Manitoba’s honeybee population has recovered from 2013, when a harsh winter saw hives drop almost eight per cent, but commercial apiarists say that growth could have risks if it doesn’t come with disease management training for new beekeepers.
“Education is very important in those regards and I think probably one of our largest concerns is how many small-scale beekeepers on the Internet want to preach treatment-free beekeeping, which is not a recommended practice at all,” said Allan Campbell of the Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association. “We’d like to see bees’ health looked after more than anything because they are essentially a herd animal, so you need to protect that. There’s a lot of so-called ‘gurus’ on the Internet who preach to go this treatment-free route and if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you can spread disease very quickly.”
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Advocates of treatment-free beekeeping often cite concerns with pesticide residue, antibiotic levels in honey or treatment resistance in common pests such as the varroa mite.
Varroa mite and American foulbrood are of particular concern to the beekeepers’ association. The mites have gained a reputation as one of the honey industry’s most notorious pests, feeding on bee fluids, weakening bees and transferring viruses. Mite-born infections have been known to cause deformed wings.
The bacterial American foulbrood targets larvae and is “nearly impossible to kill,” according to Campbell.
“The only thing that’ll kill that bacteria is fire,” he said.
In many cases, equipment must also be burned to stem the spread.
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John Sochaski of Bee Outfitters in Tisdale, Sask. also raised the alert on foulbrood, which he says can be prohibitively expensive for a hobbyist who suddenly needs to burn equipment.
“We’ve started this from Day 1, telling them that they have to treat for mites and different diseases,” he said.
The Saskatchewan company runs a beekeeping workshop on hive management and provides backyard beekeeping kits to major retailers.
More joining the ranks
In 2013, hive numbers in Manitoba dropped from 80,000 to 74,000. By 2016, numbers had climbed up to a record 102,000, at least partly due to an influx of new beekeepers.
The 2016 Statistics Canada annual report on honey production said Manitoba beekeeper numbers have grown from 517 in 2012 to 662 in 2016, although the province still made up only about seven per cent of all beekeepers in Canada.
Of the 698 beekeepers registered with the province this year, 487 are hobby farms with 50 hives or less.
Beekeepers must be commercial apiarists (over 50 hives) to be full members with the Beekeepers’ Association of Manitoba, although associate memberships are available for hobbyists.
Disease information is offered both through the association’s website and through the provincial apiarist, Rhéal Lafreniere.
For many hobbyists, that education is coming from Rob Currie of the University of Manitoba. He runs a two-month non-credit course covering bee anatomy and behaviour, hive management, regulations, marketing and management of pests and parasites.
Two of the course’s eight nights are devoted to pathogens and pests, Currie said, although the topic permeates the course.
Like Campbell, Currie identifies varroa mites and American foulbrood among the most serious beekeeping threats in Manitoba and stressed the need for monitoring both before and after treatment.
“Usually when beekeepers get into big trouble, it’s because their mites got out of control,” he said. “They either weren’t monitoring or they applied acaricides and assumed that the mite levels were low and then they had a problem with resistance so they ended up losing a lot of colonies as a result.
“Without question, varroa mite is the No. 1 issue in terms of staying on top of it and making sure that you have good treatments in place and good monitoring in place.”
Resistance to chemical treatment has been noted with both mites and American foulbrood, Currie said. His course also covers fungal nosema infestations, tracheal mites and European foulbrood.
He has also fielded questions about treatment-free beekeeping from his students.
“We try and tell them that, although you can avoid using sort of the hard chemicals, that you would have to be very diligent in terms of using cultural controls and physical controls and we circle through those in class,” Currie said.
While advertised with a 60-student cap, Currie has said that class sizes have ranged between 100 and 125 over the last three years.
The jump has been in line with a similar rise in beekeeping nationwide. Statistics Canada estimates there were about 9,900 beekeepers in Canada last year, 19 per cent more than in 2012. The industry produced $157.8 million worth of honey, of which $21 million came from Manitoba.
Sochaski has said he often reminds customers to educate themselves on disease when they call looking for medicines, but federal changes will likely pull those products from his shelves.
Health Canada’s Antimicrobial Use Initiative would limit some antibiotics, such as those used to prevent the spread of foulbrood, to distribution by a veterinarian.
The move is part of federal efforts to address antibiotic resistance in humans and animals. In 2015, Canada was among the countries to support the World Health Organization Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance, of which national action plans were a part.
Campbell, however, has expressed concern over the changes.
“Virtually every veterinarian knows nothing at all about bees, so on the one hand, yeah, they know drugs; they know antibiotics, but if they don’t know the animal, then it’s kind of disturbing,” he said.
Beekeepers in other provinces have also protested the move. In a 2016 letter to Health Canada, the Ontario Beekeepers Association warned that “any restrictive access to antibiotics, such as requiring beekeepers to obtain a prescription from veterinarians, would be counterproductive and harmful to Ontario’s already fragile honeybee health and beekeeping industry.”
The letter further recommended mandatory certification that would train new beekeepers in proper antibiotic use within five years of obtaining hives.