Bees come through gruelling winter in good condition

Varroa mite control Alberta saw losses of about 15 percent this year compared to 24 percent last year. Beekeepers there credit mite control applications in spring and fall

Last year’s brutal winter was a tough slog for most Canadians, but prairie bees thrived in the cold and snow.

Beekeepers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are reporting relatively low winter losses compared to previous years.

Medhat Nasr, provincial apiculturist for Alberta, said most beekeepers lost 10 to 15 percent of their colonies over the winter.

“So far we haven’t had any catastrophic cases, in terms of big (losses),” he said.

“The (bees) came through this really cold winter in good shape, except they needed some sugar feed (in the spring)…. Beekeepers were able to get to (the bees) in time, to take care of them.”

Nasr estimated winter hive losses in Alberta at 15 percent, which is down significantly from 24 percent losses in 2013.

The story is similar in Saskatchewan.

“Winter loss here is probably going to be under 15 percent. There’s the odd guy that has a terrible wreck,” said Calvin Parsons, a beekeeper from Meskanaw, Sask.

“Most of the beekeepers in Sask-atchewan are … happy.”

Parsons said 10 percent of his hives failed to survive the winter.

Colony losses averaged 27 percent in the province.

Manitoba apiarists experienced terrible losses during the winter of 2012-13. Nearly 47 percent of colonies didn’t make it.

This spring is looking more promising.

“(It’s) like night and day,” said Mark Friesen, who keeps bees near Morden, Man.

Friesen said last year’s severe losses could be traced to the hot, dry summer of 2012. Bee colonies on his farm were in rough shape going into the winter of 2012-13, resulting in substantial hive losses by the spring of 2013.

Conditions in southern Manitoba were more amenable to bees last summer. Many crops flowered later in the summer, boosting honey flow and bee colony health going into the winter, Friesen said.

Bryan Ash of Gilbert Plains, Man., said this winter was better than 2012-13 but it wasn’t great.

About half of his colonies overwinter in the Okanagan. Those bees fared well, but 30 to 35 percent of his colonies near Gilbert Plains did not survive. However, it wasn’t as bad as the previous winter.

“Last year I was probably closer to a 70 percent loss.”

Ash also keeps bees near Roblin, Man., and those colonies struggled.

His Roblin bees foraged on wild flowers last fall, compromising the colonies’ health.

“It’s typically a darker honey, which is a stronger honey to winter on and it gives them dysentery,” he said.

“My Roblin area is probably running a good 70 percent loss.”

Nasr said winter losses in Alberta have declined because beekeepers have adopted new practices to control the varroa mite, a parasite that infects bee colonies and spreads disease.

Half of the province’s beekeepers previously controlled mites in the spring and the other half applied miticide to hives in the fall. Most of them now use miticide in the spring.

“In Alberta, here we are putting a lot of emphasis on applying the Apivar (miticide) in the spring,” Nasr said.

“By killing the mites in early spring, we are finding it does help to reduce the virus transmission loads…. You are actually protecting your bees through the year from virus infection and transmission to the winter bees.”