Most beekeepers in B.C. are just starting to take stock of their over-wintered colonies, checking for dead-outs, putting on pollen patties and mixing up heavy syrup for the feeders. But this is also the time when those beekeepers who are involved in pollinating B.C.’s important blueberry crop are also installing packaged bees that have just arrived from New Zealand. There’s a raging debate among beekeepers about whether Canada should rely on the growing import business to fill out pollination contracts. Bee biology experts like Mark Winston, who until recently operated a world-renowned lab at Simon Fraser University, argues that we should wean ourselves off of imports. He argues that there is ample evidence that monocrops, agribusiness and increasing use of pesticides are behind the decline in both native pollinators and the sturdiness of the domestic bee.
Others, like commercial beekeeper John Gibeau of the Honey Bee Centre in Surrey, rightfully point out that not enough bee colonies survive our winters to fill out the demands of farmers in the Fraser Valley and orchardists in the Okanagan. Today, in a story I wrote for The Vancouver Sun I explained those divergent opinions against the backdrop that more than 3,000 honey bee packages have now been shipped into B.C. for the looming blueberry season. The bee packages discussed in the story are primarily coming from Kintail Honey of Dannevirke. But there are other package bee exporters in New Zealand as well. Amanda and I have ordered eight or nine packages of Carniolan hybrid bees from Arataki Honey of Rotorua, which is supplying the canola pollination business through Manitoba-based Bartel Honey Farms and Beemaid Honey Co-operative in Alberta. Many of those packages are also destined for hobbyist beekeepers because they come in later in March or early April. It is worth noting that for all the interest in bringing bees into British Columbia and Canada, the border remains closed to the importation of U.S. honey bee packages. While the Canadian Food Inspection Agency allows the import of queens only from mainland U.S. and Hawaii (with that state supplying 80 per cent of the queens to B.C), it only allows packages from New Zealand, some parts of Australia and Chile. U.S. imports were banned more than 20 years ago to try and prevent the spread of the varroa destructor mite, but now it’s the spread of the small hive beetle and concern that Africanized honey bees could establish themselves that keeps the border closed. That’s despite research that shows the small hive beetle isn’t viable in cold climates and AHB hasn’t moved north of Nevada in nearly a decade, according to Gibeau. It is also worth noting that there are very strong research efforts being mounted by honey bee breeders and the University of B.C. to try and develop varroa-resistent hygienic bees. That work is being done through Leonard Foster’s genomics lab with funding from Genome BC, the B.C. Honey Producers Association and other groups. Much of the field work is being done at Liz Huxter’s Kettle Valley Queens in Grand Forks and with the assistance of breeder Heather Higo. The B.C. Bee Breeders Association is also involved.