Colony numbers up, honey production falling

DRESDEN, Ontario — The increase in the number of honeybee colonies in Canada may not be a sign of a healthy industry. 


Davis Bryans of Munro Honey in Ontario said the higher colony numbers can be linked to an increase in the number of hives split by producers.


“People are increasing their numbers trying to calculate what they’re going to lose the next winter. These are colonies that are not going to produce. The idea is to get them through the next winter so maybe they can produce the following year,” Bryans said.


Dr. Ernesto Guzman, head of the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph, said Ontario beekeepers have experienced three times the normal loss of colonies every year for the past three years.


“That’s an undeniable fact,” he said.


“The reason why colony numbers have been sustained or have even increased is because beekeepers have been splitting their colonies more and they import colonies from other countries. It has nothing to do with the bees being healthy.”


In contrast to Guzman and Bryans, CropLife Canada sees increased colony numbers as a positive sign for beekeepers. 


The organization, which represents seed and agricultural chemical companies, said there has been a 24 percent increase in colony numbers in Canada since 2000.


The same view was expressed by Paul Thiel, vice-president of innovation and public affairs with Bayer CropScience, at the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture in March.


Bayer, together with Syngenta, market most of the world’s neonicotinoid insecticides. 


Used widely to protect seed from insect pests, the products have also been blamed for negative impacts on honeybees and other pollinators.


“Managed colonies in Ontario and Quebec have increased since 2003,” Thiel said.


“It is important to note also this increase in colony numbers took place during the same decade that these modern treatments came into use. Such overwhelming empirical evidence is supported by the extensive research showing that these products do not represent a long-term threat to colony health.”


Statistics Canada tracks colony numbers with an annual survey. That’s the data CropLife Canada and Bayer have used to support their case.


However, the survey also points out that although colony numbers are up, honey production per colony is down from coast to coast.


Production per colony in Canada from 2002 to 2006 averaged 140 pounds. For the period 2006 to 2010, it was down to 131 lb. In 2013, it averaged 112 lb.


The trend holds true throughout Western Canada for those time periods, with the exception of Saskatchewan.But the numbers are most dramatic in Ontario. 


From 2002 to 2006, the average Ontario colony produced 119 lb. of honey. That fell to an average of 84 lb. during the 2006 to 2010 period and 65 lb. in 2013.


In Quebec, numbers fell from 96 lb. to 85 lb. to 66 lb. in 2013. 


Saskatchewan produced an average of 193 lb. per colony for the 2002 to 2006 period. That increased to 205 lb. for the 2006-2010 period but fell to 182 lb. in 2013.


Guzman said honey production is a good indicator but not the only indicator of colony health.


Pesticides are one challenge for the honey industry. There are also serious pest and disease problems including the varroa mite,which many experts view as the number one concern.


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