All about Commercial Beekeeping in Alberta and Canada

Canadian Senate “Bee Health” Report

Lee Townsend

On May 26, 2014 the Canadian Senate released its report entitled “The Importance of Bee Health to Sustainable Food Production in Canada” (Read the full report here).  Since early 2014, the Senate heard testimonies from numerous individuals and groups  regarding the current status of honeybees in Canada and what their opinion of this industries future was.  It was definitely a diverse group of witnesses, ranging from beekeepers, bee researchers, farmers, seed companies, environmental activists, etc.  The end result of this was a 70 page report that contains 9 recommendations, but it also proves once again that the majority of these people weighing in on bee health know very little about bees in the first place.

Recommendation 1 is broken down into two parts:

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency amend the Honeybee Importation Prohibition Regulations, 2004 in order to allow the importation of bee packages from the United States while developing additional methods and tools to improve the inspection of imported honey bee packages.

The topic of package bees from the mainland USA had, until the neonic issue, been the most divisive topic among Canadian beekeepers since the borders closure in the late 1980’s (I still feel the USA border is still the main debate among beekeepers).  Until the border was closed, package bees were the lifeline of Canadian beekeepers as most killed their bees in the fall and purchased new bees each spring from California.  Overwintering was not a common practice in Canada and when the border closed many beekeepers went out of business.  The border had been closed to prevent the spread of American Foulbrood (AFB) and prevent the introduction of parasitic mites (Varroa and Tracheal) and while it did delay the spread/introduction, it did not prevent it due to a number of different reasons.

In the early 2000’s it became clear that while beekeepers in Canada were becoming more adept at wintering their bees successfully, we were struggling to raise and source enough queen bees for our needs.  Canada was allowing imports of queen bees from regions outside the country, but it wasn’t enough and beekeepers began to pressure the Canadian government to open the border to California for queens.  There was heavy opposition (primarily Saskatchewan and Ontario), but the border was opened to queens with protocols in place to ensure the safety of the Canadian industry.  These protocols included genetic testing for Africanized honeybees (AHB) and a threshold level for the varroa mite, and has since been expanded to include protocols to ensure that the regions producing these queens in California are free of Small Hive Beetle (SHB).  We have seen hundreds of thousands of queens come to Canada since then without issue, which is due to the protocols working as well as the continued efforts of beekeepers in California and Canada, CFIA and CAPA.  As a side note the Ontario Beekeepers Association is still against bee stock imports from the mainland USA, despite the fact that their members have been importing queens from California since the border opened.

The push from industry continues for package bees from the USA, with a group of beekeepers in western Canada even filing a lawsuit against the Canadian government over it.  The CFIA recently conducted a risk assessment in regards to if package bees from the USA could be deemed as safe for importation to Canada, and their report ruled against any such imports.  This report has been contested by both Alberta and Manitoba, and there are beekeepers across the country that also support the views of these two provinces.

The primary concern regarding packages is SHB and AHB and these concerns are warranted.  SHB has been found in both Alberta and Manitoba but it was unable to establish itself in those regions.  It is also currently found in southern Ontario and has established itself there so successfully that there is a chance it will be deemed endemic in the near future.  In packages from California, where SHB is present as well, it will be difficult to ensure any bulk bees from that region are free of SHB but the feeling is that with proper protocols it is possible.  When it comes to AHB, that is genetic and as long as the same protocols used to ensure queens from California are free of AHB are applied/expanded regarding packages there should be a minimal risk.

As this border debate has been going on for almost 30 years, I don’t foresee a quick resolution to it anytime soon due to the opposition from the CFIA, the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA), and some of the provincial associations.  But if nothing else, the findings in the Senate report may move us closer to a resolution.

The second part of the Senate’s first recommendation is pretty straight forward:

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada implement the bee health surveillance project on a continuous basis rather than a four-year period in order to set, in the long term, an overall picture of the health of Canadian bee colonies and in order to take appropriate long term actions to maintain the health of Canadian bee colonies

I don’t believe anyone in Canada is opposed to this, but it is going to take buy in from CAPA and the provincial organizations in order to maintain funding for this and also supply capable manpower to accomplish the goals of the program.  Most of the funding for the current project is coming from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s “Growing Forward 2” program, with matching industry funds coming from the beekeeping associations in Alberta and Manitoba, as well as CropLife Canada.  

Unfortunately, the Ontario Beekeepers Association decided to speak out against this program due to nothing more than pure ignorance and spite towards what the rest of Canada is doing for bee health.  

Recommendation 2:

The Committee recommends that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, in conjunction with the provinces and territories, and in collaboration with industry stakeholders, accelerate the implementation of the National Bee Farm-Level Biosecurity Standard through adequate funding and management activities.

This is already underway by the Canadian Honey Council (CHC) and will hopefully be ready for rollout by late 2015/early 2016.  CHC is currently combining our Bee Biosecurity program with our new food safety program CBISQT (Canadian Bee Industry Safety Quality Traceability) in order to ensure beekeepers are well educated in both programs as there is carry over between the programs.  This is also going to take funding from industry and government in addition to proper management of the programs, as there is going to be a massive learning curve for many beekeepers when these programs are finally introduced.  Both programs will be voluntary in nature, which may also reduce the buy in from industry.

Recommendation 3:

The Committee recommends that the Pest Management Regulatory Agency accelerate its conditional registration process in order to reduce the current number of conditional registrations granted to neonicotinoid active ingredients.

I do not believe any beekeeper in Canada fully understands the registration process  that PMRA follows.  I do know that many of the bee health products used in Canada are, or at one time were, conditionally registered so this is something that beekeepers want to be careful in how they approach as critiquing the system used by PMRA could affect us as well.  Without the conditional registration designation from PMRA we wouldn’t have had access to Apivar in time and our industry would’ve been all but doomed.

Recommendation 4:

The Committee recommends that the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development conduct a follow-up audit to verify whether the Pest Management Regulatory Agency has implemented the recommendations described in its 2008 audit report.

This is pretty straight forward and doesn’t need analysis.

Recommendation 5:

The Committee recommends that the Pest Management Regulatory Agency take the necessary actions to accelerate its pesticide registration process, especially in relation to new products intended to control mites and diseases affecting honey bees. Any changes in the registration process should also take into consideration the safety of humans, plants, and the environment.

Again, I don’t know of any beekeeper that would be against this as it affects our ability to access new bee health products.  As mentioned in the report, we rely on a miticide called Apivar to keep the varroa mite under control, as both Apistan and Checkmite have long since been ineffective due to resistance the varroa mite developed to them.  Depending on when varroa develops a resistance to Apivar, we could quite possibly see the varroa mite wipe out many of the colonies in Canada due to the length of time it takes to receive registration for new products.

Recommendation 6:

 

The Committee recommends that:

  • The Pest Management Regulatory Agency keep monitoring pollinator mortality during the spring of 2015 to assess whether the protective measures adopted for the 2014 planting season were efficient.

  • The Pest Management Regulatory Agency conclude, without delay, its re-evaluation of neonicotinoid insecticides based on evidence and sound scientific principles with an objective of protecting the health of bees.

Both of these are pretty straightforward.  In 2014 the number of incidents dropped by 70% when compared to 2013, with the majority of 2014 bee mortality reports having originated from 3 beekeepers in Ontario.  I would expect the number of incidents to be down once again in 2015, but anything is possible in Ontario.  

Recommendation 7:

The Committee recommends that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada, and the Department of Finance Canada through the Bee Health Forum, and in collaboration with the provinces and territories, increase the amount and the duration of research funding in order to undertake long-term research projects which contribute to the preservation of pollinator health.

This is the main point that beekeepers from across the world should have been focused on since the topic of declining honeybee health became a topic within the mainstream media.  Our industry has always been the bastard child of agriculture, and we had a golden opportunity to not only raise the profile of honeybees in a positive way but also take advantage of the emphasis being placed on bee health by both government and the public.

But instead of doing this, we got caught up in the neonic debate while the real issues before our industry were virtually forgotten about.  We still have no new solutions to manage the varroa mite, nosema, bee stock availability, and poor management by some beekeepers.  Instead we are seeing regulations being introduced by Ontario and the EU that won’t fix bee health at the end of the day.

That being said, we have seen some good come out of the increased awareness towards bee health.  Our funding towards bee research and extension services has increased substantially, but more is needed to truly put us in a position of being proactive and not reactive.

Recommendation 8:

The Committee recommends that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, through the Bee Health Forum, and in collaboration with the provinces and territories, adopt initiatives aiming to improve management practices of hobbyist beekeepers and growers while minimizing the use of chemical products and ensuring the availability of untreated seeds.

This should have read “improve management practices of all beekeepers and growers while minimizing the use of chemical products by both”.  There are some phenomenal beekeepers in Canada and there are some horrific beekeepers in Canada, and neither are limited to the classification of hobby/sideline/commercial.  For some reason, certain groups lay blame for bad management on one group or the other, it doesn’t matter if you have 1 hive or 10,000 hives as piss poor beekeeping will result in dead bees.

The same goes with chemical usage.  Beekeepers are guilty of prophylactic treatments when it comes to varroa/nosema/AFB, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.  This is due to both management approaches but also a lack of resources being available to control the problem.  We strive to ensure all the bee health products we have access to are used only when needed but when you are running 500 colonies or more, the logistics make it difficult to not treat prophylactically at times.

Recommendation 9:

The Committee recommends that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, through the Bee Health Forum, and in collaboration with the provinces and territories, adopt initiatives to improve pollinator habitat such as the planting of selected wild flowering plants on median strips and highway shoulders, and on marginal land around all developments including airports and shopping centres.

This recommendation is more of a “feel good” approach that the general public can take regarding pollinator health, and I don’t think it hurts to pursue it.  Many organizations and groups are already offering pollinator friendly seed packages free of charge (www.beesmatter.ca for example), and interest in these programs has been high.  I’d personally love to see every ditch and piece of marginal land seeded with sweet clover and left alone by municipal sprayers and grass cutters.

At the end of the day the main takeaway I see from the Senate report is that the committee did indeed listen to all the witnesses and considered all the facts and opinions presented.  Some of the interpretations by the committee and statements by some of the witnesses were a little out in left field, but that’s bound to happen.  All I hope for is that the all the groups invested in the Canadian honeybee industry continue to work on logical and practical solutions that benefit bees and beekeepers, without negatively affecting our partners in agriculture.  So far, it seems what the industry as a whole has been doing is working.

Now it’s a matter of working with those that continue to impede the progress that has been made, which at times I don’t think is possible due to their closed-mindedness towards the topic.  And for a small group of beekeepers, they have $450,000,000 reasons to not work with us as they are hoping that the get rich quick solution will pay off for them instead…..

Lee Townsend
Lee Townsend

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