Honey bees have enough to deal with after a long cold winter. Throw in a pesty killer mite and the challenges multiply for honey bee populations across the province, and this year, losses continue to wipe out many colonies.
The Varroa destructor mite is a serious problem unique to honey bees as they pull the juices out of a bee and, while they’re at it, inject deadly viruses.
Varroa mites are always an issue for Stephen Gammage, a beekeeper from Ontario Backwoods Apiary in Cambridge.
“Not only do they weaken our bees, giving them less chance to survive the long winters, but they can also spread disease amongst our bees. We currently have to use a multipronged attack using different methods to combat them,” Gammage said.
“But even then, we can only keep numbers low to minimize harm, but we can never fully get rid of them. It appears as though they are getting worse year by year.”
Gammage says this year, the province has averaged losses of 40 to 60 per cent, and in some areas, as high as 75 per cent which he says is well past unsustainable and will mean the end for some long-time beekeepers.
Paul G. Kelly, research and apiary manager at the University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, says that wherever there are honey bees, there are Varroa destructor mites.
“They are in every one of our hives. It’s just a matter of how many there are and whether they are causing damage or not,” Kelly said.
Kelly says the mite is in just about every corner of the world where honey bees are kept.
“People keep bees at all sorts of different levels and scales from a small hobby in their backyard, a sideline business, to a full-time occupation. And beekeepers who are making a living at it, are the ones mostly affected.”
Over the winter, an individual hive loses about 50 per cent of bees in a hive.
“And in the spring, they build back up again. If the population dwindles over the winter to where there is not enough to rebuild or completely dwindles to nothing, the whole hive dies,” Kelly said.
“Some beekeepers have had very high losses. I know a number that have lost everything. Others have lost as little as 20 per cent which is normal for us here.”
Since about 2007, Kelly says losses across the province averaged at about 30 per cent, whereas before the mites, it was at about 5-10 per cent.
“Once the mites came, we began to have significant losses that were higher. In 2015-16, we averaged 58 per cent of losses of colonies through out Ontario,” Kelly said.
Kelly says these deadly mites are not a new problem.
“We’ve had Varroa mites since the late 80’s. We’ve been trying to live with them,” he said.
“We have ways of managing bee populations, but some years are worse than others for mite reproduction. Last year we had an early spring and bees had wintered very well. Last year, they got an early start, so the mites got an early start in reproduction reaching a damaging level in the colonies much sooner than they would normally.”
Kelly says the University of Guelph is trying to find ways to breed bees for resistance to the mites, and at the same time, trying to keep bees alive.
Kelly has been at the university since 1987 and has been keeping bees since 1980.
To control mites, Kelly says there are a number of different products that beekeepers use.
“We do research on this and also on bee breeding. With our university hives, the losses weren’t terrible, at about 20-30 per cent. There are about 300 hives at the university, but numbers change everyday,” Kelly said.
Over time, Kelly hopes bees will evolve with some level of resistance to the mites.
“But because we manage the colonies to limit the mite damage, we are in a way, not allowing evolution to happen. If we did just let it go on its own, there would not be enough honeybees around for pollination and honey production,” Kelly said.
As a beekeeper, Kelly says it’s important to divide the bees that are thriving.
“From one good hive, you could get two hives, but those two hives don’t always build up to be a high enough population to get through the winter. Some of this is in the control of the beekeeper, and some of it isn’t,” Kelly said.
“That’s our job, to keep them alive. But things don’t always work out as planned. Beekeeping is challenging. These losses are affecting everybody including small scale, large scale, really experienced beekeepers, and inexperienced beekeepers. It’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just been a very challenging year for our bees and a tough year to look after them.”
Gammage says one of the biggest challenges is the ever-growing winter loss rates that cause a lack of supply available to replace lost colonies.
“Bees are in danger with erratic weather patterns, pesticide exposure, diseases and all the pests that prey on them, they are struggling to do well,” Gammage said.
Which is why beekeepers will have to buy bees from other beekeepers whenever they experience losses.
“Bees are more important for pollinating native plants, but honeybees are more important in pollinating agricultural plants,” Kelly said.
“But this year, beekeepers don’t have enough bees that are alive to even meet that market there. So, there will be a shortage of bees. And more significantly, there’s potential of a shortage of bees for pollination in the agricultural sectors that rely on honeybee pollination. Growers of fruit, seeds, nuts, berries depend on pollination.”
Many fruit growers have contracts with beekeepers who bring their bees in and set up in the orchards and move them out when the bloom is over.
“If beekeepers don’t have enough, they will have to get help from other beekeepers or maybe cut down numbers of bees they can provide to fruit growers. That’s probably the bigger challenge in the big picture for consumers and food producers because the value of pollination far out ways the value of honey,” Kelly said.
“Pollination is a major source of income for beekeepers. We tend to mostly think of the honey. But there are so many other products including pollination services and that’s a significant part of a beekeeper’s income.”
Kelly says the role at the Honey Bee Research Centre is to help beekeepers help their bees.
“We are always looking for help with the work we do here at the university. We have volunteers and donors, and we really appreciate any support,” Kelly said.
“We will come back for this, but what I find is that if your losses are anything higher than 30 per cent, it takes more than a year to get back to where you were at and rebuild. It could even take a couple years. Those with 90 per cent losses, have no hope for rebuilding within their own operation.”
Kelly says he encourages people to buy local honey in support of the beekeepers who really need help right now.
Ontario Backwoods Apiary has much to offer including pure, raw, unpasteurized honey, as well as all natural beeswax candles.
For Gammage it’s about the simple pleasure of being able to keep them.
“Even though many people fear them, they are as gentle as can be when not agitated,” he said.
“I just enjoy being outside in the sunshine watching these neat little creatures do what they do best while being mesmerized by the hum of a hive.”
For more information about the University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, visit here.