Canola crops rely on pollinator bees which are dying. Can Alberta bring them back from the brink?

By Suzy Thompson

In the opening chapter of her 1962 environmental classic, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote, “The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.” The nightmare scenario in Carson’s book led to bans and restrictions on the use of pesticides such as DDT in the US and essentially launched the environmental movement. Yet Carson would have been dismayed to learn that despite our increased environmental awareness, fewer bees are now droning amid the world’s trees and fields than ever before.

For a long time, the flora of Alberta was pollinated mainly by wild bees. As intensive agriculture spread across the prairies during the 20th century, replacing wildflowers, trees and grasses with cultivated crops, habitat for wild bees grew scarcer. Much of Alberta is now criss-crossed by fields of wheat, canola or flax. Today Alberta farmers rely on domesticated bees for much of the pollination their crops require.

But domesticated bees are dying. About 30 per cent of Canada’s have died each winter for four years running, an unsustainable loss in an apiculture industry that considers a 15 per cent winter kill rate acceptable. Beekeepers worry that Canada will soon be suffering bee losses on the same scale as the US, where bee deaths have reached into the range of 60 to 70 per cent of hives.

In the US the mysterious problem has been dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD). Bee colonies with CCD typically progress rapidly from a strong colony that has many bees to one with few or no surviving bees. Typically, no dead adult bees are found in the colony or nearby, making it seem as if they’ve mysteriously “disappeared.” Queens are also usually still found in collapsing colonies with a few remaining young adult bees, lots of brood and enough food, adding to the mystery.

While there is clearly reason for global concern, beekeepers in Alberta have stumbled on a simple yet ingenious way to better monitor bee health. The discovery has big implications for beekeepers witnessing losses related to CCD. It hasn’t come a moment too soon for the world—and for our province in particular, which has as much to lose as anywhere if the domesticated bee continues to disappear.

Bees in this province are big business. Alberta has the third largest honeybee industry in North America, trailing only those legendary garden states of California and Florida. The prairies accounts for 85 per cent of Canada’s total honey crop, and Alberta remains the cornerstone of Canadian apiculture, producing nearly 40 per cent of the country’s total honey supply. The province has more than 250,000 hives, which produce about 30 million pounds of honey annually. A large proportion of Alberta’s honey is produced in the Peace Country, which alone produces more than 10 million pounds of honey annually, or up to 15 per cent of Canada’s total crop.

But bees do something that’s even more significant, at least from an economic perspective—they pollinate Alberta’s hybrid canola crop. “It’s a huge business,” says Stephen Pernal, Canada’s only federal apiculture research scientist. “Sixty thousand colonies are contracted for hybrid canola seed, the type of canola seed most farmers in Western Canada use. In order to cross the seed, you need to cross a very specific line of male and female plants. Pollination is worth over $500-million in Alberta, estimated on farm gate value.”

While they mainly benefit canola farmers, Alberta’s bees also pollinate cucumbers, squashes, apples and strawberries, among other foods. Globally, one bite in three is pollinated by bees. And even if they aren’t needed to grow wheat or other grains, Alberta would miss bees if their decline continues. “The recalculated value of bee pollination in Alberta in 2008 was $2.3-billion,” says Pernal. “It used to be around the $1-billion mark.”

If CCD were to become widespread in Alberta, the provincial honey and canola industries would be devastated—similarly to how the province, and the ranching industry specifically, was rocked by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in 2002. That said, it’s still an open question whether CCD even exists in Canada.

The actual extent of annual bee losses in Alberta is still being determined. Part of the challenge is that in order to truly measure bee losses, definitions and terms have to be consistent among provinces and countries.

Pernal is part of a new international effort to develop consistent terms and survey questions about winter losses. The EU-based project, called COLOSS, is attempting to address simple yet important problems, like defining exactly when the winter season ends and begins—not such an easy task when you consider the difference between the meaning of winter in northern Alberta and the meaning of winter in Israel or South America. Even defining a “dead” colony is more complex than it seems, as it could mean a colony where the bees have literally died or a colony that has simply become unproductive. Beekeeping practices also vary from country to country and region to region.

Complementary research is ongoing. A study out of the University of British Columbia is seeking to determine the impact of losses on the bee industry in Canada by surveying every beekeeper in the country.

“Tracking CCD here is more difficult than in the US, since some of the key indicators of CCD occur during early-season pollination, a time when much of [Alberta] is still under a foot of snow,” explains Alberta Agriculture & Food’s pest management branch head, Paul Laflamme.

Other symptoms, such as the seeming disappearance of most bees in a hive, are not present here at all. “What we tend to see is an increased level of mortality in winter and early spring in bee colonies,” says Pernal. “We’ve suffered incredible losses based on estimates [from] this winter. In Canada we’ve had 36, 35, 34 per cent losses—twice the normal rate and [approaching] US levels of loss. There was an estimated $41.8-million to $71.8-million lost by beekeepers in 2007 due to colony losses, loss of honey production, lost pollination contracts and replacement queens and colonies.”

As a result, the official government line remains that Alberta doesn’t have CCD—but it does have unsustainable losses from some of the same problems that cause CCD. “Some of the underlying causes have a great deal of commonality with the US and more broadly with the rest of the world,” says Pernal. And if the problems afflicting Alberta’s bees are indistinguishable from those afflicting bees in the US, it could easily be argued CCD is already here—just to a lesser extent.

The common causes of bee losses may not be completely understood, but neither are they as completely mysterious as the popular imagination has made them out to be. Urban legend has blamed cell phones, an idea since discounted. Echoing Carson’s warning in Silent Spring, a recent UK film titled Vanishing of the Bees blamed neonicotinoid pesticides.

Many researchers agree that a major culprit is the Varroa destructor mite, a tiny pest that infests hives and weakens domestic bees, making them more susceptible to disease and other problems. A spore called nosema that affects the midgut of bees may also be partly to blame. Once ingested by the bees, nosema explosively uncoils a long filament that penetrates and infects the bee’s gut, eventually completely colonizing the host and making it difficult for the bee to eat. A new form of nosema, called Nosema ceranae, affects bees even during summer when they can fly outside the hive most days. It’s more dangerous to bees than its more familiar cousin Nosema apis, which typically peaks during winter and early spring due to bees defecating on the comb inside the hive and infecting their fellows.

Other issues affecting hive health can include weak queens and poor weather. A combination of all of these factors is often at work. “Everyone hoped we’d find a brand new disease or pathogen,” says Pernal. “That is not the case.”

The good news is that if CCD is the result of known factors, it’s not impossible to treat. Here’s where Alberta ingenuity steps in. Speaking this spring at the Beaverlodge Research Farm—part of Agriculture Canada’s Lacombe Research Centre, the most northerly agricultural research facility in the country—provincial apiculturist Medhat Nasr delightedly told a room full of beekeepers from across Alberta and BC that the wild rose province is the sole region in Canada to beat the winterkill trend in 2010.

“Our winterkill went from 30 per cent to 17 per cent,” he said. “This is one of lowest [rates] in Canada, and even in North America; 80 per cent of our beekeepers are in the 10 per cent to 15 per cent range.” Nasr was dealing with early numbers, but with years of surveys in Alberta now completed and comparisons possible, his optimism seems justified. “We saw a big, big turnaround,” confirms Laflamme. “Our bees went into winter [2009] at their healthiest in years.”

Oddly enough, the answer to the global apicultural apocalypse may be as simple as a plastic jar. Alberta beekeepers had long told Nasr they needed a simpler, cheaper way to test for varroa mites. Nasr was in Peace River when he came up with the idea to check for mites using two jars put together.

“I got two Mason jars and glue from Canadian Tire,” remembers Nasr. When the metal glue didn’t work, Nasr asked hive inspector John Williamson to come up with a prototype, which eventually became plastic peanut butter jars with a metal screen between them. With that, a new—and distinctly Albertan—way of testing for mites was born.

“Before, it took two trips, three days apart, to test for mites, or you had to collect a sample and shake it for 15 minutes,” explains Nasr. To be accurate, the test had to be performed in a lab. “It was expensive and time consuming,” he says. By contrast, the Alberta jar method is simple, easy, and takes about 60 seconds. Bees are collected into the jar and simply shaken up with some alcohol. The tiny mites pass through the metal screen and are then counted, allowing beekeepers to calculate the percentage of mites in their hives and treat them accordingly.

The new jar testing method is also part of a larger program that focuses on teaching beekeepers to take more care in testing their bees for problems and treating those problems in order to make sure hives are strong and healthy as they head into winter. Experts are also educating beekeepers about how to look for nosema using a simple 400-power microscope.

“We switched the whole question from ‘Why did my bees die?’ to [a focus on] the bees’ health,” says Nasr. “I look at it this way. You go to the doctor for an annual checkup, and maybe he tells you that you have high blood pressure and you might have a heart attack. So you treat that before it becomes more of a problem. We used that example to apply to honeybees.”

The new honeybee surveillance program—wherein some 1,500 Alberta beekeepers were taught Nasr’s and Williamson’s jar method—required more funding, more staff at Alberta Agriculture and as many beekeepers as possible on board. “We made sure guys accepted a change in their way of thinking, that they had simple, inexpensive tools to use, and we provided education, education, education,” says Nasr. Access to the miticide Apivar was also important, with registration of the product now extended into 2011.

While not all local beekeepers were on board with the new program, all that were involved saw their losses drop back to normal. And the benefits keep on adding up. Only about 10 per cent of Alberta’s bees went into the 2007 winter healthy enough to survive it. In the fall of 2009 more than 80 per cent went into the winter healthy, thanks to local beekeepers consistently using the jar method.

This all happened even as other areas of the country were devastated. Vancouver Island beekeepers reportedly suffered a higher than 80 per cent loss rate last winter. Maybe that’s why Nasr can’t suppress a small grin talking about Alberta’s apparent breakthrough. “For the last three years we worked so hard to establish where we are now,” he says. “It was rewarding. I’m quite excited about our success.”

If Alberta has found the solution to CCD, there is no question that the world will want to know. Nasr already has invitations from several US states and Germany to talk about Alberta’s program.

Nasr is also cautious about Alberta’s success, however. Mites tend to develop resistance to the products used to kill them, he notes, especially if beekeepers don’t follow instructions on their labels. Often, “our tools run out of effectiveness due to resistance,” Nasr says. “Speaking about the future, is this enough? No, because resistance [may] develop again.”

Technological solutions also don’t address the larger issues of agricultural trade and policy. While the travel and communication opportunities afforded to industry specialists and scientists are facilitating international cooperation to determine the exact extent of problems and the nature of solutions, ironically that same mobility causes the continued spread of the diseases and pests that threaten bees.

“Globalization is very much a double-edged sword,” says Pernal. Beekeepers in Alberta depend on importing queens and packaged colonies from as far away as New Zealand and Hawaii ever since an import ban was lifted in 2004. The situation “is very political as well,” says Nasr. Just this spring, Canada’s borders slammed shut to Hawaiian bees after a discovery of small hive beetle infestation. While Nasr was able to work with Ottawa to get the border reopened to imports in only a week, similar problems could reoccur at any time.

Yet the border closure illustrates the crux of the problem: Canada has frequently had to deal with newly introduced threats that typically have come from south to north. The small hive beetle is from Africa. Nosema is also likely an import. New threats likely can and will arise, meaning bee health must be constantly monitored.

There may be an opportunity to help farmers—if not domesticated honeybees—by restoring farmland to a more wild state or converting cropland to pastureland. Wild bees nest in grass, soil and wood, and generally don’t require hives. The Varroa destructor mites that affect domesticated bees cause little effect to wild bees. A 2006 study from researchers at Simon Fraser University explores the extent to which more pastureland might restore wild bee populations, thereby reducing dependence on domesticated bees.

Another open question is the central problem of food security. The demand for pollination services in Alberta has grown faster than the stock of domestic honeybees. CCD in the US has only increased that demand, even as land clearance for crops that require pollination destroys the remaining habitat of wild pollinators. If the number of pollinators—and therefore crop yields—continues to decrease, prices could rise, perversely creating even more incentive to grow pollinator-dependent crops and possibly leading to even more land cleared for cultivation. Such a vicious cycle would mean that the pollination crisis may yet affect Alberta in a big way, whether we ever “officially” experience CCD or not.

The widespread use of DDT in the 1950s, dreadful as it was, inspired Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring. CCD, if it has done anything positive, has created better awareness of pollinator bees’ importance to the global food supply. Closer to home, the disease has served Albertans with an additional reminder—that bees remain an important component of our economy, enabling an industry worth billions of dollars annually and employing thousands of us in the collection of the fruits of their labours.

Susan Thompson is a freelance journalist from Peace River who happily shares an acreage with her neighbour’s honeybees.




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