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  Numbers stay constant on a line from A to Bee

By Lindsay Chung - AgriNews Staff Writer

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  • As the honeybee industry in the United States faces a decline that threatens the agricultural crops pollinated by bees, the Canadian industry is much more stable but it is facing many challenges.

    The number of managed bee colonies in the US has declined drastically in the past 50 years, mainly due to pests such as the varroa mite.

    Canada is also struggling with the varroa mite, but the country’s numbers are better.

    There was a decline in the past, but Dr. Peter Kevan, a professor in the environmental biology program at the University of Guelph, says things seem to have stabilized.

    Canadian Honey Council (CHC) national coordinator Heather Clay agrees.

    "The numbers are back for Canadian beekeepers," she said. "They’ve been managing pests and diseases quite well."

    Some provinces, including Ontario, have even increased the number of managed colonies.

    According to Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs provincial apiarist Doug McRory’s annual report, there were 2,600 beekeepers in Ontario in 2005 with 76,000 producing colonies, up from 72,000 in 2004.

    Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists president and University of Manitoba entomology professor Dr. Rob Currie says there are between 8,000 and 9,000 beekeepers in Canada and 500,000 to 600,000 colonies.

    In the US, Dr. Jeff Pettis, research leader at the US Department of Agriculture Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, says the number of managed colonies has dropped from over five-million in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s to the current 2.5-million or less.

    "What seems to have been happening recently is we’ve had some really bad years," Pettis said, noting they had particularly high winter losses in 2004.

    Pettis attributes the high winter losses to the fact that varroa mites are becoming resistant to the products used to control them.

    As well, the almond industry in California needs about one-million colonies to pollinate the crops, putting a huge demand on beekeepers. Pettis says new beekeepers have gotten into pollination to try to meet the need, and lots of the beekeepers have moved to California to pollinate the almonds.

    "We’re getting close to critical," he said, adding the demand in California will increase to 1.5-million colonies or more. "We can’t have every bee in California."

    Pettis would like to see more people get into beekeeping to keep supply ahead of the demand; however, many people are getting out of the industry because it has become so challenging in the face of winter loss.

    Canadian beekeepers are also finding it more difficult to do their job.

    Geoff Wilson owns Davies Apiaries, a bee-breeding and honey-producing operation in Seeley’s Bay, with his wife, Svenja Belaoussoff. They typically run 450 colonies and will be going up to 600, and they have owned Davies Apiaries for three and a half years.

    "The industry has changed a lot since the 1950s and 1960s with the introduction of pests," he said. "It’s much more expensive."

    For example, they have to monitor for mites to make sure the levels are low enough, treat mites at levels that won’t kill the bees, and they have to be careful about when they treat because there can be absolutely no honey in the hives to ensure there’s no contamination.

    According to Currie, beekeepers also have to pay a lot more for bees shipped from Australia and New Zealand.

    While the cost of producing honey has increased, the price for honey has gone down. Producers have been getting a lot less for their honey ever since cheap honey from countries like China and Argentina returned on the market.

    "Honey prices have taken a nosedive," Clay said. "The low import costs have been a serious concern. It’s been a recent phenomena in the last two years."

    Clay says honey producers used to get over $2 a pound. With the arrival of honey from countries like China, the price has dipped as low as 60 cents a pound, and Clay says although it has been on the increase in the last couple of years, it is still less than half what it was before.

    The CHC is using what Clay calls a "multi-pronged attack" to try to reverse the damage.

    "We’re fighting back with better promotion of Canadian honey as a premium product," she said. "Canadian honey is one of the highest standards in the world."

    The CHC would also like to see changes to labelling because honey labelled "Canada Number One" could still be imported, and it is deceiving. The CHC also wants to see clearly visible country-of-origin labelling.

    Along with the variability in honey prices, the difficulty of fighting diseases is adding to the challenges of beekeeping in Canada.

    "Since the mites came in, winter loss in beekeeping has increased due to extra stress on the hives," Wilson said.

    However, he says Ontario beekeepers are lucky because the province has been ahead of much of North America in finding cures for mites.

    "We’ve been proactive with finding answers before the problems occur," he said. "We’re also aggressive in finding alternative controls like organic acids for controlling mites."

    According to Currie, if left untreated, the varroa mite will kill colonies in three to four years, and even in low incidences, it reduces honey production.

    "We’re running out of effective treatments," he said. "The mites are developing resistance to the pesticides that are used to control it. I think, currently, beekeepers are keeping kind of a handle on mites, and for the most part it’s successful, but it’s more difficult."

    In an effort to combat this, Kevan says researchers in Canada and the US are looking at different genetic strains of bees to try to find strains that are resistant to the varroa mite.

    With all these threats, Wilson believes there could easily be a decline in beekeeping in Canada if pests that have previously been controlled develop a resistance to products that control them.

    "There’s always the risk that the numbers will be declining, especially if the economics aren’t there," he said.

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