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Mites and disease take toll on Alberta beehives

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“Beekeepers, start complaining. This is not a normal situation. There’s something going wrong in our business.”

It’s been a tough couple of years in the Alberta bee business. It’s normal to lose some bees over the winter – traditionally it’s been 15-20 per cent, provincial apiarist Medhat Nasr told the Alberta Beekeeper Commission’s annual general meeting in Edmonton last month.

But a provincial survey in 2007 found an average winterkill of 31 per cent, with 36 per cent in the Peace Region, which producers much of Alberta’s honey.

“There are some saying this is the new normal of Canada,” Nasr said. “If this is the new normal of Canada, you should go and find something else (to do).”

Nasr said Alberta has taken the lead in looking at the winterkill problem, as none of the other provinces have carried out similar surveys. “If we don’t have numbers, we cannot give any kind of support. We have the numbers to support what we are saying,” he said.

This year, three inspectors from Alberta Agriculture have been travelling the province to monitor the bee situation. Nasr said that despite the setbacks, he believes the bees will survive and things will go back on track.

The province is down from 255,000 hives to about 235,000 hives after the winterkill losses of 2006 and 2007, said Nasr.

“In fact, every year in Alberta we used to increase our numbers by about five to 10 per cent but the last two years we stopped,” said Nasr. “We are trying to split more colonies to maintain our numbers, but still we are behind.”

Honey production in the province has fallen during the past couple of years. Beekeepers in the Peace River area, which produces most of Alberta’s honey, were adversely affected by hot and dry weather conditions, and suffered from very high rates of winterkill. Nasr said inspectors have found many abandoned hives throughout the province. These hives may act as a source of infestation, and should be destroyed to stop transmission of mites and disease to other hives, he said.

According to the surveys, 65 per cent of the surveyed colonies wintered outdoors, 25 per cent wintered indoors, and the rest wintered in British Columbia. In 2008, winterkill affected 30 per cent of the colonies overall, with the highest loss felt in the Peace River Region, which lost 36 per cent of its colonies. The lowest losses were recorded in southern Alberta, which lost 22 per cent. Winterkill in 2007 affected 31 per cent of the colonies.

“Beekeepers, start complaining. This is not a normal situation. There’s something going wrong in our business. We’re seeing the same situation in the United States,” said Nasr.

Disease problems

Nasr encourages beekeepers to look for symptoms of nosema, such as bee feces in the front of the hives. The incidence of the bee disease has been reduced drastically since 2007, as many beekeepers started using fumagillin to treat their hives. Nasr said the team at Alberta Agriculture studied the correlation between winterkill and nosema and said about 27 per cent of winterkill may have been caused by nosema.

Varroa mites continue to be a problem in more than 20 per cent of the hives in the province. These mites live on the bees and cause them to have weakened immune systems, leaving them more susceptible to disease. Nasr urged beekeepers to treat for mites, and to measure the number of mites before and after treatment.

“Nosema and varroa are major problems in the industry and we have to get them under control to get the winterkill down and the industry back to normal,” he said.

Nasr said more research and work is still needed. “We need a sustainable program for this industry, similar to one in any other industry. We don’t want to compromise food safety or the quality of our honey.”

World competition

Nabi Chaudhary, senior economic analyst with Alberta Agriculture, told the meeting that since the mid-90s, producers worldwide have consistently produced about 1.3 million tonnes of honey. But he noted a major loss of beehives and honey production in 2006 and 2007, and added that 2008 data is not yet available.

China has continued to build up their beehive stock, and has been exporting their honey, making inroads into the North American market, said Chaudhary. Argentina remains a key player on the world honey scene and has continued to maintain beehives in high numbers.

By contrast, Chaudhary said American production has dropped since the 1990s.

“There is concern whether the Americans will be able to build up their stock. The way things are happening, it looks like it will be very difficult in the U. S. to rebuild the stock back to the levels before 1999.”

In addition to dwindling stock, the population of beekeepers is aging and the industry is rapidly consolidating, said Chaudhary. “A major challenge is to maintain the beehives for pollination purposes,” he said. “They would be lucky if their level of beehive stock is maintained over the next 12 years.”

Canada ranks 13th on the world scale of honey production. At this point, China, Turkey, Argentina, Ukraine, Brazil, Spain, India the United States, Russia, Ethiopia and Iran are all producing more honey than Canada.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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