Canada to decide on honey bee imports this fall

The federal government of Canada is about to begin consultations with Canadian beekeepers and professional apiculturists about whether it should re-open the Canada-U.S. border to the importation of American bee packages.

This spring the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced it would conduct another risk assessment study to determine if the conditions for keeping the border closed to U.S. bees are still valid. It did its last review in 2003. This latest review follows intense lobbying from commercial beekeepers, primarily in Manitoba and Alberta, who argue they need the U.S. bees to replace their continuing high winter losses. I‘ve written a little about this issue before in the spring. Now it seems there are strong divisions taking place within the Canadian beekeeping community about both the usefulness and the perils of an open border, even before the CFIA actually submits its interim report for public review.

Several provincial organizations, including the B.C. Honey Producers Association, the Ontario Beekeepers Association and the Quebec Federation of Beekeepers all oppose reopening the border, citing the potential for the spread of more disease. Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has already responded to the Ontario position with a non-committal letter. 

In May the BCHPA’s executive sent a letter to B.C. chief veterinary officer Jane Pritchard laying out concerns about why the border should remain closed. This followed a letter from Dr. Francine Lord, Canada’s deputy chief veterinary officer and the director of CFIA’s animal import/export division, indicating she was undertaking the risk assessment. The letter is reproduced at the end of this story.

In an interview with me recently, Lord said her department is conducting a new review of all the factors affecting disease transference in bees and whether the risks of reopening the border are too high.

The CFIA expected to have an interim report reviewed in-house by the end of June, after which it would send copies to provincial and U.S. state apiculturists for comment. It also expected to consult with provincial beekeeping associations, Lord said. The public consultation period will last until the end of July.

If the border were to be reopened, it would not be on a state-by-state basis, but rather clear across both countries, she said.

“When we do a risk assessment we do it for the entire U.S. We are not going to look at from one state to another. When we are going to open it we are going to open it with all the U.S.”

Lord said the cross-national movement of bees in the U.S. to feed the voracious annual demand for almond pollination means that there is no way of isolating bees from trouble states where, for example, outbreaks of small hive beetle or the prevalence of Africanized Honey Bee genes occur. For that reason, anyone seeking to import bees into Canada would have to consider their bees are potentially exposed to all diseases.

“What we are doing right now is communicating with apiculturists here and with the U.S. to find out what is latest (risk),” she said. “It is going to be up to the importer to deal with the exporter to make sure (bees are disease-free). Because there is no control it means those bees go from east to west and north to south and so we have to do a risk assessment on the entire U.S.”

She said gene sampling would likely be necessary to weed out bees with Africanized genes. However, she said she is not certain that all states in the continental U.S. have the infrastructure, staff and budget to take on the mandatory inspections that would be necessary for bees to be exported to Canada.

The Canadian Honey Council, the national organization representing all beekeepers, also did not endorse a request from the Manitoba Beekeepers Association in May to support reopening the border. Instead it will wait until the risk assessment is completed before taking further action.

At least two of B.C.’s largest commercial beekeepers, John Gibeau at Honeybee Centre in Surrey, and Peter Awram at Honeyview Farms in Rosedale, support the push to reopen the border, saying the high cost of bees imported from New Zealand and Australia make commercial beekeeping unsustainable. They also argue that those bees are genetically weak and suffer from high rates of chalkbrood and early supercedure of queens.

Meanwhile, the B.C. government and its chief bee inspector, Paul van Westendorp, are taking an officially neutral view.

“We, the B.C. government, and I would think most other provincial governments and even in effect the CFIA, don’t have a pre-set agenda or position. It is largely up to the beekeepers that have to live with the consequences of any of the decisions they make or will happen,” van Westendorp said.

The availability of possibly cheaper American bees coming out of almond pollination in mid-March to replace winterkilled Canadian stock has long lured Canada’s largest commercial beekeepers in their hopes to overturn the border ban. With landed prices for New Zealand packages hitting $150 last winter there is a view among some that American bees will be far cheaper, even half the cost. Others, however, believe prices will escalate with demand, especially since mainland U.S. beekeepers already have a shortage of bees and couldn’t meet the current almond pollination demand.

The tradeoff is the potential for increased risk of diseases, including those now resistant to some forms of medication. The border closed in September, 1987 after the U.S. discovered its first infestation of varroa mites. Despite those controls, the mite made it to Canada just three years later. Since then there have been a host of other concerns by Canadian beekeepers and inspectors that have kept the border closed: small hive beetle, Africanized honey bees, Amitraz-resistant varroa in the U.S., and American Foul Brood now resistant to oxytetracycline.

Canada only allows queens to be imported from Hawaii and California, under strict controls that include quarterly apiary inspections by state bee inspectors. Supplying apiaries also must have a varroa infection rate of less than one per cent; earlier this year at least one Hawaiian queen producer, Hawaiian Queens, failed its inspection, leading to the cancellation of a number of large Canadian contracts.

Canada allows package bees from New Zealand, Australia and Chile with New Zealand providing the vast majority. However, high air freight transportation costs make such packages expensive and commercial beekeepers argue they aren’t necessarily any less free of diseases such as varroa and chalk brood.

To date small infestations of small hive beetle have been discovered in Ontario and Quebec, but whether they remain viable has not yet been determined. Adult beetles have also been discovered in two Prairies apiaries but did not reproduce.

van Westendorp said he personally doesn’t believe most of diseases or pests being considered under the new risk assessment pose a significant hazard to B.C. beekeepers. Africanized honey bees have never made it north into Oregon and their natural range south in South America has stopped at the 35th Parallel, he said.

“Africanized honey bees, I am quite strongly of the opinion . . . is an issue that is not an issue,” he said. “There is a climatic factor here that simply won’t tolerate these badly behaving bees, or what I call inefficient energy-wise behavior.”

As well, climactic conditions in most of Canada aren’t conducive to small hive beetle, van Westendorp said.

“My take on the small hive beetle is that it is not a very significant threat. For Eastern Canada, yes it is because there it clearly has the ability to establish infestations where actual reproductions are taking place. Here it appears there is something that holds these beetles back and prevents them from establishing reproductive infestations. That is a great bonus. It is largely a climactic issue,” he said.

“These are tropical bee pests that require very high humidity and high temperature conditions and sandy soils. We may have high temperatures in some conditions, and sandy conditions in some parts of the province but the missing link there is we don’t have high humidity.”

Jeff Lee is the BCHPA’s rep for Metro Vancouver. He can be reached at jeff@honeybeezen.com

CFIA Letter on U.S. bee package imports – May 2013

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