Imagine a house cat latching on to a human and sucking its blood. That's the scaled-up version of the horror Saskatchewan honey bees face when a parasitic mite, known as the "Varroa destructor," latches on and starts sucking, according to Geoff Wilson.
"They pull the juices out of the honeybee, and as they are doing that, they actually inject viruses," said Wilson, who is the provincial specialist for apiculture (beekeeping). "They're greatly reducing the health just by sucking the blood, but the viruses that they're putting into the bee are actually even more deadly."
Early reports from producers indicate more Saskatchewan honey bees died during the winter than usual. Wilson said they're estimating a 35 per cent winter-loss of honeybees, up from the year prior that saw just a 13.2 per cent loss. Other typical winters have ranged from 10 to 25 per cent losses.
Wilson said the Varroa mites are a major, and deadly, problem unique to honey bees found on the Prairies. However, the health of the honey bee populations on the Prairies has also been jeopardized by the seasons.
"It was a long, cold winter and the spring just doesn't seem to want to arrive yet, so the bees are struggling," he said.
Furthermore, the long, hot summer season seemed to help the Varroa mites thrive and expand their destructive path within bee colonies. Extended periods of drought also meant the bees weren't able to forage as well in July and August, when they should have been preparing for winter.
"The bees didn't raise quite enough babies to have healthy populations to get through the winter."
Honey belt of Canada
If bees on the Prairies don't fare well, that can disrupt the national honey industry. According to Wilson, Saskatchewan has about honeybee 115,000 colonies. There are about 800,000 colonies in all of Canada.
"We get very, very large crops of honey from a colony. Our provincial average is about 185 to 190 pounds of honey per year," Wilson said. "In a place like Quebec and Ontario, it's typically less than a hundred, often in the 75 to 100 pound range."
The Prairies produce about 75 per cent of honey in the country, said University of Saskatchewan professor Art Davis, who is teaching a biology course on bees and beekeeping.
"We're right in the so-called honey-belt of Canada," Davis said. "If things badly affect bee-keepers, and of course their honey bees, in the Canadian prairies, that has a very very large impact on Canada."
Simon Lalonde said weather conditions in the province are typically beneficial for honeybees. He runs a honey farm that has about 4,000 hives with his brother near Clavet, east of Saskatoon. The bees are busy during the "short and sweet" summertime.
"We usually have beautiful summer days, right around 30 degrees. Not a ton of wind, usually long flying days. So the bees start producing honey at 6 a.m. and they can go until nine at night."
There's also the perks of sweeping farming operations, with bees benefiting from the canola, alfalfa and clover crops.
Lalonde said it's troubling to see the bee mortality rates in the industry.
"Any time you see someone else with high losses, you wonder if that's coming to your operation. Right now with what we've seen so far in our bees, we're kind of looking at a standard year, thankfully. But yeah, that's always in the back of your mind."
Beekeeping is a delicate practice and Professor Davis said it's harder for commercial producers than it used to be, because most have to try and keep their bees alive through winter.
The creatures don't hibernate, so conditions heading into winter must be close to perfect. In prior generations, producers would kill or gas-off the bees at the season, then order new bees in springtime.
Davis said import rules changed during the last three to four decades, to prevent the spread of pest and disease. Now, producers can only order new bees from far away places like New Zealand, Australia or Chile — places with similar disease profiles — which can be a costly endeavour.
Wilson said local producers who experienced big losses this winter can still consider importing bees to replenish their stock, and also look to their fellow commercial beekeepers on the Prairies.
Wilson urged everyday people concerned about bee mortality rates to make an effort to buy local honey and plant bee-friendly pollination flowers.