Quebec beekeepers feeling the sting this season

·4 min read
Bee producer Tammy-Lyne Comtois Fortier lost 70 per cent of her bees this winter. (Submitted by Tammy-Lyne Comtois Fortier - image credit)
Bee producer Tammy-Lyne Comtois Fortier lost 70 per cent of her bees this winter. (Submitted by Tammy-Lyne Comtois Fortier - image credit)

Bee producer Tammy-Lyne Comtois Fortier was shocked when she opened up her hives last month and saw that the bees in 140 out of her 195 hives had not survived the winter.

It's normal for some bees to die during the colder months but losing 70 per cent is unusual, she said. "You panic a bit more."

The owner of Miel l'été doré (golden summer honey), who breeds and sells bees to other beekeepers, had to cancel some contracts because she doesn't have enough bees left to meet the demand.

She also expects to produce and sell significantly less honey this year.

"It's really hard. We calculated the financial impact [to be] about $150,000," she said. "It's a financial drain, not having the bees but also not having sales from [the byproducts]."

Comtois Fortier estimates it could take three years to recuperate the hives she lost. The shortage of bees is so great in the province at the moment, that she doesn't know where to turn to find any, she said.

Submitted by Tammy-Lyne Comtois Fortier
Submitted by Tammy-Lyne Comtois Fortier

The beekeeper operates the family business in the Lac-Mégantic region, some 250 kilometres east of Montreal.

She is not alone in experiencing losses. Beekeepers across the province, and the country, have seen their pollinators die off over the winter.

Bernard Filion and his two daughters, who run a small honey farm called Filion et Filles in Quebec City, experienced a similar devastation in their 19 hives.

The trio lost 63 per cent of their bees this year, their largest loss in a decade in the business.

"For sure it's a disappointment," Filion said. "We prepare, we feed them, we treat them, and we cross our fingers, we stay optimistic [they will survive]."

Filion et Filles sells honey to local grocery stores in Quebec City and has been trying to establish a regular clientele while competing against bigger and better-known brands.

To do that, Filion said it's important to produce enough honey to sell year-round, but he fears that might be impossible this year.

"With the losses we have… we'll have a shortage of stock," he said. "For sure we won't make it to June 2023, not with only a third of our hives."

A dip in sales will also make it harder to pay the farm's maintenance costs, he said.

"The only good news," he said, is that the company doesn't have any big expenses planned this year, like new equipment.

Amateurs also feeling the sting

Melifera/Facebook
Melifera/Facebook

Virginie Tardif and her partner, Vincent Philippe-Picard, run a small business called Melifera, which trains amateur beekeepers to raise bees.

They sell hives to their clients, help them set up their colonies and accompany them throughout the process.

The pair, who lost six of their nine own hives, said many of their clients also experienced significant losses this year.

Some of them are now wondering whether they want to keep going because of the high costs associated with starting a new colony.

And for those clients who do want to start anew, they can't find any hives available at the moment.

"They ask us 'do you have other hives, other colonies available, where could we buy some?'" said Philippe-Picard.

But at this time, and with so many producers having themselves lost bees, Picard said there are none to spare, so they haven't been able to help their clients.

No clear cause yet

Comtois Fortier says she has no idea what killed her pollinators. She has frozen her dead bees, and is now waiting for specialists at Quebec's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPAQ) to do some tests and analyze what happened to them.

But Filion is sure his colonies were killed by varroa mites.

"Last year, it was a year that had many, many parasites," he said. He said his efforts to control the varroa mite population among his bees wasn't enough to stop the infection.

The mites are parasites that kill honey bees by attaching themselves to and feeding on them.

Nicole Germain/Radio-Canada
Nicole Germain/Radio-Canada

Bee expert Pierre Giovenazzo, who teaches apiculture sciences at Université Laval, told Quebec AM the culprit for this year's losses was "difficult to pinpoint" but that mites are a big issue countrywide.

"It's not just one province, it's more than that, so it has to be something that's across Canada," he said.

Giovenazzo said winter losses have doubled since the parasites were first found in North America some 20 years ago.

He said cold and fluctuating weather can also play a role in bee mortality.

The exact number of Quebec bees that died this winter, and why, is still unknown.

The Quebec beekeepers' association says it is working with the government and its members to assess the situation and expects to present a clearer picture of what happened by mid-May.

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