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Atlantic Canadian beekeepers need this pest to buzz off

The red tool points to a queen bee in this busy honeycomb. — SALTWIRE NETWORK FILE PHOTO
The red tool points to a queen bee in this busy honeycomb. — SALTWIRE NETWORK FILE PHOTO

Just about all you need to know about the Varroa mite can be found in part of its scientific name: Destructor

Its scientific name is Varroa Destructor and it can only reproduce in the hives of honey bees.

Beekeepers worry, but the parasitic mites are either a pest or a pestilence, depending on where in Atlantic Canada you look.

Dave MacNearney knows what the Varroa mite can do. He has had issues at Bristol Berry Farm in West St. Peters, P.E.I.

But in Newfoundland and Labrador, they have simply never had to contend with the mite or other invasive pests. It's one of the few places in the world where this can be said.

Rodney Reid, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Beekeeping Association, says the short summer season would make it significantly more challenging for beekeepers here to contend with a pest like Varroa mite compared to places with longer growing seasons like British Columbia or Ontario.

"They're able to manage the Varroa mite," said Reid, who has been beekeeping for about six years at Exploits Meadow Farms in Bishop Falls. "They have so many mites there. Every jurisdiction to date that's lost their Varroa-free status, by the time it was noticed, it had already gone too far. Then it becomes managing the Varroa mite, which requires pharmaceuticals."

Varroa mite can function as a vector for debilitating bee viruses, and it also complicates the process of keeping hives healthy through the winter.

Essential pollinator

Reid harvests honey, but also rents out his hives to a local cranberry farm to help pollinate the plants. It's something MacNearney does for his own farm, where he grows blueberries.

"Pollination is essential to blueberry crops” and his province has less than half the number of colonies necessary to pollinate the commercial blueberry fields.

According to Reid, the provincial beekeeping industry has grown steadily over the last 10 years. There are now 130 beekeepers in Newfoundland and Labrador operating 800 to 900 colonies. That’s small compared to the other Atlantic provinces.

MacNearney, noting Prince Edward Island has a strong agriculture industry, calls beekeeping there a relatively small part of it. Hobbyists tend to have fewer than 25 hives, he said. One major producer runs 3,000 of the 7,000 hives existing on the island, while MacNearney is among half-a-dozen mid-level beekeepers with 200 to 500 hives each. Nova Scotia has 400 active beekeepers and approximately 25,000 hives, while New Brunswick has a similar number of beekeepers and about 10,000 registered honey bee colonies.

Importation

New Brunswick imports bees for pollination, while Nova Scotia allows it so long as a permit is obtained from the provincial government. Newfoundland and Labrador only allows imports from Western Australia (where the Varroa mite is not present), while the other Atlantic provinces get most of their imported bees from Ontario.

According to MacNearney, bees for pollination are simply brought in and sent away once the job is done, though he can buy hives from Nova Scotia to keep permanently if they're properly inspected for disease first. These days, the small hive beetle is the pest of concern for P.E.I. beekeepers.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial government recently announced legislative changes to enable mandatory registration and inspection of all beekeeping operations, as well $300,000 in funding for training and supports to enable beekeepers to test for and manage Varroa mite. Reid said this news is something the association has wanted for about five years.

"Our biggest threat is not legal importation," he explained. "It's about mitigating risks. If somebody currently from Nova Scotia just decided to buy a (nucleus colony) ... they could put it in their car, wrap it up and bring it here, and nobody would be the wiser until somebody notices Varroa."

One commercial company, Adelaide's Newfoundland Honey, has come out against bee importation. In a recent news release accompanied by a six-page document, owners Brenda and Paul Dinn state they "do not want any risk of Varroa entering our province."

Reid said the importation of live bees is heavily regulated. He also suggested there are genetic benefits, noting there was previously a project where Varroa-resistant eggs were imported into the province as a means to increase the likelihood of survival for local hives in the event the Varroa mite were to enter the province.

"If we close the door, it's not so simple to open up the door again," he said. Reid expects the association will advocate for continued support of the provincial apiarist to ensure all vendors are inspected. He also sees a need for increased penalties for anyone who imports bees illegally.

Hive strength

MacNearney admits there has been some division within his province's beekeeping community on whether to close the border to importation. Support for the importation has generally come from the community of beekeepers who also need them to pollinate berries, which is a bigger industry than honey bee farming, he said.

"A strong hive has a strong immune system," said MacNearney. "They can take care of themselves and resist these diseases and a weak hive is susceptible to anything that's out there. What small hive beetle does is attack the weak hives. It makes us better beekeepers, or it will, because right now we can keep those weak hives kicking around and it doesn't cause us any problems. But if we have small hive beetle, that will just become a source of infection and you'll have to cull it out. There's a cost for doing that."

Working in P.E.I.'s favour is the fact small hive beetles tend to be a bigger problem for warmer climates where the pests can reproduce year-round.

"We know it's not going to reproduce here through our winter. We have a hard enough time keeping bees alive, let alone their parasites," he said.

Twitter @CBNAndrew


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