Honey bee farms across Alberta are keeping a close eye on their hives this fall following large colony losses last winter.
Sixty-five per cent of the colonies at Paradis Valley Honey Farm in Watino, Alta., 140 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie, were lost over the winter months.
Seventh-generation beekeeper Danny Paradis said that as a result, this year's honey crop is down 80 per cent while hives rebuild.
"We are in the sense of a drought, I would say, because we did everything we can to maintain all of our production, our colonies, our equipment and now we're just having a small honey crop," Paradis said.
The culprit is believed to be the varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that feeds on and weakens bees, making them more susceptible to viruses.
Challenge is 'industry wide'
"The challenge this year is industry wide," said Paradis.
"I think our controls are not as effective as what they used to be."
Patricia Wolf Veiga manages Northwestern Polytechnic's National Bee Diagnostic Centre in Beaverlodge, Alta.
Wolf Veiga tests bee and honey samples from farms across Canada and even other countries. She says the mites and associated viruses were the main cause of mass colony losses during last winter.
"So we had experience with beekeepers in the area that lost 50 to 80 per cent of the hives and they barely made any honey this summer," Wolf Veiga said.
Monitoring mites throughout the season can help reduce levels before winter, she said. Although there are options to treat varroa, she said reports of mite resistance to some chemicals are emerging.
"We have a lot of products we can use, but sometimes they are not as effective," she said.
"A lot of people are working on getting new products but it is very time consuming."
Meanwhile, Paradis is trying to keep his 3,000 colonies healthy this fall to avoid another large loss.
"This is the time of the year where they [mites] populate very rapidly in the colonies," Paradis said.
While monitoring is the best way to know when to treat, Wolf Veiga said it's sometimes not feasible for beekeepers who have many hives.
It's very hard to see light at the end of the tunnel. - Danny Paradis
Connie Phillips, executive director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, said the commission is working with farmers to help manage mites.
"This past year has been one of the worst for colony losses in Alberta," Phillips said.
In 2019, the commission launched a team that visits honey bee farms three times a year. The traveling researchers collect samples from hives, analyze them and provide guidance to farmers to address any issues.
"It's an extension role, where they'll go out and coach, train, mentor and then the other side of that is the research that the commission is funding," Phillips said.
While there is ongoing research into more effective miticides, another area of study is breeding bees that are more resistant to viruses associated with varroa.
"They have a strategy to cope or control the mite infestation so we call that hygienic behaviour," said Wolf Veiga.
In the meantime, Paradis hopes increased monitoring in 2022 can help his farm rebound with a larger honey crop next year. Even with a small amount of product this year, he's left with the same expenses.
"It's very hard to see light at the end of the tunnel," Paradis said.