Niagara beekeepers are losing honey bees at an alarming rate

Somer Slobodian and Maddy Gordon

After all his honey bees mysteriously died, farmer Dave White had to completely reinvent his bee business.

“We start our hives with honey in the fall so we have food all winter. (Then) in the spring they all died,” said the owner of White Orchard Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Rather than the usual one or two losses that normally occur during the winter, he lost all his hives.

A few years ago he had 14 hives. Then there were 10 people. Last fall, he had eight. Now there is none.

And strangely, there was no evidence to show what caused the death of the bees.

“They just died. This is the first time we have seen it. We have been doing this for almost 6 years now,” he said.

It’s a common problem and expensive, in White’s case about $4,000. But he is not alone. The problem is bigger than one small operator in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

According to the Canadian Association of Professional Beekeeping Colonies, 45 percent of winter colonies in Canada did not survive. In Ontario, that rose to 47 percent.

White had to think of new ways to run his business. Recently, he brought in a colony of six nuclei, called bee nuclei. Each contains about 20,000 bees, and the purpose of the nuclei is to act as a starter for the hive.

Nucks have a queen, workers and eggs. They come in a four-frame box, and then the farmers put them in their hives. The queen bee will rebuild her hive with her eggs and workers, White said.

“It’s like starting all over again,” White said. “It’s kind of a boost instead of starting from scratch.”

If it works and the bees don’t die, it will produce another 20 or 30 nuks next year.

“We’re going to start ramping it up again,” he said.

The decline of honey bees is a problem that beekeepers have been warning the government about for years. Now, in 2022, millions of bees are dying and beekeepers are stuck.

“As far as what’s happening in Niagara, it’s the worst we’ve seen in terms of bee deaths,” said George Scott, managing director of the Niagara Beeway, an organization that protects native flora and fauna.

No one knows exactly why the bees died. However, there are many factors that can contribute to their rapid decline, including the use of pesticides.

“Looking at how these bees died, we have no doubt it was chemically related,” Scott said.

Beekeeping is a multi-generational business in Scott’s family. It’s in his blood.

His main consideration now is, “How do we completely revolutionize and innovate our business so we stay in business?”

“Or do we stand by and let food prices rise? Disband pollination services?” he added.

Abandoning beekeeping would be devastating, he said.

Niagara Beeway offers free herd rescue for Niagara residents. Niagara used to have five teams, but now it’s down to three, another victim of bee death.

“For the first time in 22 years, I’m going to have to lay people off because we don’t have enough revenue. First time. Does anyone care?’ Scott said.

The varroa mite, a parasite that feeds on honey bees, has also destroyed large numbers of bees.

George Dubanov, president of the Niagara Beekeepers Association, said that due to climate change, beekeepers should start treatment against the varroa mite not in September, but in early August.

Beekeepers are unhappy with the federal government’s handling of the situation. Rather, how the government is not handling the situation.

“The government doesn’t want to cooperate, find out (why) or do some lab tests and things like that,” said Ed Unger Lake of BY’s Honey Farm on Concession 6 in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

BY said that about half of the people looking for honey can only supply it.

Unger also teaches beekeeping classes, but a bee shortage means there aren’t enough bees for students to work with.

Scott said the Niagara Beeway sought help from Global Affairs Canada, but when the department spoke with beekeepers across the country, the provinces couldn’t agree on a strategy.

The importation of “fake” honey is a major concern, and Scott said Niagara beekeepers want Global Affairs Canada’s Food Inspection Agency to take over enforcement.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it takes honey adulteration and food adulteration seriously.

A CFIA spokesperson told The Lake Report via email that the agency said it is working to reduce the risk of food adulteration by verifying industry compliance with Canadian regulatory requirements.

According to media website Insider.com, fake honey is made from real honey diluted with syrups such as high fructose corn syrup or beet syrup. Or, alternatively, fake honey can be created when manufacturers chemically alter the sugars in syrups to make them look like real honey.

Fake honey prices drive down the asking prices for genuine honey, which affects beekeepers and their businesses.

“When food is misrepresented, it can damage the industry’s reputation and harm compliant food businesses as they have to compete with counterfeit products that can be produced more cheaply,” a CFIA spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Scott worries about the amount of fake honey being sold in stores and how it’s affecting the industry.

Beekeepers can’t say exactly why they’ve lost entire bee colonies, an uncertainty that worries many of them, he said.

“At this particular point, the only thing disappearing faster than honey bees are beekeepers.”

Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, The Lake Report

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