Don Lambert’s honeybees have made it through the past five winters.
While B.C. beekeepers have suffered devastating losses from disease, parasites and bad weather for more than a decade, a select group of beekeepers on Vancouver Island is doing just fine, said Lambert, the vice-president of the Capital Region Beekeepers Association.
And they want to keep it that way.
“There’s a huge group of people who believe Vancouver Island should have a quarantine,” said Lambert, who has been a beekeeper for 12 years. “We’re importing bees from all over the world. Local beekeepers are importing bees from Tasmania. Are we bringing in unknown viruses? Are we bringing in more critters that shouldn’t be here? There are a lot of questions about that sort of thing.”
A quarantine was imposed in 1988 to protect the bee population on Vancouver Island from other bees on the Canadian mainland. During the quarantine, Vancouver Island beekeepers were allowed to import bees only from foreign suppliers such as New Zealand and Chile. The quarantine was lifted in 2010 despite objections from many Island beekeepers.
Although Lambert and others have been successful getting their bees through the winter, he recognizes that a lot of people lose their hives and the big picture for bee health “is probably not great.”
“What we have got to look at and ask is why are our local bees not thriving,” he said.
Early reports suggest Vancouver Island bees will continue to have a high mortality rate, provincial apiculturist Paul van Westendorp said Wednesday, noting there is an inherent risk overwintering bees in Canada.
Every May, the Ministry of Agriculture surveys large beekeepers to find out how their colonies did over the winter.
The results of the 2022 survey showed beekeepers lost 32 per cent of their hives, similar to what was seen in 2021, said van Westendorp.
Still, B.C. did not fare as badly as other provinces last year. The losses across the country were even higher, he said.
In Ontario, for example, overwinter mortality was 49 per cent in 2021-22, up from 18 per cent the previous year, according to the province’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Across Canada, the estimated average loss was 46 per cent.
The 2023 survey has not been done and final figures for B.C. won’t be available until late June, but van Westendorp said some early reports suggest high mortality on the Saanich Peninsula and other parts of Vancouver Island.
In the past 20 years, the mortality of honeybee colonies has increased on a year-by-year basis largely because of diseases and pathogens. The most important one affecting is the varroa mite, which feeds on both adult honeybees and larvae and pupae in the developing brood.
“They feed on the body fat and the blood of adult bees. The pressure of parasitism is enough for the bees to start to suffer and the colony weakens,” van Westendorp said.
In addition, a lot of beekeepers do not effectively control the mites, which also transmit viruses that can kill the bees later in the season, said the apiculturist.
“It’s a complicated picture that has made beekeeping a highly complex form of animal husbandry,” he said.
The picture is further complicated by beekeepers importing bees from other parts of the world, he said.
Like Lambert, van Westendorp is concerned about bees being imported from other countries.
Maybe that varroa mite from New Zealand is carrying a virus not seen here. “That is the inherent risk associated with importing bees from elsewhere,” he said.
Queens brought to B.C. from the southern hemisphere are also mismatched by seasonality, he said. They have been ripped from their hives, subjected to physical shock, ozone build-up, changes in darkness and light, temperature fluctuations and humidity differences and an 18-hour flight to Vancouver.
“Finally, they are dumped into a hive and told by the beekeeper to start laying 1,000 eggs a day because, of course, here it is springtime.”
A lot of beekeepers have an underlying assumption that bees from far away are more desirable than local bees — the proverbial grass is greener on the other side of the fence, he said.
Van Westendorp suggests beekeepers wait until later in the spring and buy from a local producer-breeder who selects their bees from the best-performing colonies.
Bees have evolved over millions of years. For a colony to reproduce, it has to swarm and create another queen who will establish a new nest somewhere. Swarming typically takes place in April and May. Through evolution, this is when bees produce the highest quality queens with the greatest chance of survival for the remainder of the season, he said.
A study done at the University of Guelph in 1990 found that about 60 per cent of queens imported from the southern hemisphere were replaced after three months.
“This means the bees were so stressed that they simply could not continue to head the colony and the workers eliminated her and raised a new queen,” van Westendorp said.
Monoculture farming — big fields of a single crop — also contributes to the loss of colonies, said Lambert.
For example, if bees live in a tree cavity and are surrounded by blackberry bushes, those bees would bring their population up to match the time when the blackberries are in bloom and there is lots of food for them to gather for the winter.
“But if someone says they are going to put in a farm and rips out all the blackberries, those bees are done for,” Lambert said.
Beekeeping is daunting and a little bit expensive, said Lambert. That’s why he shares his knowledge with other members of the Capital Region Beekeepers Association. The group meets once a month at the Brentwood Seniors Centre. There’s also a Facebook page and a hotline where people can report swarms (250-900-5787). For more information, go to capitalregionbeekeepers.ca.