If you’ve never given much thought to bees beyond waving them away from your drink, consider this: every third mouthful of food you eat comes from crops pollinated by bees.
That’s why it was so alarming when in 2006, bees began dying off in large numbers. In the United States, the culprit was Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), believed to be a combination of factors, including parasites, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition and pesticides. In Canada, winter mortality rates that were three times higher than normal were caused by the parasitic varroa mite, harsh winter conditions and insufficient food reserves for winter.
At the same time that beekeepers have been battling honeybee die-offs, they’ve faced poor honey yields. Last year honey production in Ontario was the lowest it’s been since 1982, when the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs began collecting data.
Jerry Dietrich of BeeHaven Apiaries in Alma said his honey crop was down to one-third of its normal volume for the past two years due to the cool, wet weather.
“There were a lot of discouraged commercial beekeepers,” he said.
Dietrich has about 100 hives in five bee yards around Alma, and produces between three and seven tonnes of honey per year. At 100 hives he’s considered a small commercial producer, but Dietrich sees himself as a hobbyist. He started keeping bees 15 years ago and has gradually built up the number of hives since he retired in 2005.
So far this year is off to a better start. The warm weather early in spring meant bee populations built quickly. Honey production started strong with the dandelion blossoms everywhere, paused during a late snowfall, then resumed with the flowering of silver maples, poplars and willow trees. Dietrich welcomed the hot weather this week, explaining that it dries out blossoms enough for bees to access the nectar and pollen.
Dietrich’s backyard is considered a bee yard, but most of his hives are located on surrounding farms, with the permission of the farmer. One is in an old apple orchard; another is located in a small stand of trees near fields of canola and red clover. Most farmers are willing to cooperate with beekeepers, he said, because more pollinators means better yields.
While honey production is important, it’s their status as pollinators that has researchers so concerned about the welfare of the honeybee. The value of honeybees to pollination of crops in Canada is estimated at $1.3 to $1.7 billion annually.
In the United States, migratory beekeeping – where beekeepers load their hives on flatbed trucks and rent them out for pollination, following the blossoming season north – is critical to agriculture. It is also part of the problem; the practice of transporting bees over long distances is believed to have weakened hives and contributed to spreading disease.
With the causes of honeybee die-offs pinpointed – at least in Ontario – research has shifted to finding solutions. Organizations like the Ontario Beekeepers Association make recommendations on best practices and conduct inspections to monitor hive health.
Globally, the hunt continues for ways to protect these tiny but valuable insects – and protect our food supply in the process.