Canadian Wildlife: As the buzz fades

By Brian Banks.

Few stories about honey bees start in the well-worn cab of a beekeeper’s flatbed pickup truck. But if you were looking to speak to 51-year-old Jim Coneybeare of Fergus, Ont., late this past August, that cab was all too often where you’d find him. Late evenings and early mornings, as long as it wasn’t raining: moving hives, moving bees.

Not just down the block, but up to two hours north of his main base of operations. There, he’d unload the colonies in their boxes, 32 to 40 per trip, and set them up in sheltered fields and yards owned, Coney- beare says, by some “very obliging farmers who are just super to work with.”

Ordinarily, hauling bees is the last thing Coneybeare, a third-generation commercial beekeeper with an 850-hive operation, wants to be doing in late August. This is prime harvest season — when hives are teeming with bees gathering nectar and pollen from nearby wildflowers, field crops and gardens, and their combs are full, sweet and heavy with honey and wax.

Except that’s not the scene this year
in and around Coneybeare Honey’s honey house and headquarters, just outside Fergus, about 30 kilometres north of Guelph. Located in a former rural schoolhouse along a two-lane highway surrounded mostly by cornfields, the honey house is where I meet Coneybeare one afternoon the week before Labour Day.

“Usually we start extracting honey from the combs in mid-July,” he says, guiding me through the modest operation. “This year we didn’t start until around the 20th of August.”

The grim explanation: there’s little honey to harvest because Coneybeare’s bees keep dying. “I have some locations

that are producing one-tenth of what I would normally have,” he says. “This is what I would call crop failure.”

Worse, Coneybeare isn’t alone. Honeybees have been dying and entire colonies collapsing at an alarming rate in much of Canada, the U.S. and Europe for the better part of a decade. Dramatic increases in both the percentage of hives lost over the winter and those lost in sudden, massive spring and summer die-offs are becoming the new normal. The scale is not only hammering bee populations but also wreaking economic havoc on beekeepers and their industry. Some scientists also say that today’s mortality rates, left unchecked, will threaten at least some of the one-third of global food production (mostly fruit and vegetables) that depends on pollination by bees and other insects. Others warn that bees, because they interact heavily with the environment, might be early indicators of a still unfolding problem that ultimately threatens other species of insects and invertebrates, as well.

Exactly how many bees are dying? Across Canada, the “normal” rate of honeybee wintering losses is considered to be 15 per cent. Over the last five to seven years, wintering death rates have been close to 30 per cent, and much higher in some regions. The only year close to average was 2011-12, at 15.3 per cent. In 2012-13, 28.6 per cent of colonies were lost. Manitoba topped all provinces, losing 46.4 percent of its colonies; Ontario was next, at 37.9 per cent. Beekeepers in the U.S. reported losing a similar 31 per cent of their wintering colonies in 2012-13.

Sudden mid-season die-offs are more difficult to track statistically, but they make up for it in their alarming impact. The discovery this past June of about 25,000 bees (mostly bumblebees, but also honeybees) and other pollinators dead in a Target store parking lot in Oregon attracted global attention. Closer to home, another central Ontario beekeeper, Tibor Szabo Jr., reported losing 49 of 50 hives — literally millions of honeybees — in a two-day span this past May. Then there’s Coneybeare himself: just two days before my visit, scientists from the federal Pest Management Regula- tory Association (PMRA) and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture were on-scene at one of his hive locations, collecting samples of dead bees for testing and analysis after he reported a major die-off. “This year it’s been continual,” he says.

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