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Bee shortage stings farmers, beekeepers

Beekeeper Don Cameron of Westham Island Apiary has all of his bees in production on this blueberry farm in Ladner.  - Adrian MacNair photo
Beekeeper Don Cameron of Westham Island Apiary has all of his bees in production on this blueberry farm in Ladner.
— image credit: Adrian MacNair photo

There are only two weeks left in the blueberry pollination season and according to experts, there’s not enough bees to go around.

“It’s the same from Tsawwassen to Chilliwack and everywhere,” says John Gibeau, president of the Honeybee Centre in Surrey. “We’re 4,000 colonies shy.”

Gibeau estimates that bee shortage will amount to a $6 million deficit in fruit production this year due to the fact that the flowers just aren’t being pollinated.

“I’ve been using every single bee we can find,” said Gibeau. “Any one colony by itself in the field, we took it and gave it to a blueberry grower.”

Gibeau attributes this year’s shortage to three reasons. Firstly, current customers are ordering more bees than expected, while new growers are entering the market for the first time.

And although Gibeau said they might have been prepared for that demand, the unseasonably warm weather has had growers asking for bees, which are notoriously productive in warm weather.

The third reason is three large Alberta-based beekeepers that usually supply the Lower Mainland did not come this year, nor give notice to growers.

“So, the growers are out thousands of colonies and it’s been a scramble for those growers that had committed to these beekeepers to fulfill their orders.”

That has left Gibeau and other Lower Mainland beekeepers struggling to meet demand.

“There are not enough bees in the province of British Columbia to satisfy the blueberry grower demand,” he said, adding that means importing hives from out of province.

Kevin Husband of Emma Lea Farms on Westham Island has been using commercial bee hives since he started growing blueberries a decade ago.

He booked 250 hives a year in advance to pollinate his 20 hectares (50 acres) of blueberries. With 20,000 bees to each hive, there could be more than five million bees in his fields.

“It is a challenge to get bees, especially for someone else that’s just starting up and just starting to realize how important it is,” says Husband, adding growers will usually use between two to four hives per acre.

“To get a top quality crop you need many visits by a bee to a blossom, and that gives a bigger, more fertile berry.”

Because of the shortage of both wild and commercial bees, the cost of renting hives has gone up considerably. Where it may have cost $50 to $60 a hive a decade ago, a hive can run $90 to $120 today.

Caroline Bremner of Birchwood Blueberry Farm in North Delta has been growing blueberries since 1985 and gets her bees from a reliable beekeeper in Fort St. John. She is using between 150 and 200 hives for her 28-hectare (70 acre) crop and says she has no supply issues.

“People always talk about it,” says Bremner. “It’s amazing, people say, oh you can’t get bees anymore. I’ve never had a problem.”

But Bremner says she hasn’t seen the wild bees this year as she had in years previous.

“I’ve got a big garden at the front and a number of very large rhododendrons,” she says. “Well, when they’re in bloom they’re usually buzzing with the wild bees. This year I’ve seen just one.”

The shortage of bees is referred to by experts as a “colony collapse disorder” which has been happening throughout the world in commercial and wild colonies alike. Hobbyist beekeepers have been saying they just aren’t seeing the wild swarms of previous years.

The annual mortality rates in beekeeping have escalated over the past decade from a high of 35 per cent in 2008 to about 25 per cent today. For beekeepers, that’s a tremendous loss of “livestock” over a one year period. But with a good queen, a beekeeper can replace his losses relatively quickly.

Don Cameron is a small-scale beekeeper with 40 to 50 hives on Westham Island. Right now, all of them are pollinating a blueberry farm in Delta.

“I’ve had a couple of calls from people asking if I have extra hives and I don’t,” says Cameron. “So, I would have no trouble putting more hives out there.”

Cameron will finish pollinating blueberries and then move his hives into blackberries in the summer. Toward the fall he’ll put his hives out for pumpkins or wild flowers on Brunswick point.

But small-scale beekeepers like Cameron or the backyard hobbyists don’t really make a big difference in the province’s fruit yield.

“If you’ve got a big blueberry or raspberry or cranberry operation, you don’t want to be dealing with a bunch of people with five or 10 hives,” he says.

Gibeau blames declining wild bee populations on “intensive growers” who are spraying insecticides outside of the pollination season.

When farmers spray their fields with non-residual insecticides for aphids or fruit flies the commercially-provided honey bees aren’t there, but the wild bees are. That means the wild bee colonies are wiped out before the pollination season.

Gibeau said he teaches beekeeping in developing countries such as the Dominican Republic and Ethiopia and he has seen the same problem.

“The growers and the wild bees are both at odds with each other,” he says. “If there was a way for the growers to deal with fruit flies and aphids without having to spray insecticides then they would have less reliance on honey bees.”

Bee facts

• Bees support 30 per cent of the world’s food crops and 90 per cent of wild plants.

• A honey bee colony can have up to 60,000 bees.

• A queen honey bee lives 3-4 years and lays 1,500 eggs a day.

• Honey bees cluster around to queen to keep the hive at a temperature of 34C.

• A worker bee may visit 2,000 flowers each day, surviving three weeks at this pace.

• Bees generated 1.8 million pounds of honey worth $6.8 million for the B.C. economy in 2011.

• B.C. is home to 2,000 beekeepers, with 38,000 colonies of honey bees.

• In 2011, 57 per cent of B.C.’s honeybee colonies were located in the Lower Mainland.

adrian@southdeltaleader.com

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