“With bees you’re always learning things. You always get a surprise,” says Ron Zimmerman, co-owner of B&Z Honey in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
This spring has been no exception. Zimmerman and his B&Z partner Howard Bogusat have found most of their hives survived the winter. Bogusat says they only lost two hives out of 14 this year, compared to the shattering 11 out of 14 lost last spring. He attributes last year’s loss to the extreme drop in temperature in the spring, which he says caught the bees off guard and prevented them from being able to ball up for heat retention.
John Pendzinski at JT Farms in NOTL says, “I’m lucky I didn’t lose any of my eight hives this year, and the ones I’ve got are strong — stronger than I’ve ever seen.” Temperature swings are a threat to the pollinators, and he thinks we’re getting too many of those, he adds.
“So far our members have lost three out of three hives, six out of six, two out of nine. Newbies with new equipment seemed to fare better,” says George Dubanow, president of the Niagara Beekeepers’ Association. “I have heard that commercial operations had some major losses.”
“Fifty per cent losses wouldn’t surprise me across the board,” he adds.
At B-Y’s Honey Farm, the losses were significant. “It’s not very good,” says proprietor Ed Unger. “Last year we lost 30 per cent of our bees. This year it’s a 60 per cent loss.” He says they have gone from 120 hives to about 60 or 70. “A lot of it is weather. Another thing is pesticides (which weakens bees). They don’t get strong enough for winter. Another thing is fluctuation in temperature. Bees uncluster in the warmth, then the cold hits and they die.”
“They’re not dying for one reason,” Zimmerman says. “They’re dying for many reasons. It’s death by a thousand cuts.” He lists parasites, development taking over natural areas, and weather issues.
Unger concurs. “It’s everything together. They should be looking after themselves better — if they’re being weakened by pesticides they can’t control their health as well. Diseases will affect them so much more — mites, and now hive beetles which are new to southern Ontario and are moving north.”
Regarding the depletion of bees, Dubanow says the agricultural world won’t be too deeply affected. “Pollination will get done. This doesn’t change much. Some farmers might have to seek out new suppliers of pollination bees.”
Beekeepers typically have three sources of income from their livestock, says Zimmerman: honey, hive rentals for pollination, and the sale of queens. Smaller operations and hobbyists generally fall into the first camp — larger companies might do all three. Unger is also developing bee-related products for alternative medicines.
Zimmerman and Bogusat collect honey and wax for sale from their hives. “We do it because we like working with bees, and then we get honey,” Zimmerman says. The pair collects 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of honey from 14 hives, he adds.
While the loss of bees over the past winter doesn’t create a desperate situation, the extremely wet weather isn’t doing our delicate winged friends any favours. “This year is the same as 2017 — rain, rain and more rain,” says Dubanow. “When it rains the bees do not collect much nectar because it’s too diluted, and the rain washes the pollen out. It affects nectar collection. If we continue to have large amounts of rain we’ll have a problem.”
“It’s bad for the bees because they’re forced to stay home,” he continues, “in which case they can develop certain unique diseases. They can get nosema disease in their midgut, or chalkbrood disease, which is a kind of fungus that can lead larvae to become mummified due to the humidity. Also, if they’re not out collecting nectar, they could get a type of confinement starvation.”
He points out that a wet spring and cooler temperatures mean the pollination season can be shortened to 10 days from the typical three weeks.
There is much talk of the use of neonicotinoids — systemic agricultural insecticides — being at the root of hive loss. The product has been banned in several countries, and there is talk of phasing out some of its components in Canada. But Bogusat and others in Niagara’s beekeeping world aren’t so quick to blame that one factor.
“There is so much emotion on both sides of the coin,” says Bogusat. “Two facts that are not much publicized are one, the province which produces the most honey is Alberta. And two, the province using the most neonics is Alberta. So if the chemical is so bad how is that possible?” But he does admit he has concerns. “The worst is when they plant the seeds. There is a puff of air which shoots the seed into a tube and then into the ground. If a bee is flying across the path of the wind, even half a kilometre away downwind, that bee dies. This, even though the coating is a dry powder.”
“I am not saying I am a proponent of their (neonicotinoids) usage, but I also understand why they were created and became so popular with the farmers,” Bogusat says. “For us the problem list remains mites which attack the brood; weather patterns; the environment in which the bees find themselves, and the small hive beetles and wax moths.”