by SUSAN MANN
Ontario will have a clearer picture in the fall how the province’s 58 per cent winter loss of honeybee colonies is impacting this year’s honey crop’s size, says provincial apiarist Paul Kozak.
Many industry stakeholders agree Ontario’s winter losses for 2013/14, which are about three times higher than the average for the rest of Canada, are very high. “It’s a high number and there has been concern raised around that,” Kozak says.
Across Canada the average wintering losses of honey bee colonies was 25 per cent but when Ontario’s number is taken out of the calculation its 19.2 per cent, according to a recently released Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists report. Most Canadian beekeepers consider 15 per cent to be an acceptable level of winter loss.
The Ontario winter loss number is more than two times higher than the next province in the lineup – New Brunswick, which had a winter loss of 26.3 per cent. Next in line was Manitoba with a loss of 24 per cent, while Nova Scotia was fourth with a loss was 22.7 per cent. At the other end of the scale was British Columbia with a loss of 15 per cent, the lowest across Canada.
“Poor spring build up may have a longer lasting effect as weaker colonies at the time of honey flow will reduce the total honey crop for 2014,” the professional apiculturists report says.
Kozak says normally in Ontario each colony produces an average of 110 pounds of honey. But for this year it’s too early to tell what the size of the honey crop will be. “We’re still in our summer flow now and we haven’t finished that plus we still have the fall flow to go as well.”
At the end of the 2013 season, there were about 100,000 colonies in Ontario. The number of dead or unproductive colonies this spring was 58,010, according to the professional apiculturists report.
Dan Davidson, president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association, says Ontario’s winter loss number was even higher than the 40 per cent he anticipated but the actual number does not entirely shock him. “I know some of the bigger beekeepers lost a large number of hives and that pulled the average up.”
The professional apiculturists report says beekeepers attribute the high winter losses partially to the long cold winter of 2013/14 that “was seen as a major contributing factor.” In addition, the cold and wet spring in many parts of Canada created unsuitable conditions for honeybee colonies to develop, the report says. Other factors include a lack of feed, the inability of bees to access stores of honey in the hive, weakened colonies in the fall, poor queen health, nosema, varroa mites along with unknown causes. But in Ontario and Quebec some beekeepers cited pesticide damage from neonicotinoid treatments on corn and soybean seeds or “lack of sufficient recovery from a pesticide incident the previous year as a contributing factor in winter mortality,” the report says.
Pierre Petelle, vice president, chemistry for CropLife Canada, disagrees that neonicotinoids can be linked to bees’ winter mortality particularly since the report says a proportion of Ontario beekeepers has a much lower mortality level of nine to 22 per cent compared to the provincial average. “For them to mention it in the report, it can’t be an insignificant amount.”
Petelle says the number of winter bee losses in Ontario has fluctuated over the past 10 years and went from 12 per cent two years ago to around 30 per cent last year to now 58 per cent. Winter bee losses have “more to do with weather conditions and local pathogen levels and practices than it does anything to do with our industry. We don’t think they have anything to do with the neonicotinoids.”
But that’s not the way Davidson sees it. “Obviously I think neonicotinoids are getting to be more and more of a major factor. Anyone who tries to winter on poisonous food is going to have trouble wintering.”
About the Ontario beekeepers with lower mortality levels, Davidson says there are areas of the province where bees “wintered fantastically,” including Grey and Bruce counties where agriculture is less intense. One factor in the lower losses is there are still a lot more grasslands and areas that aren’t intensively farmed in those regions, he says.
Kozak says it’s too early to say what proportion of Ontario beekeepers had the lower mortality levels. But “that was one of the trends that emerged” the apiculturists group wanted to report on early “just because we wanted to provide a little bit of context.”
Ontario will be doing additional analysis of the professional apiculturists’ numbers and will release a report in the fall that will include why those beekeepers had a lower mortality level than the provincial average.
Kozak says the professional apiculturists report lists the causes of overwintering losses based on beekeepers’ opinions, which are important. “We have asked a lot of other questions that will allow us to do analysis” on the causes, he notes, adding it’s important to do a more detailed analysis of the winter loss causes.
He declined to say what he considered to be the major causes of the high bee colony winter losses in Ontario. “That’s getting into opinion. I don’t want to get ahead of myself where we get into” outlining causes but after studying the data it ends up being something else.
The wintering loss of honeybee colonies is also hitting beekeepers in their wallets, as they needed to buy replacements. Davidson says to make up the losses this spring Ontario beekeepers bought bees from Australia, New Zealand and British Columbia. “Eventually there’s not going to be money to do that when people keep losing their hives.”
Where does all this leave Ontario’s plan to restrict neonicotinoid use through some type permit system? Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Jeff Leal says in an emailed statement provided by his press secretary Bryan Bossin his ministry is doing a detailed analysis of the professional apiculturists report to assess the contributing factors along with regional and industry patterns. “The report will be one of the many sources of information that will be taken into consideration as we chart a path forward.”
Leal says he’ll be consulting with “all sides” of the matter to ensure Ontario develops practical and balanced solutions based in science. “Our goal is to develop a system that targets the use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds to areas or circumstances where there is a demonstrated need.” BF