Hobby beekeeper Ramin Abdollahi remembers opening up a hive this spring, only to find a pile of dead honeybees at the bottom.
“It is very, very heartbreaking,” said Abdollahi, who lives in Kitchener and keeps his hives at a farm near Shakespeare, Ont.
Heartbreaking — but not unusual this season.
Beekeepers across the province are reporting major losses of up to 90 per cent of their colonies, according to the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association.
The problem is so significant that association president Bernie Wiehle is concerned they could affect not just honey producers, but fruit growers. Some beekeepers provide pollination services to orchards in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, he said.
“We’re really worried that we won’t have enough bees,” said Wiehle, who is also a commercial beekeeper near Rodney, Ont.
Although many factors can affect the health of honeybees, it’s believed a tiny parasite called the varroa mite is responsible for the bulk of this year’s bee deaths.
Early spring a recipe for trouble
The mites feed on bees’ blood and protein reserves, and can spread viruses among bees and weaken their immune responses, according to Paul Kelly, research and apiary manager at the University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre.
Last year, spring came early, Kelly said, which was good for bees — but also favourable for the varroa mites, which were able to start reproducing early.
“The earlier the spring is, the more reproductive cycles these mites can go through,” Kelly said.
“It’s like exponential growth.”
Dennis Schmidt, who typically keeps between 20 and 30 colonies at a Waterloo apiary, said all but one have been wiped out this year.
Schmidt wasn’t totally shocked — there weren’t many signs of life coming from the hives over the winter — but the losses were still devastating, he said.
“I have heard stories of beekeepers weeping when they finally open their hives and they find that their livestock have perished over the winter,” said Schmidt, who is also president of the Wellington County Beekeepers’ Association.
Kelly hopes further research on varroa mites and honey bees will yield solutions to keep the problem under control. The centre is also testing the use of essential oils and organic acids to kill the mites without harming the bees, he said.
Packaged bees in short supply
As for beekeepers like Schmidt and Abdollahi, they now hope to start regenerating their own colonies. For some, this may be easier said than done, Wiehle said, as there’s a huge demand for packaged bees this year and not nearly enough supply.
“They’re just not available, and they’re outrageously expensive — the price has probably doubled.”
Wiehle hopes to meet with Lisa Thompson, the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs of Ontario, to discuss financial relief for commercial beekeepers hit hard by the varroa mite.
In response to a request from CBC, a spokesperson for Thompson said the minister’s office is working to schedule a meeting soon.