By Jeff Tribe
“Bee-mageddon” 2021/2022 crept insidiously into Canadian hives on the balmy breezes of an early spring.
The honey and pollination industry pivoted despite losses approaching 50 per cent nationwide, but the experience provided a chilling warning on the ramifications of climate change, pathogens and parasites on honey bees’ annual $7-billion economic impact in Canada.
Beyond less honey, blueberry pollination as one example may have been spread a bit thinner, with production down a little, said Paul Kelly, Research and Apiary Manager of the Honey Bee Research Centre (HBRC: www.hbrc.ca) with The University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College.
“It wasn’t a catastrophe, but if we face losses of 70 or 80 per cent, it will be. We’re kind of on the edge of that if we don’t learn to manage these problems.”
Kelly was hooked on honey bees during a first-year university apiculture course, a glimpse into the high-energy, high-intensity world of creating and managing hives and queens.
“You are starting something and watching it grow and develop,” he explained. “It’s almost like magic and you are intimately connected to it.”
With his BSc. Agriculture degree graduation in 1983, Kelly combined academia and practical experience through five years of commercial beekeeping starting on a 3,000-hive honey production operation in Alberta’s Peace River. From there he managed 300 hives for orchard pollination in the Okanagan valley then worked on a 700-hive Nova Scotia operation specializing in blueberry pollination. He passed through New Zealand learning queen rearing skills, before moving to his current position in 1987.
Honey bees occupy a “funny intersection” between nature and livestock, says Kelly, the huge majority of their Canadian population farmed for honey and contracted out for agricultural pollination.
Around one-third of food grown (fruits, nuts, berries, seeds, vegetables and forage crops) benefits from bee pollination. “Of that, 80 per cent is done by honey bees.”
For example, 40,000 of Ontario’s 100,000 hives are temporarily shipped to low bush blueberry fields in the Maritimes annually, where damp, cold winters and a dearth of bee food after blueberry bloom mean it’s not possible for bees to thrive there year-round.
“The blueberry business is expanding out there.”
Hives are also sourced to support high bush blueberry and other berry production in B.C. and fruit (cherries, apples, peaches for example) in the Okanagan Valley, Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and Ontario’s fruit growing regions, and vegetables (cucumber, squash and melon) in Norfolk County, “Ontario’s Garden”.
That 80 per cent majority of pollination is accomplished “almost exclusively” through farmed honey bees Kelly added, given the parasitical devastation on those living in the wild.
Other bees including bumblebees and leaf cutter bees do the remaining 20 per cent. In Ontario, there are 423 species of native bees, says Kelly, some generalists like honey bees, others specific to native plants.
“They need each other.”
Most study and research is done on honey bees due to economic impact, although Kelly’s position is the province needs all its pollinators.
“We need to know more about these interactions.”
Historically, Canadian beekeepers could simply replace lost hives with “package bees” from California, Georgia or Alabama. However, while still open to queens, the border was closed to colonies in the 1980s over concerns with Africanized (killer) bees and parasitic Varroa destructor mites, the number one problem for honey bees.
Mites do not affect honey quality, rather halve the lifespans of overwintering bees from six months to three, a crucial degradation affecting winter survivability. Roots for massive Varroa destructor damage were planted in an even-temperature 2020-2021 winter, followed by a six-weeks early spring.
“So, the bees came through in very good shape,” said Kelly. “And then they got a jump start of six weeks, which is huge.”
Hives thrived initially, better than they had for years.
“The flip side is when bees are reproducing well, mites are reproducing well too.”
There are both natural (essential plant oils and organic formic acid) and synthetic miticides, however their administration to a high-density colony living inside a box filled with food people eat is both complicated and highly regulated.
“It’s not an easy thing,” said Kelly, a reality exacerbated by the temperature-sensitive nature of treatment. Normally, hives may be treated for mites after the first honey harvest, however warm conditions did not allow for that.
The full extent of losses initiated in the spring of 2021 did not show up until the following spring, 46 per cent nationwide and between 49 and 50 per cent in Ontario.
Beyond a HBRC longer-view breeding program selecting breeder queens from more mite-resistant hives, short-term measures including testing hives for mites and mitigation measures — time consuming tasks and additional expenses. These are expenses which must be borne, however, given contemporary conditions which negatively impact beekeepers’ bottom lines and at worst case, the health of a crucial industry.
“Between mites and climate change, it means you can’t do things the same every year,” said Kelly.
Bee hives can be regenerated more quickly than a corresponding percentage loss in a dairy herd, for example, through splitting which is pairing a number of bees from a healthy hive with a new queen to create a new colony. Splitting does not however produce hives equal to the original in robustness or production level. Climate change can encourage mite production, or cause drought which compromises nectar availability. Poor foraging conditions affect the ability of colonies to feed themselves, produce a harvestable surplus, and go into winter in good health.
This backdrop only emphasizes HBRC’s importance. Funded through the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) it has a focus on provincial agriculture, yet with national and international standing.
The presence of hard, scientific data is particularly important given the at-times emotional public response and potential misconceptions around bee health related to pesticides. “There are issues with pesticides,” says Kelly,” who also fully comprehends they can be useful for food production. HBRC studies show that pesticides may not be ideal for bees in general but have focused on how much colonies are exposed to. Admittedly only test “snapshots” rather than a comprehensive case-by-case picture, their evidence indicates bees are exposed to pesticides in higher and lower levels, but not generally in amounts measurable to hive performance.
“We’re happy to see that.”
Documented losses from neonicotinoid exposure in Germany in 2007 and in Ontario in 2012-2013 became highly publicized despite “not being widespread in a Canadian context”. Well-meaning organizations got involved in “save the bees” efforts which in Kelly’s opinion didn’t pay enough attention to the full spectrum of pollinators and secondly, didn’t fully account for the negative effects of climate change, pathogens and parasites.
“What was kind of lost in that was that not all the problems were from pesticides.”
Currently operating out of a raised bungalow on the University of Guelph grounds, the centre uniquely combines educational and entrepreneurial components including beekeeping facilities featuring a home bee yard of 60 full-sized hives and 120 smaller queen mating hives, 13 other bee yards with a total of 350 hives, a retail outlet with honey, hive products, and educational materials for sale. The HBRC is an educational hub offering weekend courses and around 80 videos available either on a flash drive or via YouTube.
“They break beekeeping down into simple chunks,” explained Kelly.
Translated into 12 languages, HBRC videos have been viewed at least 16,000,000 times globally.
The centre also hosts research projects with local, provincial, national and global significance.
“We are forced to turn away more people wishing to help than we can accept,” says Kelly.
Having done a lot with a little, he is excited with the plans to build a new 15,000-square-foot, $16.1-million Honey Bee Research Centre. After eight years of planning the ground-breaking ceremony was held on June 14th. The Lukevich Pinchin Honey Bee Research Centre is named for the family who donated 50-per cent of the construction cost. To date, roughly $13.5 million has been raised for the facility which is located a couple hundred metres down Stone Road from the current HBRC. The new facility will provide more accessible one-level space (research is currently done in a former residential bedroom) with an excellent flow of people, production and research activities. There will be more room to execute and collaborate on domestic and international research, a public education zone focusing on the importance of bees in agriculture and nature, and the opportunity to build up staff and expand the scope of activities including course offerings. The property will also feature $180,000 worth of bee-friendly flora conducive to thriving hives and interpretive trails.
Kelly looks forward to continuing his mandate through the scheduled completion date in 2025.
In conclusion, despite being as busy as, well a bee at times, Kelly’s career has reinforced the validity of his first impression that it would be something he’d enjoy spending his life doing. Changing climate may have contributed to a new and extremely challenging era. What has not changed is Kelly’s unwavering commitment to bee health and the crucial importance of their environmental and economic impact.
“The best thing to support the beekeeping industry is to be purchasing local honey, providing habitat for bees and supporting bee research,” he summed up, emphasizing the importance of collaboration between the industry and the agricultural community who both benefit from, and typically host hives.
“We’ve all got issues, we just need to work together in a way which is mutually beneficial.” ◊