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A queen bee is surrounded by protective worker bees in a hive at the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery west of Sooke. (GEOFF HOWE/The Globe and Mail)
A queen bee is surrounded by protective worker bees in a hive at the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery west of Sooke. (GEOFF HOWE/The Globe and Mail)

Insect Health Crisis

Honeybees' alarming mortality rate leaves beekeepers looking for answers Add to ...

Mike Paradis's family has staked its livelihood on bees for eight generations.

The tradition began in France and spread to Canada in the 1800s, when one of Mr. Paradis's ancestors arrived in Quebec by ship, bees in tow. The family still has a beekeeping presence in the province, as well as in Alberta, where six members look after about 15,000 hives.

Yet, for the first time, one of Canada's oldest beekeeping families faces an uncertain future. Like many honey producers across the country and in other parts of the world, its bees are dying at an alarming rate. One winter about four years ago, Mr. Paradis witnessed 70 per cent of his colonies die. He estimates he's lost $200,000 in annual revenue for several years now.

"This wintering-loss thing is something that, even with advice from my elders, we haven't been able to overcome," said Mr. Paradis, 45, who raises bees in northern Alberta's Peace Country. "In the next four years, if things don't turn around, there's going to be some pretty harsh decisions to be made."

The plight of beekeepers like Mr. Paradis is sparking a fresh push for answers. A new national bee diagnostic centre is being planned for northern Alberta in response to the insect's ongoing health crisis. The centre will be Canada's first laboratory dedicated to probing the cause of honeybee deaths.

Scientists from around the globe have uncovered about a dozen likely factors, including increased pesticide use, air pollution and migrating parasites, but much remains unknown. Mr. Paradis and others in his industry argue local answers and solutions are needed because, for one, Canadian winters are longer, colder and snowier than most other beekeeping regions.

Once the diagnostic centre is operational, researchers are expected to examine, swab and dissect thousands of bees a year with the aim of finding out what killed them. The data will be analyzed to determine the distribution of pests, pathogens and parasites and to identify emerging dangers. Their findings could hold the key for the prevention of future colony collapses and could help herald a turnaround in an industry that's vital to food production.

The United Nations food agency estimates nearly three-quarters of 100 crop species that provide most of the world's food are pollinated by bees. In a report released earlier this year, the agency warned a collapse of honeybee colonies would be devastating for fruit and vegetable production.

High colony losses have been a serious problem in Europe and the United States for decades. The problem is now surfacing in China, Japan and pockets of Africa.

Winters always bring bee deaths, but they've climbed dramatically in Canada in recent years. Beekeepers have experienced above-average colony losses since 2006, ranging between 21 per cent and 35 per cent. A national mortality rate of 15 per cent had been the norm.

This past winter's colony deaths are still being tallied in some provinces, but if Ontario's results offer any indication, it has been another devastating year. Commercial beekeepers in the province reported a mortality rate of 43 per cent in 2010-11.

"These kind of ... results are unsustainable," said Ontario Beekeepers' Association president John Van Alten. "If any other livestock was suffering this sort of annual mortality, there would be a national outcry."

The industry organization is calling for a number of measures, including better mite control, financial assistance to rebuild colonies, and long-term research commitments from provincial and federal governments.

Indeed, Canada lags other countries in bee research. Steve Pernal of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is the only federal government scientist mandated to study honeybees.

Dr. Pernal is hopeful the national bee diagnostic centre proposed by Grande Prairie Regional College will serve as a catalyst for even further research. Such bee-dedicated labs exist in several European countries and in the United States. In Canada, however, a patchwork of services is available to honey producers and scientists. Bees are often sent to the U.S. for testing.

"This national ability to monitor honeybee health and emerging problems is something we can't do very well right now," said Dr. Pernal, who manages a government agriculture research centre in Beaverlodge, Alta. "We should have the capability of detecting whether ... pests that are a potential threat to our industry are in Canada yet or perhaps encroaching in some areas of the country."

Grande Prairie Regional College had initially planned to have the diagnostic centre running this fall, but that timeline will likely be delayed because it is waiting for federal dollars from Western Economic Diversification Canada. The Alberta government has contributed nearly $1-million to the project.

Bruce Rutley, executive director of the college's Centre for Research and Innovation, said the school is also working to restart a beekeeper technician training program. One hasn't existed in Canada since the late 1990s.

Canada is home to about 7,000 beekeepers who operate nearly 600,000 colonies. The prairie provinces are the country's major honey makers, responsible for about 80 per cent of production.

No one has yet taken stock of the economic or agricultural toll of escalating bee deaths to the country. According to the Canadian Honey Council, the estimated value of honey bees to crop pollination is more than $2-billion.

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