Half-truths about bees
By Lee Townsend
Last month, a new website called Bees Matter was launched and included an open letter to Ontarians titled “Getting the facts straight on honeybees.” The site was developed by Ontario farmers and the agricultural industry that supports them. Its a great concept a national awareness campaign to draw attention to the importance of the honeybee.
Id love to say that the Bees Matter project is very similar to the collaborations between beekeepers, farmers, and the agricultural industry that have taken place on the Canadian prairies, but sadly the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) was not involved. The OBA board of directors will not work with the farmers and agricultural industry.
Within a week, the OBA released its response to the Bees Matter letter. Ive taken the time to read both letters and while both make valid points, both also omit facts in order to prove their points. I have a much bigger problem with the OBAs response.
Overall, the Bees Matter letter was well done and well-intentioned. What about the OBA response? Like all press releases put out by the OBA in recent years, it is full of half-truths. Lets look at just three press release excerpts (in bold lettering).
“Last winter Ontario beekeepers lost 58 % of their hives. The number of honeybee colonies (measured in mid-summer) does not reflect the large number of colonies lost each winter, nor does it reflect the 30,000 queens or nearly 20,000 bee packages that beekeepers had to purchase to replace the unusually high number of colonies that failed in the winter and spring. We also want to stress that although honeybee colonies can be managed by beekeepers to sustain their numbers, reports indicate serious declines among wild bees and other pollinators.”
Buying large numbers of packages and queens is nothing new to most beekeepers in Canada, and our industry is highly reliant on these imports in order to replace our overwintering losses and yearly colony number increases. The OBA is making it sound like this is something new, and while they did have to buy more bee stock in 2014 than ever before, theyve been buying bee stock for a very long time. They used to deny it. And they not only used these bee imports to replace their losses, but they also increased their colony numbers in 2014 by 15,300 from 2013.
I really have an issue with the OBA using “wild bees and other pollinators” in their reasoning. Last I checked the OBA was representing the honeybee industry in Ontario and were not experts on other pollinators.
“Honey production on a per colony basis is actually down by 40 % since 2003. Wed also like to point out that earnings are not the same as profits. Every spring, Ontario beekeepers work diligently, and at great cost, to recover their winter losses and respond to the high demand for bees for blueberry pollination. Ontarios beekeepers are producing less honey while incurring significant costs to restore their colony numbers. As well, although Canada is a net exporter of honey, Ontario experiences a honey trade deficit of nearly $15 million due to the lack of safe bee pasture and the inability of pesticide-weakened colonies to meet current demand.”
This is very misleading.
While its true that the honey production per hive is down from 121 lb./hive in 2003 to 73 lb./hive in 2014, the OBA fails to mention how many colonies were used primarily for pollination services in 2014 compared to 2003. Colonies used primarily for pollination services are still included in the honey production statistics, which will lower the production per colony. Ontario has never been a large honey production province and a great deal of beekeepers income has depended on the pollination services they offer. In fact, Ontario sent more hives into pollination in 2014 than ever before. Also, Ontario had one of its harshest winters in history and that poor weather continued into the spring/summer. Weather has a huge impact on honey production, and it can also be directly attributed to their 2014 production.
The OBAs claim that a lack of bee safe pasture is a main cause of their losses is misleading as well. It fails to mention that there are ways to find more suitable forage for bees, which is something that prairie beekeepers have done for decades. But it requires a change in management practices by the beekeeper. There is a great deal of forage in Western Ontario (clover, alfalfa, etc.). All Im hearing from the OBA is excuses instead of solutions.
“Beekeepers have been able to manage mites, disease and pests for decades. Unfortunately, however, we are unable to avoid pesticide exposure. In Ontario, neonics are used to treat over 5 million acres of soy and corn, when even our own provincial crop specialists say that they are only needed on 10 % to 20 % of these acres. In addition to killing bees outright, neonicotinoids compromise bees immune systems, making them more vulnerable to viruses and making it more difficult to fight off varroa. It reduces their navigation skills, affecting the bees capacity to forage and communicate forage opportunities; and it compromises nutrition by reducing the availability of a diversity of uncontaminated plants.”
This is by far the most comical of all the statements in the OBAs response. No beekeeper in Canada can claim to have mites/disease/pests under control to the degree the OBA leads you to believe. Yes, we all work diligently to control these problems, but we are limited in the number of tools we have to protect our bees against them. You also have a great number of beekeepers (hobby/small scale primarily) that have no clue as to what proper integrated pest management (IPM) practices are. There are even “prominent” commercial beekeepers in Ontario that are lacking in proper IPM practices. This statement is proven by a video the OBA released on YouTube last year. You can clearly see a commercial beekeeper incorrectly treating his hives for the varroa mite. He is using both formic acid and oxalic acid on his bees at the same time, in the late fall, and on hives that are quite small in size. Any informed beekeeper fully understands that this is a great way to kill your hives.
The comment that neonicotinoids kill bees outright is not true. Honeybees on the prairies are exposed to a much higher volume of neonics than those in Ontario with no adverse effects. From our experience, healthy honeybees are highly resilient to this kind of chemical exposure. There have been instances where bees have been sprayed directly with products such as Matador during canola bloom, and the effects have been devastating. But with chemical treatments like neonics, there seem to be little to no adverse effects on healthy bees. If the bees are already suffering from malnutrition, mites, diseases, pests, etc., neonics can become lethal. Bees do not do well with multiple stresses. They never have.
The main issue with the pollinator health document released by OMAFRA in 2014 is the fact that there is ZERO mention of what beekeepers need to do in order to better their management practices so that these losses do not keep occurring. The document lays all the responsibility for Ontarios bee/pollinator health on the farmer and seed manufacturers. So does the OBA. But there are many things the beekeepers can do. From our experiences in Western Canada, reducing overwintering losses to 15 % is an almost unrealistic goal. The biggest reason is the weather. We cant control it and it is the difference between a 10 % loss and a 40 % loss. When you start talking about losses of 50 % or higher, there is a beekeeper management problem at play.
The more I read of the comments between farmers and the eco-activists (OBA falls under that category) in Ontario, the more I realize the chance of a common solution being found that benefits both sides is virtually impossible.
Whats also been lost is the efforts of the Canadian Honey Council (CHC) during this debacle. CHC formed a bee incident committee in 2012 to deal with the Ontario problems. But the OBA refused to work with it unless CHC demanded a neonic ban.
There isnt anyone in Canadian agriculture that disagrees with reducing the amount of pesticides used during crop production. Whether it be neonics or the miticides used by beekeepers, chemical dependence is not desirable. The truth of the matter, though, is that these products will always be a part of modern agriculture, and all we can do as good stewards is find ways to reduce our use.
At the same time, we have to look in the mirror and admit our faults. Many beekeepers have done that and learned from it, just as many farmers have done the same. But until the OBA board and its followers do it, nothing will change. Their bees will still die and they will blame everything but themselves.
Lee Townsend is a commercial beekeeper managing 3,100 colonies at Stoney Plain, Alta. He has represented the beekeeping industry at both the national and provincial levels. This article is an edited version of what appeared on his blog, Alberta Buzzing.