On July 22, the Globe and Mail published an article by Margaret Wente titled “Good News: There is no Honeybee Crisis”. This article has generated a lot more buzz than I had expected, considering that it didn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t know already. That’s not to say I don’t agree with the overall message of it, although the delivery could have been better. But after all the media coverage supporting what the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) has been rambling on about for the past 3 years, it was refreshing to see a national media outlet touch on the other side of the story.
What caught my attention wasn’t so much the article by Ms. Wente, it was the letters to the editor that followed. In particular were letters sent by Tibor Szabo of the OBA and a researcher from the University of Guelph. The letter from Mr. Szabo was exactly what we’ve all come to expect from him, which isn’t much. As usual he played the sympathy card by trying to convince the reader that the situation is dire in Ontario, and we should just trust the message that the OBA keeps pushing on everyone. Fortunately the rest of the Canadian honeybee industry has grown tired of the circus act that the OBA has become famous for, so anything released by their board of directors is nothing more than empty words.
The letter that really made me scratch my head was from Dr. Gard Otis from the University of Guelph. While I do not know Dr. Otis personally, after reading his letter it is apparent that he is as out of touch with the Canadian honeybee industry as the OBA board is. As soon as he mentioned a survey that he conducted in 1997, it was very apparent that he has very little recent experience with honeybees. But since he brought it up, I decided to compare the numbers from 1997 and 2014. In 1997 there were 4,100 beekeepers in Ontario and they managed 77,000 colonies (around 18 colonies per beekeeper). That same year they produced 7,315,000 pounds of honey (95 pounds per hive), which was valued at $8,593,000 (which works out to $1.17 per pound). In 2014, Ontario had 3,262 beekeepers and they managed 112,800 colonies (34 colonies per beekeeper). These colonies produced 8,192,000 pounds of honey (72 pounds per hive) and was valued at $30,310,00 (or $3.70 per pound). Just looking at those numbers alone it would appear the honeybee industry in Ontario has done very well for itself, as the changes seen there virtually mimic the rest of the country. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. What is left out of the numbers I posted above is the fact that in 1997 Ontario was all but free of the Varroa mite (unlike parts of western Canada) and nosema wasn’t the problem it is today. Ontario also didn’t have an issue with the Small Hive Beetle, which it does today. Also left out of those numbers is the fact that Ontario beekeepers send more colonies to the maritimes for pollination than they did in 1997, which helps to explain the reduction in honey production per colony. When looking at the numbers from 2014 you have to remember that the OBA claimed its members lost 58% of their colonies that spring. If that was true, then they did phenomenally well.
Dr. Otis then goes on to state that the average annual winter bee mortality over the past 9 years has placed a heavy financial burden on beekeepers, when in reality this is not true when spread out over that same period of time. All beekeepers in Canada have experienced high winter losses (30% or more) at some point in their careers, and it is just part of the evolution of keeping bees. If anyone believes sub-10% winter losses are an achievable goal on a yearly bases, they are either ignorant or have no experience as a beekeeper. The successful beekeepers learned to manage the uncertainty of winter losses and continued to grow the size of their operations, all while increasing their profits. Was it easy? Not at all and it cost us all a great deal of money before we figured out how to manage the problem. But success is never easy and the adaptability and determination of these beekeepers should be learned from, not dismissed.
He then wades into the topic of beekeeper management. In his opinion, prior to the year 2000, beekeepers only had to requeen their colonies every second year and in some cases the queen lived up to four years. His first point about having to requeen hives every second year is accurate, his second point is more urban legend than fact (common among those unexperienced in beekeeping). It raises the question as to why we have to requeen our hives on 12-18 month cycle, rather than every 24 months? There are a number of reasons for this, many of which are management related. Beekeepers are now applying miticides to their hives on a more regular basis than ever before. Nosema is also far more prevalent now than in the past, and it causes just as many if not more problems in the hive than the varroa mite. We are also exposing them to more stress due to the demands of honey production, pollination services, nuc/split/queen production, etc., than ever before. Then there are the factors we can’t control, which are weather/cropping practices/etc. What’s interesting is that Dr. Otis didn’t seem to read the 2015 CAPA overwintering report all that well, as it clearly indicates that the primary causes of bee deaths in Ontario were beekeepers putting weak or underfed colonies into winter. Adding to this was that less than 30% of beekeepers in Ontario treated their colonies for nosema at any point during 2014. When you start connecting the dots, you realize that the issue of queen replacement and hive losses becomes pretty clear.
This statement by Dr. Otis that “The larger-than-average colony numbers mentioned by Ms. Wente are in part due to the management actions taken by beekeepers to ensure that they will have enough colonies alive in spring to be able to make a living. The larger numbers of colonies reported last summer are not a sign that the industry is healthy; quite the opposite, it actually reflects the serious problems our honeybees are facing“ couldn’t be further from the truth. Beekeepers operate more colonies now than at any other time in our history for one simple reason, it’s profitable to do so. Honey prices and pollination contracts are more lucrative than ever before, and the successful beekeepers figured this out very quickly. It is true that beekeepers do make late season colonies each year, with the intent of being used for increase or winter loss replacement. In many cases the beekeeper needs to make these late season hives as they have more bees than they know what to do with. None of this is a hardship on the beekeeper.
Dr.Otis’s comments regarding neonicotinoid residues in the soil are nothing more than a rehash of what the OBA continues to claim, even though the science contradicts this claim. Dr. Cynthia Scott-Dupree, who is also from the University of Guelph, presented this report in 2012 which clearly shows that neonics in nectar in pollen in canola do not negatively affect honeybees. What is important to remember is that honeybees use canola as a primary food source, unlike corn or soy. Those beekeepers that choose to leave their colonies on corn or soy and expect to produce a crop and have healthy bees should expect the complete opposite as neither of these crops offers anything beneficial to the bees. That again is a management issue with the beekeeper, not the crops themselves.
As a final word to Dr. Otis, suggesting that primary reason that beekeepers in Ontario are suffering from high losses weak colonies is primarily because of neonicotinoid exposure is nothing more than pure ignorance. I believe he should step out from behind his comfy desk and visit the successful beekeepers in Canada rather than having a sympathetic ear for these bad beekeepers. The Canadian beekeeping industry is continually evolving, just like every other sector in Agriculture. The nice thing about evolution is that it generally eliminates problems, and in this case the problem is those beekeepers (and in this case researcher) that refuse to evolve as well. It is a persons right to be a beekeeper, but it is not their right to be successful at it. For some that is a very painful life lesson.