A higher-than-expected loss of honey bees over the winter is causing Canada to reassess whether to open the U.S. border to the importation of packaged bees.
On Wednesday the Canadian Food Inspection Agency notified provincial chief veterinary officers it is under pressure from commercial beekeepers to allow them to bring in U.S. packages after they reported average losses of 50 per cent of hives needed for pollination and honey production.
Faced with only a few places worldwide that Canada allows bees to be imported from, commercial beekeepers say they are unable to meet the demand of farmers and consumers. Packages are typically three-pound lots of bees with a laying queen that are used to start hives in the spring.
Dr. Francine Lord, the CFIA’s deputy chief veterinary officer, said her department is now reviewing a 1987 decision to keep the border closed to packages but won’t make any changes until a full risk assessment is done.
Canada closed the border to U.S. bees after several serious diseases emerged, including a mite now regarded as the single biggest worldwide threat to bees. It also wanted to stop Africanized honey bee genetics from being mixed into domestic bee populations, and prevent the arrival of a beetle that has damaged wide portions of the U.S. bee industry.
In 2003 CFIA concluded in a risk assessment it was still too dangerous to open the border even though the mite is now firmly established here. However, it did allow the importation of honey bee queens from Hawaii and California to help strengthen the genetics of Canada’s domestic bee population.
In March CFIA began to quietly reassess the risk after being flooded with calls from beekeepers who were finding many of their hives had died.
On May 3 the Manitoba Beekeepers Association held an emergency meeting in Neepawa where they voted 78 per cent in favour of asking for the border to be reopened to U.S. packages. It still supports the ban on importation of bees on comb.
Bryan Ash, a commercial beekeeper in Manitoba, said he lost 65 per cent of the 7,200 hives he wintered there and in B.C. Of the remaining, 80 per cent are too weak to produce honey or be used for pollination.
“I don’t know what to do. We can’t be in business with these kinds of losses. Opening the border to U.S. packages would at least give us some options,” he said.
In previous years Ash hasn’t bought New Zealand packages. But in 2011-2012 he was forced to buy 300 and this years he bought 1,700 in the hopes of rebuilding his stock back to 4,000 hives.
“If the border was open our costs would go down by half,” said John Gibeau, one of B.C.’s largest commercial beekeepers. “Beekeeping in B.C. has gone down the drain because we can’t be competitive when the cost of bringing packages from other places like New Zealand is so high. As a result, we produce an insignificant amount of honey compared to what we could.”
Packages from New Zealand cost about $140. U.S. rates are about $85, according to Gibeau.
The Canadian Honey Council estimates Canada’s 7,000 beekeepers manage more than 600,000 hives that produce 65 million pounds of honey and pollinate more than $1 billion worth of agriculture.
Jane Pritchard, B.C.’s chief veterinary officer, said Canada’s beekeepers have a stake in the CFIA review. She said she distributed Lord’s letter to beekeepers and industry associations because they need to tell CFIA what opening the border would mean.
Not everyone is sure allowing U.S. bees back into Canada is a good idea. Gerry McKee, the CHC’s chairman, said Canada has an emerging industry breeding and wintering hardy bees. Many beekeepers have invested heavily in trying to find solutions to the annual winter losses. Simply allowing Canadian beekeepers to bring in cheaper bees from the U.S. may not solve the long-term problem, he said.
Gibeau said B.C.’s fruit and berry growers are losing tens of millions of dollars in crops because they can’t get enough honey bees for spring pollination. He estimates there are 4,000 too few pollination hives available for the blueberry crop, meaning a $12 million loss to local farmers. If the ban were lifted packages could begin arriving as early as next year, he said
Some beekeepers in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have reported being virtually wiped out, while others have reported low losses because of new management practices.
McKee said he doesn’t know why some beekeepers are losing so many bees when others are managing to keep their losses to 10 or 15 per cent. But he worries that the pressure from commercial beekeepers to open the border will be done for economic reasons than what is good for the bees themselves.
“It seems to me now that questions are being raised that the decision won’t be based solely on the concerns of honey bee health,” McKee said. “Those who are looking at the bottom line generally aren’t looking far ahead. ”
I’d like to hear from those who have made the investments for their future stocks and who are trying to find the desired genetics for overwintering capability. That’s forward investment. I would hate to see that diminished or threatened because others who don’t want to make those investments or who are unable to upgrade their beekeeping or management skills dominate the situation.”
McKee also isn’t sure the U.S. market is strong enough to supply Canada as well. “They don’t even have enough bees for their own market,” he said. U.S. prices would also rise, he said, because of demand, making any gains in Canada less tangible. Lastly, he doesn’t believe most U.S. beekeepers could meet Canada’s strict inspection demands that mother hives have less than one per cent varroa. Those rules are in place now for cross-border transport within Canada, as well as between Canada and Hawaii and other export locations.
The B.C. Honey Producers Association has not yet weighed in on this issue.
Ash said he could find no common reason for why so many of his hives died. He put 2,500 hives in B.C. to overwinter, in the hopes of replenishing hives in Manitoba the next year. But half the hives died, he said. In his area around Gilbert Plains, which has about 35 per cent of Manitoba’s bees, no beekeeper escaped with losses less than 50 per cent, and some as high as 98 per cent.
Here’s Lord’s letter to Pritchard.