Honeybee Haven

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: May 12, 2011 11:02 AM
Ruby Keeping photo

Newfoundland is one of the remaining safe zones for the world's honeybees, and that puts our fledgling industry in a sweet spot.

By Linda Browne

Their sudden appearance can send panicked arms flailing; their sting can elicit a stream of four-letter words from the gentlest of mouths; their quiet, steady bzzzz can make human hair stand on end. Like them or not, bees are everywhere - and that's a very good thing.

Here's some food for thought. Honeybees are not only responsible for providing us with that delicious golden serum that we use to do everything from sweeten our tea to bake tasty treats, they also help put food on the table. According to the Canadian Honey Council (CHC), honeybees pollinate one-third of our food crops - everything from fruits and vegetables to canola seed - the value of which is estimated to be more than $2 billion annually here in Canada. (In Newfoundland, bees pollinate everything from blueberries and cranberries to strawberries and apples.) Well-pollinated crops produce more fruit, and honeybees actually increase production by two to eight times. Their buzz has also been found to scare away caterpillars, which gobble up precious plants, flowers and fruit. They truly are among the hardest working, lowest-paid labourers out there and they continue to get a bad rap. (Kind of makes you want to think twice about grabbing that fly swatter or bug spray, doesn't it?)

A Sticky Situation
While they might appear plentiful to the average person who takes the time to stop and smell the roses (literally), our prolific pollinators are in trouble. According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail, beekeepers in the United States are seeing a bee death epidemic that is killing off as much as a third of their colonies every year.

Canada's bees are not immune to this danger. In fact, the CHC says Canada has lost 35 per cent of its honeybee colonies in the past three years alone. (In this country, about 7,000 beekeepers maintain 600,000 colonies of honeybees.)

Americans frequently blame their bee problem on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) - an unusual phenomenon by which adult bees abandon the hives, leaving the others to die. While scientists are still scratching their heads as to the exact cause of CCD, most believe it's caused by a combination of things that weaken the bees and open the door for disease - everything from parasites and pesticides, to bees getting stressed out over the loss of habitat and the movement of their homes (some hives are moved thousands of kilometres so the bees can pollinate particular crops). However, CCD is just one small part of the honeybee colony decline puzzle.

Here in Canada, pests appear to be among the main culprits, particularly the varroa mite (Varroa destructor), which was first discovered in Canada in New Brunswick 22 years ago and has since spread across the country. The varroa feeds on bee larvae and adult honeybees and is considered one of the most dangerous pests since it weakens the immune system of bees, activates viruses and increases winter mortality of the colony. The tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi) lives inside the breathing tube of adult bees and also causes the colony to weaken.

Newfoundland and Labrador is actually one of the few places in the world yet to be infected with these particular mites. We've also never had an infestation of the microsporidian parasite (Nosema ceranae), which causes digestive disorders in adult bees and may impair their ability to fly. These three parasites are relatively big players in causing honeybee mortality throughout the world.

While the honeybee industry elsewhere is suffering the devastating effects of these mites, we're in a sweet spot here in Newfoundland (there are no commercial beekeepers in Labrador) and our industry is growing.

Honey Hot Spot
So why is Newfoundland having such beekeeping success? According to Geoff Williams, it all boils down to our import regulations and location.

Geoff is a PhD student with the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He currently works with the Swiss Bee Research Centre in Bern, Switzerland and his research focuses on Western honeybees (the kind we have here in Newfoundland) and their parasites.

"Most honeybee parasites are dispersed around the world by human movement, like illegal imports, or legal imports for that matter. So there are strict importation regulations into Newfoundland that have prevented these parasites, and then also the geographic isolation," Geoff says.

"Many other colonies around the world have these parasites and in many cases chemicals are used to treat these parasites. It could be things like formic acid or other organic acids, or synthetic chemicals like pyrethroids. But in Newfoundland, there isn't a need to treat for varroa or tracheal mite because it's not there."

Because of this, Geoff says, its possible for beekeepers on the island to adopt organic beekeeping practices that produce goods that can be marketed around the world.

"There's been some recent studies showing that at least stored honey...has a lot of these residues of these chemicals in the honey. (Residue tests have looked at honey stored in the brood nest. The honey that we eat comes from boxes above the brood nest called "honey supers." Beekeepers are usually careful not to have honey supers on colonies when they're being medicated.) So without these residues, and let's say if honeybees are foraging in wild conditions, not in areas where pesticides are being applied, they basically have a unique opportunity to have, sort of, organic products," he says.

"I think there is a lot of interest in these organic, and natural, pure foods. And it really all depends on whether or not these other parasites are brought into the province and if the industry can survive. It's so small. (The industry) is relatively fragile because of the climate. The climate probably isn't the best for beekeeping because of the long winter and short forage season. But beekeepers in Newfoundland are definitely in a unique spot."

That's good news for people like Paige Marchant.

Paige and her business partner Andrea Skinner operate the Newfoundland Bee Company in Little Rapids on the West Coast, producing everything from honey to products that utilize the excess beeswax like soaps, lip balm, skin cream, muscle rubs, leather waterproofer and food-safe wood polish. They started out with just 15 colonies when they took over the business from Andrea's father in 1998. Now, Paige estimates, at peak time they have just over 100 colonies - which are spread throughout the Humber Valley region, from Little Rapids to Cormack - and eight million bees. (The numbers fluctuate every year, depending on what the seasons have in store.)

"Really, in honey, I don't think you could find anything more organic than what's here, exactly for the reason that there are no chemical treatments in the hives," Paige says.

"And not only that, but the agriculture on the island is very different than elsewhere, especially here on the West Coast - it's mostly dairy. So they're not growing crops and having to spray them...they're growing hay mostly, and what the bees are going to are wildflowers or people's gardens, which most people don't spray, unless they're growing something big."

In addition to allowing honeybees to produce clean, pure honey, Paige says the fact that the province is relatively pest-free and has a low incidence of other honeybee diseases opens up a lot of markets for local beekeepers who might want to export their bees elsewhere.

"If they wanted to sell queens or packaged bees, it's great because we can without too much trouble. So it's good for that part of the industry," she says.

"When you can show beekeepers elsewhere that the testing has proven that we don't have these (mites), then it's good because they might be interested in buying bees from here. We have looked into selling queens through a distributor in New Brunswick, but we haven't actually done it."

The Bees' Pleas
While she's pretty satisfied with the province's import regulations for honeybees, Paige says the fact that the province does allow blueberry and cranberry farmers to import non-native bumblebees for pollination does cause concern.

"It's not impossible that one or both of those mites can be found in bumblebees, and then there could be transfer," she says.

"Frequently you'll go out and you'll see three different things pollinating the same flower. So they're kind of rubbing up on each other and so something could move from one to the other...not only is it potentially bad for the honeybee operations or industry, it could also be bad for native pollinators that are here. Because there are native bumblebees and, of course, if they get those things, that's not good for them either."

While the provincial import regulations make no specific mention of bumblebees, or if the province has anything in place to minimize this risk, in an email to Downhome on this issue, the Department of Natural Resources stated: "The Wildlife Division of the Department of Environment requires a permit, with restrictions, to import non-native species such as bumblebees." The department also said it is "proactive in working with industry and new entrants to ensure all safety precautions are taken to minimize the risk of introducing these pests. Other jurisdictions in Canada are also aware of our regulations and support our efforts to keep Newfoundland free from these pests/diseases."

Lack of pests also means our bees are less grouchy. In 2009 and '10, Geoff and the department's Agrifoods branch did a survey of honeybee hives and colonies in Newfoundland and found something very interesting.

"Lots of times we'll have to go through frame by frame and the bees are getting mad and they're trying to sting you through your suits and stuff. But in Newfoundland, for the most part, they were really gentle. They were like flies. They'd just come land on you and I think they're just not as stressed as other bees (in) other colonies in other areas," Geoff says, adding with a laugh, "so like the friendly Newfoundlanders, it's the same for the bees."

For more about bees, click here.