Last week in the Lower Mainland the Honey Bee Zen Apiaries Ltd. team (from left, Heather Higo, Amanda Goodman Lee, Julia Common and Bradford Vinson) worked to transfer new packages of bees from Australia into their new homes. The bees will be fed a combination of sugar syrup, minerals and vitamins until they are able to forage, and will arrive in Creston in late April, in time to pollinate cherry orchards. (Photo credit Jeff Lee)

Beekeepers lose most of stock

In recent years North American beekeepers have struggled with mites and diseases that typically take their toll during the winter months, while the bees are in hibernation

It was before winter had even arrived, though, that Jeff Lee and Amanda Goodman Lee knew they were in trouble.

“We had a really good honey crop in 2018 and our hives were healthy when we completed the harvest in August,” Jeff Lee said on Monday. But when the owners of Creston-based Honey Bee Zen Apiaries, a mid-size commercial beekeeping operation, checked their hives a month-later they found a large portion of the hives filled with dead bees.

“In one yard we had 24 out of 24 hives wiped out,” he said.

Despite the loss of nearly 70 per cent of their stock, Lee said the setback is expensive and disappointing, but not a threat to the viability of Honey Bee Zen Apiaries.

The purchase of 150 packages of bees, weight 3.3 lbs. each, from Australia, each with queen bee and support workers, will ensure that new honey supplies will be available in July, and that most of the orchardists who rely on the company’s bees to pollinate their flowering trees will still get the service they contract for.

“Unfortunately, some orchardists will have to find alternatives, but most of our customers will be just fine,” he said.

Photos of workers covered in wasps as they checked the beehives last fall are proof that the large number of wasps, which were a problem across BC last year, was a major factor, but Lee said the problem is really multi-faceted.

“This has been happening to beekeepers in North America for a long time, but usually on a smaller scale,” he said. “It all starts with the varroa mite.”

“If you don’t control the varroa mite it can get out of control,” he said. Varroa mites are bloodsuckers that also serve as a host for viruses. “They can create all kinds of problems.”

New diseases have arrived with Asian bees, which might have an immunity that the European bee that is commonly used on this continent does not. Nosema, a parasitic fungus “is now more virulent than ever,” he said.

“So you already have varroa mites, nosema disease and various viruses to deal with, then the wasps came in horrendous numbers, all across the province. This seems to have been the peak of their seven-year cycle.”

“We are not out of business, and we will not be out of business,” Lee stressed. “Like any farmer, we have setbacks.”

While the Lees could have taken time to rebuild their colonies more slowly, fulfilling the pollination needs of local fruit farmers pushed them to invest $60,000 or more in new stock.

“Pollination is really the first priority, then comes honey.”

Without honey bees to pollinate their trees in the spring, orchardists are likely to have spotty pollination by other insects, and a much lower production come harvest time.

“Bees are a sentinel species for agriculture,” and factors including chemical sprays, can affect their health. Sprays might not actually kill the bees, but a weakened colony is more susceptible to disease and predation.

Lee spoke to the Advance from Kelowna, where he and Amanda stopped en route back from the Lower Mainland, where their new supply of bees is being stored until weather allows their transportation to Creston.

He said they are anxious to get the new season underway, but also pleased to have been selected as the site for a research project, led by Paul Stamets and the University of Washington, with support from the BC government. Stamets is a mycologist who has led a study that indicates that feeding bees components from certain mushrooms can increase their immunity levels to various threats.

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