April 11, 2017
By Breanne Coulter and Tierney Angus
The buzz around the bee crisis is getting louder, but there is some confusion surrounding which bees are struggling and what people can do to help.
Canadians are concerned about the health of bee populations, especially due to highly-publicized honeybee colony collapses in the past decade. These issues are becoming less of a problem through better hive management practices.
Populations of wild pollinator bees face different threats than their managed cousins, but campaigns to ‘save the bees’ by environmentalist groups and cereal companies do not differentiate between species. Small-scale and hobbyist apiarists are joining the beekeeping community in large numbers, but in doing so Canada’s native and wild bee populations might be forgotten. ‘Saving the bees’ first requires a deeper understanding of the types of bees present in Canada and the issues that pose the greatest threats.
Honeybee apiarists across Canada saw an increased hive loss over the winter months in the early 2000s. Many different factors, including Varroa mites, disease and weather conditions contributed to this decline.
Margaret and Robert Smith, 74 and 75, are beekeepers and owners of Marg’s Bees Inc. in St. Andrews, Manitoba. They have been managing hives for 40 years and mentor “newbees” to the industry. The couple started their business to provide a source of income for Margaret Smith when she left her teaching job to go back to University.
“I like to say it’s a hobby that flew away with us,” Margaret Smith said.
The years of the honeybee population decline were difficult for the veteran apiarists, especially during the early 2000s. Robert Smith recalls the losses that their beekeeping operation faced.
“We lost close to 80% of our bees in 2002. It’s a brutal thing to lose some of your bees during the winter. In the summer, worker bees only live for around six weeks,” Robert Smith said. “In the wintertime, they can live for several months. But there is a natural cleansing of the hives that happens when the bees die.”
Cold winters have a major impact on the health of bee populations as a whole. Rhéal Lafrenière, Manitoba’s Provincial Apiarist, emphasized the toll the harsh Canadian climate can have on honeybees.
“Weather conditions play a big part in our ability to maintain our populations from one fall to the next spring. There’s always going to be some mortality that happens through that time, it’s just when mortality exceeds the point where the sustainability of the overall population of bees has been crossed,” Lafrenière said. “We had a year in Manitoba where we lost 36% of our colonies, it would have been the winter of 2012, and weather was probably the biggest factor in that one.”
Lafrenière explains that the unpredictable weather in Canada has a large impact on the number of winter losses and the strength of the hives in the spring. This issue can also increase problems with parasites and disease because beekeepers have to work around the weather to provide treatment.
“The honeybee is not indigenous to our area so it had to be brought in and realistically, it needs to be managed in order to survive in our environment,” Lafrenière said. “We don’t have a wild honeybee population.”
The challenges honeybees face are also experienced by Canada’s wild pollinator species yet degrees vary. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, there are over 970 different bee species native to Canada alone.
Dr. Pierre Giovenazzo, Assistant Professor at Université Laval in Quebec and Vice President of the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA) explains honeybees and wild pollinators in terms of agriculture.
“You have to be very clear when you say ‘the bees’,” Dr. Giovenazzo said. “When we talk about wild pollinators we are talking about the environment. When we are talking about honeybees we are talking about a domesticated pollinator – not the same thing.”
Dr. Giovenazzo notes that honeybees must be managed by beekeepers, whereas the native bees are a wild species that survive without human intervention.
“Beekeepers take care of their bees,” he said.
A lack of awareness about the separate bee species leads many people to believe that the honeybees are the ones in danger. According to veteran beekeepers and professional apiarists alike, the honeybee population is at its highest in several years and winter losses have decreased substantially since the honeybee decline of the early 2000s. The last five years have shown the largest number of honeybee colonies since the early 1990s. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs reported 97,342 bee colonies in Ontario in 2016 – an increase of 20,642 colonies from ten years ago. Habitat loss, lack of diversity in food sources and pesticide use have all had a larger negative impact on the wild bees than on the honeybees.
Robert Smith explains the issue of lack of food and food diversity through monoculture farming and the problems these practices create for wild pollinators.
“The bees depend upon feeding their larvae pollen as a source of protein and if there is a thousand acres of one crop, there is no diversity of the protein,” Robert Smith said. “For the pollinators that is not good, and particularly if they [farmers] mow their road allowances and any alternate source that the bees might have, all the ditch linings and road allowances and anything like that. People either spray it or mow it.”
Margaret and Robert Smith do not feel that pesticides are the overarching reason for bee loss in Canada and that there are a number of contributing factors. The Smiths insist that more research is needed beyond a laboratory setting to understand how chemicals are affecting wild and honeybee populations within and outside the hive. Margaret Smith suggests learning from bees in their natural habitat.
“You have to take a holistic approach to the whole problem from a scientific point of view,” she said.
Outside the beekeeping community, environmental groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation are petitioning to ban neonics, a pesticide used heavily in monoculture farming operations. General Mills is advertising a Cheerios wildflower seed campaign aimed at replenishing and diversifying food sources for bees by sending free seed packages to customers which may introduce non-native plant species into sensitive environments.
Dr. Shelley Hoover is an Apiculture Researcher for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and Secretary of CAPA. When asked about the General Mills campaign, Hoover said that the campaign’s cereal boxes use CAPA data for their statements about bee population decline.
“Specifically, they cite the winter loss report from 2015,” Dr. Hoover said.
Dr. Hoover mentions that the CAPA report cited does not say anything about the wild bee populations that are truly struggling and instead focuses on the decrease in winter loss of 34.4% from the previous season.
The report that General Mills is citing contradicts the message they are trying to send by attempting to provide a solution to a problem that no longer exists – and to the wrong species of bee. Dr. Hoover offers a clarification.
“I think it is laudable to bring attention to bee health, but is an oversimplification of a complex situation,” she said. “Having said that, more flowers is a good thing for native and wild bees.”
Dr. Hoover cautions that some seed mixes can contain noxious weed species and seeds that will not grow in the area they are planted. She says that regional seed mixes are preferable.
Managing honeybees and supporting wild pollinators can be a tough job, and beekeepers are dedicated to taking care of their colonies. People who love the fuzzy creatures work hard to move past obstacles and keep their bees healthy. Experienced beekeepers have shown that they’re up to the challenge. Margaret and Robert Smith like having the bees close by, buzzing around their porch and in their gardens. They were heading outside on an early spring evening to move some of their 644 hives from winter storage to a warm place in the sun.
After 40 years of beekeeping a few stings don’t bother them, but Margaret Smith has a slight advantage over her husband.
“Rob is technically, by blood sample, allergic to bees,” she laughed.