticide used to coat corn seed has been linked to bee deaths in Eastern Canada, the U.S. and Europe, but Lafrenière said it’s not known how much of an impact pesticides might be having on bees in Manitoba.
Whatever the cause, the drop in bee numbers will have an impact on crops which require pollinating, Campbell said.
“There’s definitely going to be a big question mark around how well the province is going to be pollinated this year,” he said. “There won’t be enough bees available to cover everything.”