Cold spring hammers bees

Last fall Simon Lalonde had around 3,200 bee hives and things were looking good when the colonies were put away for the winter.

By late April about 1,300 of those hives were dead or had too few bees to survive as a colony.

“We had about a 41 percent (winter) loss…. That’s about double our worst loss ever,” said Lalonde, who keeps bees near Clavet, Sask.

As a result, Lalonde expects that his honey production will be down significantly in 2018, because fewer hives means less honey.

“We’re still expecting to make some honey, but (production) will be half of what we normally are.”

The story is similar across Saskatchewan. Many beekeepers suffered winter losses that were significantly higher than previous years.

Over the last few years beekeepers across Saskatchewan have lost, on average, around 15-25 percent of their hives.

This year the average in Saskatchewan could be closer to 40 percent, Lalonde said.

Since Saskatchewan had about 110,000 honeybee hives last fall, that means around 44,000 didn’t survive into the summer of 2018.

Bees also had a rough winter in Alberta, which has about 39 percent of all honeybee colonies in Canada and produces the largest share of the national honey crop.

Mike DeJong, a beekeeper from Hay Lakes, Alta., said apiarists are being surveyed and it looks like winter losses will be higher than usual.

“Talk is that Alberta experienced above average in the 30-40 percent loss range…. The extreme week of cold over Easter causing starvation in the hives with low stores of food,” said DeJong, Alberta Beekeepers president. “There were also some producers that experienced losses due to high (varroa) mite levels.”

Canadian beekeepers expect, in a normal year, that 10 to 20 percent of their hives will fail to make it through the winter.

Colonies die off because of lack of food, disease in the hive and often because of cold weather.

Beekeepers are still assessing what happened this year, but cold and starvation are likely the primary cause of colony failure.

“Early April was exceptionally cold. Normally we get a one week respite (from the weather), which allows the bees to get out and fly around,” said Lalonde, president of the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Association.

“We never had that (this year).”

Lalonde explained that around mid-March, bees start laying eggs and “brooding up” the next generation of bees. When temperatures are warmer the bees can leave the brood and move about the hive.

But his spring, because it was so cold, the bees had a difficult choice – keep the brood warm or go get food.

“The bees stay with that brood so it stays warm. But by doing that they won’t (go) across the hive, because it’s too cold to get feed,” he said.

“So they literally starve with honey in the hive… but they won’t leave that brood to risk it getting cold.”

Since 1,300 of his colonies didn’t survive the winter, Lalonde has been busy this spring making new hives. Beekeepers will split an existing hive, which means they grab a portion of the bees and some of the brood to form a ‘nuke’ for a new hive.

The bees are then used to make a new hive, rather than having them use that brood to make a honey crop this year.

Still, weather in May and early June stimulated a bloom of flowers. So the bees are quickly recovering.

“It all depends on the timing of the flowering season,” DeJong said.

“The last five or six weeks of great weather has been awesome for hive growth and the bees are building up great which will help with increasing honey production.”

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