Honey bee on oregano blossom. Photo: Jeff Lee/Honeybeezen

Canada’s ban on honey bee imports is folly, says B.C.’s biggest beekeeper

My story in The Vancouver Sun about the spring-time import of honey bees from New Zealand has triggered debate about the long-standing ban by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on imports from the United States.
More than 20 years ago, in the face of a virulent Asian mite called varroa destructor, Canada closed the border to the trans-shipment of beehives from the U.S. It caught a great many Canadian beekeepers by surprise, since many had significant pollination businesses in California’s almond orchards and many others depended upon importation from the U.S. to support the huge Peace River honey flow.
At that time, it was common for beekeepers in Canada to get rid of their colonies at the end of the season, and then restart in the spring with packages or nucs brought in from over the border. The shutdown put a lot of people out of business and the closure of the border still rankles many.
With the worldwide spread of varroa now, that original reason for the border closure no longer exists. Now the CFIA keeps it in place to keep out two other problems, small hive beetle and Africanized honey bees.

Beehives in fireweed. Photo courtesy of Honeyviewfarms.ca

But research has shown that SHB, a warm climate pest,  hasn’t successfully settled in Canada. Recent research in Quebec showed the beetle couldn’t set up viable colonies. Africanized honey bees haven’t been established north of Nevada because of the colder northern climate. So there is, of course, a renewed push from Canadian beekeepers to reconsider opening the border to access the vast genetic stock of apis mellifera in the U.S.
Last night I received the following letter from Peter and Jerry Awram, whose Honeyview Farm in Rosedale, B.C. is the largest beekeeping operation in the province. They run just under 4,000 hives. Jerry, a former provincial apiculturalist for Alberta, was one of the first to get away from killing bees at the end of the season and began to develop bees that could over-winter well in Canada.
Let me know what you think.

Dear Jeff Lee

We appreciated your article highlighting the shortage of honey bees for pollination. As the largest beekeeper in BC, we have felt the last few years of phenomenal losses keenly.
Importation of bees is a necessary fact of beekeeping in Canada. We will always need to import queens because the weather does not allow the rearing of queens in the early spring when they are needed. Package imports are also important because significant losses are unavoidable. Honeybees are really tropical insects and are not that well adapted to colder climates.
However, Canada’s population is growing and people need to be fed. As 1/3 of our food needs pollination we are dependent on honeybees.
One of the major problems with importation are the sources. New Zealand, Hawaii and Chile.
These bees are from genetic stock not well adapted to our climate and sheltered from diseases for many decades, although all sources now have many of these same diseases.
NZ and Chile are in another hemisphere which presents other problems

  • The bees spend long periods in transport and tend to arrive in poor condition
  • The bees and queens are preparing for winter and are not adapted for spring. They tend to be slow to adapt to spring conditions.

Our experience with NZ and Chile stock has been uniformly negative.
The import restrictions on honeybees into Canada are really based on political concerns and do not have a scientific basis. Two years ago the BC Ministry of Agriculture lifted a 20-year ban on importing bees from the mainland to Vancouver Island because there was no scientifically justifiable reasoning supporting the ban.
This same reasoning applies to the restrictions against importing bees from the US. All of the countries that we can import from have at least some of the problems cited for the closure of the US border. Australia and Hawaii have small hive beetle. NZ, Australia, Chile, Hawaii all have Nosema, Varroa mites, tracheal mites, AFB as well as numerous viruses.

The closure of the US – Canadian border to bees has not stopped a single one of the pests that have been used for its justification. It is ludicrous to believe that bee pests are not going to cross a 5000 mile common land border when thousands of miles of ocean has not stopped New Zealand, Hawaii and Australia from getting more or less all bee pests.

Small hive beetle (which has already been found in Canada) and Africanized bees will make it to Canada despite any government rules. They are unlikely to be as serious pests as those we currently have. Africanized bees cannot survive our winter climate and have not migrated much beyond Southern California. Small hive beetle has also proved not to be the disastrous pest in the US as originally claimed. Being tidier with bee equipment seems to be an effective way of limiting its spread and, again, it is from Africa and not well-suited to our climate.
What the US does have, is a large genetic stock better adapted to our climate as well as many years of breeding for stock resistant to the diseases that we now face.
In our experience, the limited stock of queens that we can import from the US is clearly superior to anything we have seen from elsewhere. These queens produce stronger hives that winter better.
By forcing beekeepers to import genetically poorer bees from NZ and elsewhere, CFIA is causing damage to all Canadian beekeepers. These genes get reintroduced into everyone’s stock year after year (Queens regularly fly 2 -3 km from their originating apiary to mate).
There is no scientific reasoning behind these restrictions and BC and Canada will continue to have poor wintering success because of these policies.

Peter Awram PhD
Jerry Awram PhD
Honeyview Farm
10609 McGrath Road
Rosedale, BC Canada

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2 Responses to Canada’s ban on honey bee imports is folly, says B.C.’s biggest beekeeper

  1. Delta Beekeeper March 11, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Hey Jeff,
    If the border was open where is Peter expecting these bees are coming from at the time of year he expects them? Not from the northern states but from the southern and likely right after almond pollination where most every colony in the nation resides at that time, the melting pot of every disease and pathogen in the country. There is just no way anyone can expect that any of these early imports would be any more adapted to the Canadian climatic conditions than what we are getting right now.

    If we are talking about getting bees that are more adapted to our conditions we would need to get a northern U.S. bee but that would not serve the purpose or Peter’s agenda of early bees because they cannot produce the bees at the time we would require them. In Canada we have near 600,000 registered colonies and import just under 200,000 U.S. queens. Again if it is early queens that we are looking for where are they coming from. The only way to get a bee that is adapted to the local condition is to produce it locally not bringing them in from places like Georgia.

    Many Canadian beekeepers are adapting their beekeeping practices to make up for their winter losses by wintering nucs and are producing local queens to better survive the climatic conditions. This is the direction that the bee industry must go if it is to be sustainable not by shipping new or mutated viruses etc… in from all over the planet.

  2. Peter Awram March 30, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    These packages would be coming from California, just like they did 30 years ago when the Canadian beekeeping industry was completely reliant on packages. And if you would like to see these hives that were in “the melting pot of every disease and pathogen in the country” all you have to do is travel down 0 Avenue in May this year and look to the south a little. If you have sharp eyes you’ll be able to watch as the bees ignore the CFIA importation prohibition and land in BC hives. If you don’t think that every disease that shows up in the almonds is not in the Lower Mainland you are seriously fooling your self. Forget the notion that bees don’t let in foreign bees. It happens all the time and swapping hives around is a well established management practice.

    Do you know a great way to reduce the diseases in a hive? Shake out all the bees in a hive into a package and start it in new equipment. You don’t even have to irradiate the equipment, just let it sit empty for a few months, but you could irradiate the equipment, give your bees a quick oxalic fumigation in the package to knock the mites back a bit. The research is quite clear that this kind of treatment will knock the diseases back substantially. It’s probably because you are replicating the activity of a swarm and allowing the bees the ability to out grow the diseases.

    As for a flood of bees from the US. It’s not a serious possibility. Moving bees around is expensive and not too appealing for many people. Consider that there is already a huge source of bees that could come into BC blueberry pollination from Alberta. About 60,000 hives come into the Okanagan to winter every year from Alberta. That’s enough bees to provide the entire blueberry pollination needs in the Lower Mainland. A lot of these beekeepers have tried it for a couple years and then decided that it wasn’t worth it.

    If you are a US beekeeper, the headaches for coming with your bees to Canada are far worse. You have to cross the border with bees on a netted truck. If the the truck gets stopped for any length of time at the border and it’s hot you face the possibility of cooking your bees. Also the border people are not going to let you pass through just anywhere since they are not going to want lost bees too near them. Then you need work permits for everyone coming to work. Then you need insurance for vehicles. You have to arrange housing. You need to find a way to extract your honey. Then you have to deal with tax issues. Pretty soon this becomes a real hassle. If you’re an American beekeeper who just made covered most of your costs from almond pollination are you really going to want the pain this is going to cause you?

    What about honey production in AB, SK and MB. There were over 5 million hectares of canola planted in Canada in 2006. At a stocking rate of 1 hive to the hectare which would still not even get anywhere close to saturating the field, Canada could handle 5 million beehives on Canola alone for honey production.

    Also bringing in beehives into Canada is something that has never happened. Only packages have ever crossed the border. So try this on for a business model. In the fall you shake out your hives and send bulk bees down to the US. This breaks the disease cycle in Canadian hives. A US beekeeper overwinters the bees using new queens produced during the summer and builds them up for almond pollination. After almond pollination, the US beekeeper sends back big packages (because he has been provided with a big source of bulk bees in the fall and can afford the extra production) to Canada. If the packages are big enough they will even work for Blueberry pollination. Packages are used to produce honey in Canada. Every year there are 2 breaks in disease production so pesticide use can be reduced dramatically. Beekeepers don’t have to work so hard all year round desperate to keep their bees alive and could probably run twice as many hives with less effort and cost (and there is plenty of room for more bees every where in Canada. We are no where near saturation).

    As for bringing in genetics using frozen sperm and eggs, I suggest you try it. It’s not a viable option.