Wing and a prayer: How a P.E.I. beekeeper hopes to keep his hives alive this winter

Wing and a prayer: How a P.E.I. beekeeper hopes to keep his hives alive this winter

After months of research and studying, a beekeeper in Mermaid, P.E.I., is taking a few extra steps this winter to try and keep his hives alive.

Troy Fraser has 15 hives huddled together along the treeline of a snowy, sprawling field near his home. Yellow and black speckles dot the snow drifts near and beneath the hives — the sight of dead and dying bees. 

Seeing a scene like this is common in winter, he says, though, he's hoping to see less death as a result of some quilt boxes, candy boards and mouse guards installed in each hive.

"With fingers crossed and a lot of praying I'm hoping that at least 10 of these survive, given the statistics," Fraser said.

"If I get all 15 hives coming through winter, and I know three or four of them were definitely weak, there may be something to say about that."

Bees can handle the cold no problem, that's never an issue. — Troy Fraser, beekeeper

The statistics he references are from an annual loss report by the Canadian Association of Professional Agriculturists. It studies and educates on beekeeping and has members across the country.

The association's latest survey, released in July 2019, shows that reported winter losses of bee colonies on P.E.I. were the highest in the country, at 54.1 per cent. Second to P.E.I. was B.C. at 31.9 per cent.


Extra efforts are an 'insurance policy'

Moisture, as a result of weather, and starvation were the top bee killers in winter, as reported by the Islanders in that survey.

Cody MacKay/CBC

Evidence like that led Fraser to build and install the additions to his hives.

"I can only speculate as to why other beekeepers have lost their colonies," Fraser said. "Bees can handle the cold no problem, that's never an issue. They need proper ventilation."

Fixed on the top of each hive is what's called a quilt box, which is filled with wood shavings that absorb moisture created by the bees within the structure. Toonie-sized holes drilled into the side of box allow air in to dry out the moisture, so it doesn't drip back down into the hive.

Meanwhile, a candy board, as it's called, has also been placed in the hives. Before winter, the bees store food in their hive but sometimes they may not store enough. The candy board acts as emergency feed for the cluster of bees, each one packed with pounds of sugar.

"Usually bees pack away enough food, but if the beekeeper knows a hive is small or underfed, a candy board is a good way to ensure they have enough," Fraser said.

The hives also have a mouse guard — a thin metal plate with arched entrances at the bottom. It's wide enough for bees to come and go and tiny enough so rodents can't get in. The additions to the hives are an effort to counter each of the top winter threats facing bees.

In that light, Fraser's boxes in particular act as a one-two punch "insurance policy" for his hives, he said, that'll hopefully lead to low mortality rates during the winter.

He handmade the quilt boxes and candy boards at an approximate cost of $37 per hive. With 15 hives that's roughly $555 out of pocket, which isn't too hard to absorb for a smaller operation like his.

Larger bee farms with over 100 hives may not be able to make that investment, he said, but he does have a neighbour nearby with that many who's taken an keen interest in what he's doing.

'Troy brings a lot of passion'

Jeff Reissner has a 100-hive operation in Bethel, which is just a stretch from Mermaid. He knows Fraser from work, and the two bonded over their love for beekeeping.

Submitted by Troy Fraser

"Troy brings a lot of passion to the game," Reissner said.

"He's always reading, always learning and some of the new things that he's bringing forward, I think, will definitely be very advantageous."

While what Fraser is doing may not be "new" in the beekeeping world, Reissner clarified, for larger farms it is worth studying to see if there is success here on P.E.I. and if others can mirror that effort next winter.

Submitted by Troy Fraser

"If this works well for him this year then you can be sure I'll be using it for my entire operation next year," he said.

"Anything we can do to get those numbers, that loss rate down, that would be welcomed."

Reissner reported a 54-55 per cent loss last year, which he said is disheartening.

He said taking the same measures as Fraser may be worth it, considering it costs hundreds of dollars to replace a hive.

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