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Honey, We're in Trouble

author: Tom Cruickshank

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The odds are stacked against honey bee producers these days. Between the weather, parasites, depleting land and now a looming environmental showdown, Watershed country is all abuzz about the fate of its bees.

These are trying times for beekeepers. They are used to the ups and downs of the honey trade and in the normal course of things, they expect some of their bees to die, especially after a long winter. But lately, bees have been dying in record numbers and not just in the colder months. “It’s never been this bad before,” says one apiarist, who has kept hives in the Quinte area for upwards of 25 years, adding that in the last couple of years, he has lost up to 70 percent of his hives. “It’s as though the bees are drunk. They buzz around aimlessly and fall to the ground, twitching. Others die by the dozen at the entrance to the hive. Some of them simply disappear, never to be seen again.”

Meanwhile, the queen bees aren’t as productive as they should be,” said another. “A healthy queen should be laying lots of eggs to keep the hive humming for a good three years. Nowadays, they sometimes expire after three months.”And in the highly structured and efficient environment that is a beehive, if the queen ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. When the social order falls apart and there isn’t enough brood to replace aging bees, the entire colony collapses.

“This is something new and it’s devastating,” we were told anonymously, something that goes beyond the usual suspects that take the blame for bee kill, such as weather and parasites. “Whatever it is, it just might be the final nail in the coffin that drives me out of the honey business.”

What is doubly curious is that so many beekeepers are keeping mum on the subject. In fact, we contacted at least a dozen apiarists – men and women who raise bees commercially or on a hobby basis, but few would speak to us, let alone allow their names to be used in print.

“Bee kill can be blamed on any number of things, so you can’t point the finger directly at one,” said one, cautiously. “I have suspicions as to why my bees are dying but I don’t dare say. I don’t want to start a fight with anyone.”

It seems a strange statement from someone whose livelihood is in a freefall.

“He’s worried about a knee-jerk backlash from farmers,” explains Susan Chan, whose credentials include a Master’s in environmental biology and teaching in the sustainable agriculture program at Fleming College. She was also one of the few beekeepers we encountered who was willing to be quoted. “I understand the silence,” she explains. “Commercial beekeepers earn some of their living by trucking their hives to farms for weeks at a time. The bees pollinate the farmer’s crop and the beekeeper gets the honey and some rent.”Unfortunately, their relationship is strained these days because it appears that the very farmers who rent the bees also figure – albeit unwittingly – in the current widespread die-off.

What farmer is going to rent a field to a beekeeper who blames him for their troubles, especially when
there are other culprits? “But it’s no mystery as to what is killing our bees,” Susan states. “The science is there. There’s no doubt about it.”

This is not just a local phenomenon. In 2013, the honey harvest fell dramatically to 6.3 thousand pounds, from a 21st century high of 9.4 thousand pounds in 2012, according to statistics from the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. That’s a drop of about one-third in a single year, a definite blow after three bumper crops in a row, but still above the figures for 2009. But it’s easy to spin the numbers.

Is the sudden crash a symptom of a crisis? Or is this just a return to normal after several banner years?

The figures for 2014 are bound to be worse. Just as we went to press, the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists released some sobering statistics, announcing that 58 per cent of Ontario bees didn’t survive last winter. Normally, a beekeeper can expect to lose up to 15 per cent of the hive due to cold weather and usually, the bee population can recover over the warmer months. However, an extremely cold winter like last year can wipe out a hive beyond repair. And as climate change progresses, we’re told we can expect more extreme winters in the future.

But 58 pe cent? Was last winter really that cold?

The explanation is long and subject to debate. But it starts with Mother Nature. The flowers and the bees maintain an ingeniously symbiotic relationship. In fact, one couldn’t thrive without the other.

Flowers produce nectar, a sweetsmelling sugary liquid that is almost pure carbohydrate. Its sole purpose is to lure bees, for whom it is the staple ingredient in their diets. The bees use the nectar to manufacture honey, which feeds the young in the hive so that there is sustenance over the cold months when the bees can’t forage.

In return, plants get something out of the deal, too. As the bees hunt for nectar, they brush up against the male parts of the flower, picking up pollen – tens of thousands of fine, dust-like grains that, in the simplest terms, correspond to sperm in animals.When the bee buzzes from plant to plant, some of that pollen rubs off on the female parts of the flowers it visits. This is called cross-pollination and is fundamental in keeping the botanical gene pool healthy and varied.

Cross-pollination is an essential component in the ecology of the Earth. It is basic to plant survival, not only in the wild but in agriculture too, including farm crops such as blueberries, canola and orchard trees. In fact, one-third of everything we eat requires honeybee pollination. That’s why farmers eagerly pay beekeepers to park their hives in their fields.

Back in the meadow, the bee flies home with a belly full of nectar. She – and it is solely the female bees that do the work – might ingest some of it for her own nourishment, but most passes to her “honey stomach,” a separate organ that breaks the nectar into fructose and glucose.When she gets back to the hive, she is greeted by a younger hive worker, into whose mouth she regurgitates her load. Much relieved, the foraging bee heads back out to the field – she might visit 50 to 100 plants before she makes the return trip home again. If she finds a particularly bountiful source of nectar, she will perform a dance – writhing, wriggling and wagging – to entice other workers to follow her.

In the hive, the worker regurgitates the nectar some more. This adds enzymes, but more importantly, exposes the nectar to air, thus helping to evaporate the water content from 80 per cent to less than 20. This is necessary lest the nectar ferment. Drop by drop, the worker fills the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb, capping each with a thin layer of beeswax. There, the honey remains until the hive needs it or until harvested by the beekeeper.

In an average year, a good hive will produce 100 pounds of honey. In Northumberland and Quinte, the vast majority of beekeepers are small operators with less than ten hives, but some make a living with upwards of 500.

The appetite for honey is on the rise. But like every other agricultural commodity, honey follows a perpetual cycle of boom and bust, as there are many factors that affect the amount a hive produces. “There are good years and bad years, and most of the bad years are related to the weather,” says Trevor Joice, who keeps a handful of hives on a hobby basis on his rural property just east of Cobourg. “A dry year doesn’t produce enough nectar. Wet years make the nectar too watery without enough sweetness.”

Trevor also says that despite the vast acres devoted to agriculture, the countryside isn’t as hospitable to the bees as you might assume. Even here in Watershed country, “we farm our land intensively with corn and soybeans, neither of which interest a honeybee much,” he says. “They prefer the nectar of meadow flowers – clover, asters, hay, goldenrod – but with more and more land devoted to cash crops and less and less to pasture, the land supports fewer and fewer hives.” It’s a kind of habitat loss, affecting bees much the way deforestation affects deer and other native wildlife populations.

Traditionally, the weather was probably the apiarist’s biggest day-to-day concern, but “real problems first surfaced in the late 1980s,” says Susan Chan,who once tended up to 45 hives on her property near Lakefield. She’s referring to a period in which the commercial honey industry in the United States was decimated by persistent, nasty mites, first the tracheal mite and then the varroa mite. These are parasites that show no mercy and can kill a hive in no time. Forewarned that the scourge could spread north of the border, Canadian honey producers were luckier than their American neighbours, thanks to an arsenal of pesticides.

But to this day, colonies are routinely medicated, that is, pesticide strips hang at the hive entrances – as the bees return home, they inoculate themselves as they crawl over the strips. Even so, mites still do enormous damage to local hives and are certainly one of the factors in the current worry over declining bee populations.

However, some say that the cure is worse than the disease in the long run. That’s because, inevitably, some mites prove resistant to the pesticide, thus escalating the war.

“I wasn’t comfortable with handling pesticides,” Susan reveals, noting that she could no longer say her honey was strictly organic. “That’s when I got out of production, and today I only have two hives on a hobby basis. So far, they’re doing fine.”

There’s a hint of caution in Susan’s voice. That’s because marauding mites, declining forage cover and nasty weather – serious threats all – pale beside a strange new threat…the one that has so far played an unsung role in the 58 percent mortality in Ontario hives…the one that beekeepers are so hesitant to talk about…the one that is straining their relationship with farmers.

In the early 2000s, a new kind of pest-resistant seed was introduced to farmers on both sides of the Atlantic. It is coated with a kind of pesticide – called “neonicotinoids,” which use thiamethoxam or clothianidin as the active ingredient. It promises better yields and makes the farmer’s work easier, so much better and easier that “neonic” seed has become the seed of choice in recent years, especially among cash croppers who grow corn and soybeans.

Trouble is, the coating not only kills the pest grubs and insects but also appears to be poisonous to bees and is thought to be the culprit behind their erratic behaviour and mortality. It remains in the plant throughout its life cycle – from seed to root to stems to flower. Much depends on how close the hive is to the crop, but even the dust kicked up by tractors and planting equipment can contain enough toxin to be harmful. Sometimes, the effects are immediate; sometimes, they linger; sometimes, they’re just the last straw that sends an already stressed hive over the brink.

“But it’s not just bees, but also butterflies and other beneficial insects. And birds too,” opines Susan Chan. “Honeybees are just the canary in the coal mine.”

When mass bee-kill was first identified by scientists in 2007, the phenomenon was called “colony collapse disorder.” It prompted action in Europe, where neonicotinoids have since been banned. Here, it’s been a different story, with both the federal and provincial governments taking a wait-and-see approach, citing that neonics are less harmful to humans than some older pesticides and that pesticides alone are not the sole cause of the decline of the honeybee. Even a staunch critic like Susan Chan doesn’t dispute the latter, but she is surprised that the government hasn’t been more proactive. “I don’t think North America is taking the issue seriously,” she says, “This is about more than honey. If our pollinators are in trouble, so is our entire food supply.”

As late as 2011, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs reported that colony collapse disorder had not occurred in the province, but in its 2012 report on honey production, it acknowledged dozens of severe kills in the south-western part of the province.

Interestingly, Watershed country officially had escaped the scourge, save for a handful of hives near Peterborough and Lindsay, presumably because our area is much less intensively farmed and hence, has had less exposure to neonicotinoid- treated seed. Nevertheless, there has been anecdotal evidence of high bee mortality in our region for several years; maybe it’s only a matter of time.

Although critics have grown impatient, it appears that the authorities are at least addressing the issue these days. In a recent press release, Health Canada acknowledged neonicotinoids as a major factor in honeybee decline: “the planting of corn seeds treated with the…insecticides clothianidin and/or thiamethoxam contributed to the majority of the bee mortalities that occurred in corn growing regions of Ontario and Quebec in spring, 2012.”

Meanwhile, the province has also chimed in. Agriculture minister Jeff Leal (who is also MPP for Peterborough) announced in July that Ontario wants to “move away from the widespread, indiscriminate use of neonicotinoid pesticides,” adding that he is “committed to finding a balanced approach, based in science.” Already, both levels of government recommend that farmers take steps to use neonics sparingly and to opt for conventional seed when possible. Health Canada even suggested a lubricant be added at seeding time to quell dust. Neither advocates an outright ban, at least not at this writing.

Not even Susan Chan calls for an outright ban, noting that there are certainly serious insect infestations in which neonicotinoids might prove the farmer’s best defense. “But there’s no reason to rely on them exclusively,” she says, echoing the opinion of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. “Eighty percent of the time, neonics are overkill.”

While farmers ponder the implications, home gardeners should also take note because neonicotinoids have also been found in nursery plants. Friends of the Earth Canada, an environmental watchdog agency based in Ottawa, took part in a North America-wide survey of ordinary garden flowers – salvia, geraniums, shasta daisies – for sale at garden retailers and found that fully half of them had been treated with neonics. Ironically, some bore the label “bee friendly.” Big-box retailers seem to have been caught unaware, but the jury is still out as to how they and their suppliers will respond.

Pundits say some kind of regulation on the use of neonicotinoids could appear as early as 2015, making Ontario the first Canadian jurisdiction to act on the controversy. So it appears that there might just be some good news on the horizon for beekeepers. Maybe there’s hope for their hives after all and maybe the tension between apiarists and farmers will ease. Now, if they could only do something about the weather.

PLANTS THAT ATTRACT BEES

Not all flowers blossom at the same time. That’s great for beekeepers because, depending upon what is in bloom, it means that the honey harvest can vary considerably: apple blossoms in spring; lavender in summer; goldenrod in fall. All have a special place in a honey lover’s heart, but they are by no means the only flowers that make good honey.

Bees are indiscriminate about which flowers they favour, so most honey is a hodge-podge of nectar extracted from any number of flowers. But if the worker bees stumble upon a particularly rich stand of a certain species, their honey will adopt certain characteristics, namely colour and flavour. And the plants don’t have to be growing in your backyard – if they are within a five-kilometre radius of the hive, the bees will find them.

Alfalfa – A major ingredient in hay, hence commonly grown and a popular ingredient in honey.

Lavender – This sweet smelling herb makes some of the world’s most delicious honey.

Clover – Like alfalfa, red and white clover are common forage crops that just happen to make good honey.

Buckwheat – A grain crop, no longer as popular as it once was, that lends honey a distinct, earthy flavour.

Chestnut – Large spikes of June flowers are a haven for bees; makes dark, rich honey.

Phacelia – An annual that favours dry sites, often grown as bee fodder.

Basswood and linden – Ever smelled a linden tree in flower in July? Now you know why it makes such great honey.

Thistle – Wow, a use for this weed!

Sage – Lends a mildly herbal flavour to honey; pale gold in colour.

Bee balm – Appropriately named scarlet-red perennial.

Hyssop – Highly aromatic perennial infuses honey with herbal flavour.

Bergamot – AKA monarda, often used in making tea; why not honey?

Echinacea – Quite useful because flowers are so prolific.

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