Have you noticed fewer bees buzzing around this spring? Bee populations are still declining, which is endangering our food supply and pushing Canadian farmers to rent hives to keep their crops alive.
What’s to blame? Mites, viruses, unpredictable weather, herbicides, and pesticides.
“Bees just have too many problems to deal with at one time,” says Paul Kelly, the research and apiary manager at the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph. Before 2007, he says, “we’d lose, on average, 10 to 15 per cent of our colonies over the winter.” Now, in Ontario, bees face colony loss of about 35 per cent each winter. “The pattern is pretty similar throughout North America,” he says.
Five years ago, Kelly says, bees lost 58 per cent of their colonies to the winter, and this year, the numbers are getting close. “Climate change isn’t good for anything in nature.”
Bees can tolerate fairly warm weather, “but what doesn’t work well for them is unseasonable weather,” says Kelly. Bees cannot thrive in unseasonably hot or cold weather, or conditions that are too wet or dry.
Shorter winters, like winter 2020/2021, are both good and bad for the bees, Kelly adds. While shorter winters mean smaller colony loss (the late spring and autumn bees can survive through the winter), the longer spring and summer means a long season alongside the Varroa destructor mite.
These mites, originally from Asia, enter hives and reproduce where bee pupae grow. The young mites then feed on the pupae, and later, feed on adult bees’ blood and protein, introducing viruses into their bloodstreams.
North American bees did not co-evolve with the Varroa destructor, Kelly says. “They have no natural resistance to it.” This invasive species has been a threat to North American bees since 1990.
Agriculture Canada reported that there were 11,785 beekeepers across the country in 2020. Together, those beekeepers tend to nearly 750,000 honeybee colonies. The British Columbia agriculture ministry estimates that honeybees contribute more than $3.2 billion to the Canadian economy. The bees may be small, but their impact is colossal.
Native bee populations aren’t high enough for the necessary pollination of modern agriculture. That’s why Canadian farmers have rented hives from local beekeepers to pollinate their crops for years. This year, because colony losses were high, there may not be enough honey bee hives to go around. Luckily, “we’re able to manage and move [honeybees] around,” Kelly says. And a honeybee hive can be home to up to 60,000 bees.
So what can homeowners and cottagers do to help? Grow some flowers and make a bee-friendly garden! “Honeybees tend to go where flowers are massed together,” Kelly says. “It’s more efficient for them.” When honeybees are foraging, he says, they only forage on one species of flower at a time. Native, non-honeybees, will go to individual flowers, “and they don’t go very far from home either.”
It’s good to have a variety of different flowers. This is called successive blooming, when a garden has flowers blooming throughout the season.
Kelly recommends swapping pollen-poor flowers for pollen-rich plants like colourful and fragrant lavender or late-blooming goldenrod. Trees and shrubs are great pollen sources too. Try linden and maple trees.
“In my own garden, I have squash bees pollinating my squash plants…I have bumblebees pollinating my tomatoes and peppers,” Kelly says. “They all have their specialties.”
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) promotes native gardening too, encouraging those with outdoor spaces to include pollinators planting local flowering plants and grasses on small (or large) parts of their lawns. “Every act we do can have a knock-on effect,” says Jensen Edwards, from the NCC.
You can also support honeybees and the pollination that they provide by purchasing honey from a local beekeeper, Kelly says. “It’s not easy to make a living beekeeping.”