New Chill Around the Hives

Beekeepers in Quebec fear they’ve been hit by the vanishing bee syndrome
Alex Roslin
The Montreal Gazette
Sunday, March 30, 2008

beekeepers say their hives are being hit by huge new losses this winter on a magnitude possibly as bad as the enormous bee die-offs that struck across North America last year.
Some beekeepers are blasting provincial agriculture officials for inaction, saying they should acknowledge that “colony collapse disorder” has migrated north of the border.
CCD is a phenomenon in which seemingly healthy bees suddenly vanish from their hives with no dead bees found in or around the hive. Last year it affected up to 36 per cent of 2.4 million bee colonies in the U.S., prompting long-term fears about the food supply.
Bees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops annually in the U.S.—one in every three bites of food we eat—and $1.4 billion in Canada.
One-third of Canadian bee hives were lost last year, but debate is raging between beekeepers and provincial officials about whether CCD is to blame here. Officials so far insist Canada remains CCD-free thanks to better beekeeping practices than in the U.S., but beekeepers say they have experienced it and that the government just doesn’t want to pay compensation.
Yves Gauvin, a beekeeper in St. Hyacinthe, said he lost 35 per cent of his hives last year in a die-off eerily similar to CCD. “It’s the same symptoms,” he said. “CCD in the United States is the same problem we see in Quebec.”
Gauvin said he’s been experiencing the same mass bee vanishings since 2003, with losses of up to 60 per cent a year, which he also attributed in part to a rash of Varroa mites, a parasite that is the bane of beekeepers.
Before 2003, he said, his normal winter loss would be five per cent of his hives.
As for this winter, Gauvin has taken an early peek into his hibernating hives to check on their state and the news is bad. “The losses are above average. We’re expecting losses like last year,” he said.
Richard Paradis, another St. Hyacinthe beekeeper, said he has lost 15 to 30 per cent of his hives so far this winter, but he won’t know the final tally until he opens the hives in April.
Heavy snow buildup this winter means many beekeepers will be a week or two later than usual in opening their hives, and that means additional losses are probable as some bees run out of food, said Alain Moyen, a beekeeper in Mirabel and past president of the Canadian Honey Council, which represents 400 to 500 beekeepers across the country.
Large losses are also being reported again this winter south of the border. A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of 22 beekeepers found 37 per cent of hives had been lost by late winter. A similar survey at the same time last year found bee losses of 30 per cent.
Despite the huge Canadian losses last year and this, the provinces’ bee experts blame the die-offs not on CCD but on other factors like Varroa mites and the cold.
“We haven’t identified it as CCD in Canada at this point,” said Emile Houle, a bee specialist at the Centre de Recherche en Sciences Animales, an independent institute affiliated with Quebec’s agriculture ministry.
“When (the beekeepers) tell us about their losses, by the time we go there it’s too late to analyze what happened,” he said. “Officially, we don’t have (CCD).”
Claude Boucher, the veterinarian who oversees bee health for the agriculture ministry, said he’s heard reports of CCD in Quebec but no beekeepers have come forward so their losses could be analyzed. “Not a single beekeeper called us last year. It becomes very difficult to verify it and understand what is happening,” he said.
Moyen of Mirabel says he experienced CCD himself last year, losing 50 per cent of his 700 hives, but he didn’t want to tell anyone because government officials were saying publicly the problem didn’t exist in Canada.
While he was head of the Canadian Honey Council, he said he and other council members felt pressure from Canadian provincial bee health inspectors not to link their losses to CCD.
“If they acknowledge there is a serious problem, they would have to do something or pay compensation,” Moyen said. “We weren’t directly told to shut up, but kind of. We were saying, ‘C’mon guys, we’re the beekeepers, and we’re seeing it.’ The government is sleeping on the job.”
He said his losses forced him to quit as head of the honey council halfway through his term last year to devote all his time to saving his beekeeping business.
He has yet to check his hives this winter and is nervously waiting to see how many bees he’s lost.
He said last year’s losses have already forced some Quebec beekeepers out of business and will lead others to charge farmers more for pollination work, which will in turn push up food prices.
Nicolas Tremblay, a bee consultant to the Quebec agriculture ministry and the province’s sole agronomist specializing in bees, agreed that CCD is probably already in Canada.
“It’s not officially declared, but I would say ‘Yes, it is already a problem.’ I agree there are cases with bizarre losses. Probably this spring we will find the problem is here,” he said.
Some blame powerful new type of pesticides
The causes of the bee Armageddon are still being studied and debated but some beekeepers place a lot of the blame on a potent new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which have become widespread through use with genetically engineered crops.
Yves Gauvin of St. Hyacinthe said he now refuses to hire out his bees to farmers who use the pesticide. “The product is so poisonous, the bees die on the spot,” he said.
Consultant Nicolas Tremblay said the new pesticide “attacks their nervous system and affects their orientation.”
Exacerbating the problem, he said, is the fast-growing number of Quebec farms now growing vast tracts of genetically engineered corn for the production of ethanol, particularly in the Motérégie region, the area where most of the province’s beekeepers are also based.
Chris Mullin, a Pennsylvania State University insect toxicologist and member of a U.S. research group studying CCD, said scientists have discovered 50 different pesticides in various hives, including samples from unhealthy Canadian hives.
They are still trying to figure out how the chemical soup affects bees, but Mullin said the likely result is that their immune systems are suppressed and can no longer fend off parasites and diseases.