Q&A: Alberta may have lost 30 per cent of its bee colonies last winter

Alberta beekeepers may have lost more than 30 per cent of their colonies over the winter, says the executive director of the Canadian Honey Council. (Getty Images - image credit)
Alberta beekeepers may have lost more than 30 per cent of their colonies over the winter, says the executive director of the Canadian Honey Council. (Getty Images - image credit)

Honey producers are assessing the losses suffered to their bee colonies during the winter. A changing climate and warming temperatures are contributing to more and more bees dying in the colder months.

It's a big issue in Alberta, as the province is home to around 300,000 of the 800,000 colonies in Canada.

CBC's Edmonton AM spoke to Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council, about why Alberta beekeepers are worried about how some of their colonies have fared this winter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain to us what actually happens to bees during the winter months?

Well, normally what they do is they cluster around the queen and flap their wings to keep everything warm within the hive.

Beekeepers themselves will wrap the hive with insulation to assist in keeping it warm. Or they'll move the colonies indoors and try to make the temperature not fluctuate nearly as much.

What are we looking at with losses here in Alberta after this winter? 

It looks like it's going to be 30 per cent-plus and it very much seems regionalized.

Southern Alberta seemed to do quite well for overwintering, but northern Alberta was very spotty. There'd be some beekeepers who lost 60 or 70 per cent of their bees, and others maybe only lost 20 per cent.

Can you put this into context for us as well? If Alberta is expecting a loss of around 30 per cent or so, how does that compare to past years?

Well, it certainly is better than two years ago when we had losses in Alberta of nearly 50 per cent.

Now the big thing is nationally, Alberta is the province with the most number of colonies. We have about 800,000 colonies in Canada and Alberta normally runs around 300,000 colonies.

So a larger loss in Alberta has a big impact on the national numbers.

Some of us might reflect back on the winter and think we didn't see as much snow, we didn't have as many cold snaps. So why are we seeing these losses?

Beekeepers have to treat bees to prevent a mite [the varroa mite] from overtaking the colony. And they normally complete that [treatment] in late September, early October.

But this past year they might have had to treat till the end of October and early November. And if you weren't prepared for that and you really didn't pay attention, those mites would overtake the colony over the winter and the colony would die.

So it is a little bit dependent on the weather and how long it stays nice for the bees to continue to have these mites in their colony. So that really is probably the main reason.

Then there's always, there's always some secondary reasons of some viruses, a lack of feed, those types of things. But the main reason really is that varroa mite.

How do the numbers we're seeing in Alberta compare to those in other provinces?

Well, Saskatchewan certainly has fewer problems. It looks like their overwintering losses would be around 20 per cent. It would be very close and similar I think to Manitoba and it appears that eastern Canada, from Ontario east, might even be worse than Alberta.

The difference there is they don't have as many bees in their respective provinces, so it might not affect the national numbers as much.

How do beekeepers adapt to these sorts of challenges?

Well, it really is an ongoing learning process, but we do have to look at the treatments themselves.

We have been using one hard chemical for an extended period of time and that chemical doesn't seem to be working as well against mites as it did in the past.

So what really needs to occur for the beekeeping industry to be successful is the development of some more chemicals to deal with the mite population.

Is any of that happening or starting to be looked at? Is any of that in progress?

Oh yes. We do have some work in both Saskatchewan and Alberta that seems quite promising. But it does take time to go through the process to get these products registered with the PMRA (Pest Management Regulatory Agency) in Ottawa.

There is hope, but as each year passes, it becomes more and more difficult for beekeepers to really get a handle on these mites.

I know that this can impact the amount of honey that's produced, but more broadly, how important are bees to Canadian agriculture in general?

Well it has been said that about 60 per cent of the food on your table is dependent on pollination. In Canada we pollinate blueberries, cranberries, and canola seed.

So out there, for all those fields of yellow, it's really much dependent on honey bees doing the pollination of the seed canola in southern Alberta. So it is extremely important. It often goes unnoticed and underappreciated.

LISTEN | A look at why Alberta colonies are seeing bee colony losses: