Monday, April 02, 2007

Apiarists buzzing about soaring rate of honeybee deaths

Die-offs raise chance devastating disease has migrated north from United States

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Honeybees in southwestern Ontario have been dropping like flies this winter -- potentially threatening honey production and some of the estimated $5-billion in fruit and other crops across Canada that depend on the insects for pollination.

There also is talk in beekeeping circles of suspiciously high honeybee losses in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

However, commercial beekeepers and government officials in Ontario are not yet ready to concede that the unusually high winter mortality rate -- nearly three times the average -- may stem from the same mysterious syndrome dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD) that is devastating honeybee populations in 24 U.S. states, with some losses running as high as 90 per cent.

"We don't think it has anything to do with colony collapse disorder," said Brent Halsall, president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association and proprietor of Halsall's Honey in Greeley, near Ottawa.

Related to this article

Enlarge Image
Follow this writer
Add JOHN PARTRIDGE to my e-mail alerts
Latest Comments
We are seriously screwing the pooch on an amazing array of human...
So we have GMO bees trying to pollinate GMO crops and we transport...
Cold Clear Water's got it right: what's whacking the honey business...
I wonder if genetically altering our food is a contributing factor...
26 reader comments | Join the conversation
"I don't know of anyone yet reporting [CCD] from Canada, but we are certainly watching it with concern," Heather Clay, the Calgary-based national co-ordinator of the Canadian Honey Council, said.

In the United States, honeybee pollination activities are estimated to add about $15-billion (U.S.) a year in value to crops, especially almonds, berries and other fruits and vegetables, and expert witnesses at a congressional committee hearing in Washington last Thursday warned that lower crop yields and higher prices could result if a way to combat CCD is not found.

"It's an absolute catastrophe in the U.S.," said Peter Kevan, a professor who specializes in bees in the department of environmental biology at Ontario's Guelph University.

Among the most northerly affected states are Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has estimated that the value of honeybee pollination in this country is more than $1-billion a year and represents 21 per cent of the value of about 26 selected crops.

Winter losses of honeybees in Ontario have averaged about 18 per cent a year over the past 10 to 15 years, according to provincial apiarist Douglas McRory of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

However, as they start preparing their colonies for the 2007 honey and pollination season, commercial beekeepers in an area of southwestern Ontario have been reporting "exceptional" mortality levels.

"Most of them are about 50 per cent, but there's one person at about 90 per cent," Mr. McRory said when reached at his office in Guelph, west of Toronto.

"I personally don't think that we have what they're seeing in the States," Mr. McRory said. "There, they think it's the result of several things that aren't happening here."

He cited U.S. findings of the buildup of residues in honeycombs of certain chemicals used by U.S. beekeepers that have not been used as long or as widely in Canada, along with predations by so-called small hive beetles, which are not yet found in this country.

As well, U.S. beekeepers truck hundreds of thousands of colonies from state to state as particular crops require pollination. This makes for a much more intense and stressful life than most Ontario honeybees endure. "We move ours maybe once [a season], out east to pollinate blueberries, and then we bring them back," Mr. McRory said.

Instead, he and other experts are pointing to unusual weather patterns that led to reduced production of late-season honey on which the bees and their offspring live during the winter, and to the fact that frigid winter temperatures did not arrive until mid-January, the start of a critical period for bee reproduction.

The bees form clusters inside the hives to maintain the temperature at 21 degrees during most of the winter, but the lengthening of the days after Jan. 15 is a signal for them to raise this to the 35 degrees their nascent offspring or "brood" require. "Once they do that, they won't leave [the cluster] and they can literally starve to death even with honey on the sides of the hive," Mr. McRory said.

Meanwhile, Tim Wendell, president of the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Association, figures several unusually high losses that he has heard about in the province this year -- 60 per cent in one case, 80 per cent in another --may have more to do with poor management than anything else.

Still, Mr. Wendell also said he has not yet heard from a lot of other beekeepers in the province, and nobody appears willing to rule out the possibility that CCD may, in fact, have spread to Canada.

"I think it is certainly safe to say that we have suspicious losses across Canada, but at the moment, nobody is actually attributing them officially to colony collapse disorder," Prof. Kevan said yesterday. "The jury is still out."

Honeybee blight

Beekeepers in Ontario are reporting about three times the average mortality rate for honeybees. Such high winter death rates raise the possibility that a syndrome devastating bee populations in the United States and Europe, called colony collapse disorder, has moved into Canada. Canadian officials are unwilling to say the death rate is a result of CCD. They are pointing to the unusual winter weather instead. The cause of CCD, which can affect an entire beehive or colony, remains unknown.

Western honeybee

There are only seven species of honeybee, all of which produce and store liquefied sugar in the form of honey and construct colonial nests out of wax secreted by the workers in the colony. The Western honeybee is the subspecies that has been domesticated for commercial production in North America.

What's causing colony collapse?

The cause of the syndrome is not yet well understood and its existence remains disputed. Theories include environmental

change-related stresses, malnutrition, unknown pathogens, mites, pesticides, disease, or genetically modified crops.


Varroa mites prey on developing bees by infecting the chambers where larvae are developing and feeding on their blood. However, Canadian authorities do not believe they are the cause of the recent die-offs.


A number of destroyed colonies in the U.S. have been found to have build-ups of certain nicotine-based insecticides. However, these chemicals are not in wide use in Canada and are not thought to be the cause of Canadian deaths.


The relatively warm temperatures in January may have wreaked havoc with the bees' finely tuned breeding cycle, causing them to accelerate the development of larvae just before dangerously cold temperatures struck.


U.S. commercial beekeepers truck colonies between states as seasonal crops require pollination and this is known to cause considerable stress to the bees. In Canada, this practice is limited by the shorter growing season.

Four Canadian provinces have reported sudden, massive and unexplained die-offs of commercial honeybee colonies. Spokespeople for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs say they are not convinced the die-offs in Canada are happening for the same reasons they are happening in the United States and are reluctant to apply the term colony collapse disorder to the Canadian cases.

No comments: