This spring, many commercial beekeepers across Canada opened their hives to find that their honey bees had not survived the winter. In Quebec, the average hive mortality rate was 60% – three times higher than previous years. Other provinces suffered higher than average losses as well.
There’s a reason this news has hit mainstream media. It is devastating for beekeepers who make their living off of their bees, but it should also serve as a wake up call for the rest of us. The health of honey bees affects us all, and the consequences go far beyond just having less honey to enjoy this year.
What happened to the bees this year?
Emily Mcbean, Beekeeping Field Specialist at Alvéole, says there are multiple factors that may have contributed to the loss of so many rural hives. “Varroa has been one of the bigger reasons for hive mortality for a long time”, she explained. Though there are treatment plans that beekeepers have used for years, climate change is rendering those treatments less effective.
What does the varroa mite do to honey bees?
The varroa destructor is an external parasitic mite that feeds off of developing and adult honey bees, transmitting disease.
“Last year, we saw an incredibly early and hot spring and summer. This means the varroa got to reproduce in an exponential fashion. As beekeepers, we all try to use the same treatment plan every year. But mite loads would have been high earlier in the season, so they might have gotten too high before anyone got to their treatment plan.” Seasonal temperatures that were predictable for so many years just aren’t anymore.
Varroa mites cause anxiety for all beekeepers
Urban and commercial beekeepers are both struggling with increased varroa, but with different consequences. For urban beekeepers like us at Alvéole, it’s essential that we keep mite loads low to prevent spreading varroa to neighboring hives, including those of other urban beekeepers. But for a rural commercial beekeeper who keeps up to 100 hives at the same site, losing the majority of their hives in one shot is absolutely devastating. Their career depends on honey production and renting their bees out to other farmers for pollination services.
What does colony loss mean for the rest of us?
One could argue that a honey bee’s most important job isn’t making honey, but pollinating crops. “Beekeepers will transport their hives in the spring to crops that need pollination and charge the farmers for pollination services. This season, there are fewer hives available to provide that service, which means we have a risk of some crops going unpollinated”, Emily explained.
Meaning that while commercial beekeepers and farmers are feeling the effects of a reduced honey bee population now, city dwellers may see the effects on the shelves at their local grocery stores or farmers markets in the coming months (recognizing this, companies like Sobeys have implemented local initiatives to increase awareness of the importance of bees).
“This level of mortality for honey bees is scary because it’s one of many reminders that the systems we rely on to feed people – like pesticides, monocultures, and managed pollination – are not a certainty with climate change affecting our world.”
Using social beekeeping to connect more people with nature
At Alvéole, our main objective isn’t honey production or pollination (though they are sweet benefits!). We think of ourselves as social beekeepers. We use urban beehives as a way to educate more city dwellers about the environment and sustainable food systems.
“We put honey bee hives on rooftops with the goal of making people fall in love with bees and let that be the catalyst for these larger conversations about what is going on around us and how our actions impact not only honey bees, but all pollinators and nature as a whole”.
Emily can speak to how powerful an interaction with the bees can be. She herself first fell in love with them when she joined Alvéole as a beekeeper 4 years ago. “The first time I saw the bees I was like ‘okay, this is the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life’.”
Protecting what we love
“Especially when the information is scary, it’s easy for us to just tune it out because it feels far away. But when people interact with the hive on top of their building, they really fall in love with the bees. When they read an article about bees and beekeepers having a hard year, that person has a deeper connection to that conversation and has a harder time ignoring it”.
So the next time you bite into a delicious piece of fruit (or most any of the food that ends up on your plate), think about the beekeeper, their hundreds of thousands of bees who helped it grow, and how we all play a part in their future.