Beekeepers worry money for resilient hives not enough

$1.4M program to support resilient bee colonies amid a 'catastrophic crisis'

Shirley Stapley remembers crying the day a few springs ago when one of her strongest hives perished.

"It's just heartbreaking. Every beekeeper feels for their bees," said Stapley, who kept bees near the rural Ottawa community of North Gower. "When there's losses you feel them deeply."

Stapley stopped beekeeping. The challenges had become worse and worse, from varroa mites — a parasite that lives off bee colonies — to tough weather that can wipe out hives.

"A lot of the beekeepers are seeing 75 per cent of their hives being lost over winter," she said.

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"That is climate change, because there is such a drastic change in temperature here and there's a lot of condensation happening in the hives. No matter what sort of insulation we put in, we find that the bees just can't make it through winter here."

Such losses have prompted the provincial and federal governments to invest nearly $1.4 million in what they're calling the Honey Bee Health Initiative to help producers bolster the resilience of their hives.

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Honeybees/Nathan Howes

(Nathan Howes/The Weather Network)

Announced last week, the program can fund up to 50 per cent of the cost of equipment, better management practices or operational improvements to reduce losses.

The maximum for large operations is $25,000, while beekeepers with fewer than 50 hives can get $4,500.

A 'catastrophic crisis'

Stapley called it an encouraging investment, but worried it might be a drop in the bucket, given the scale of the challenges.

Beyond environmental stresses, beekeepers are also facing labour shortages and a price crunch that makes it tough to cover costs, according to the president of the Ontario Beekeepers' Association.

"There are a lot of stressors in the industry," said Ian Grant. "We need more money, frankly, to do the research and to develop new processes and best management techniques to help control what we're seeing."

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Grant noted that losses last year were severe, with more than half of Ontario beekeepers losing at least half their hives. He called it a "catastrophic crisis."

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A failure to invest enough to safeguard Ontario's bee industry could have ripple effects on agriculture across the province, Grant said.

"Over one third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees. So if you don't have the bees to do that work, you're not going to have the quality of food, you're not going to have the availability of food. And that comes down to food safety and security here in the province," he said.

Basil Etmanskie of the Upper Ottawa Valley Beekeepers' Association also worried the money will get eaten up fast.

A small scale beekeeper in Barry's Bay, Ont., Etmanski is concerned that most will go to big commercial operations. He said local beekeepers are grappling with rising mite counts, moist winters and periodic dearths of flowers that bees rely on.

He's faced losses over the past two years, and knows others who've had it far worse.

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"I know of guys that had 50 to 100 hives, maybe 300 hives, and they were lucky to come out of the winter and have maybe seven or eight," he said.

"They would lose 80 to 90 per cent of their bees — some even 100 per cent."

Breeding better bees

Some breeders like Jonny de Matos are trying to develop bees that can survive where others perish, and the new program could help them stock up on the latest queens at a discount.

De Matos runs just under 200 hives for honey production around the Ottawa area, as well as 400 mating hives. He called last week's announcement "a step in the right direction."

He breeds for specific traits that can make bees more resistant to mites, disease or a changing climate, while also promoting characteristics like "winter hardiness."

Pexels/David Hablützel: Honey bee on wood. Sachseln, OW, Switzerland. Link:

(Pexels/David Hablutzel)

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The initiative will cut the cost of a $50 queen with resistant traits in half — something de Matos said is money well spent.

"You can replace your queen, get her for cheaper than you usually would, and you replace her with good hardy local stock," he said. "So it's kind of a win-win for the producer."

For her part, Stapley is planning to return to beekeeping next spring. She's intrigued by the prospect of getting her hands on some subsidized queens, and hopes the government money will support research in developing ever more resilient bees.

"I am cautiously optimistic," she said.

Thumbnail courtesy of Videoblocks.

The story was written by Arthur White-Crummey and published for CBC News.