Saturday May 29 has been designated “The Day of the Honeybee” by the province of B.C and at least a dozen municipal councils including Cranbrook, and it’s none too soon as far as local bee inspector Lance Cuthill is concerned.
Cuthill, who inspects local hives for the Ministry of the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, says the bee population in the province has been declining drastically in recent years and no one is exactly sure why.
“It’s a mystery. We’re very concerned about the losses and if we lose the honeybee you can say good-bye to fruit and nuts and any seed crop that requires pollination. That’s why we’re having The Day of the Honeybee. We’ve got to make the public aware of how important the honey bee is to us.”
Cuthill says investigators are trying to determine if bee colonies in the province are suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which has been affecting commercial hives in the U.S. in a big way and is feared to be heading north.
“Whatever happens in the U.S., it usually runs six or eight years before it hits here.” But beekeepers in the province, including the 150 or so in the Kootenays, don’t want it to happen here, Cuthill says.
Currently the situation is worse in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island where some of the province’s biggest colonies are located and the rate of bee population decline is the greatest. Over-wintering losses in the Cowichan Valley have been as high as 100 per cent when such losses normally number no more than seven or eight per cent.
The situation on the Island is now being investigated very closely but no one is yet saying for sure that it’s CCD, says Cuthill. Other possible causes include the Varroa Mite from Asia, heavy pesticide usage and bees with compromised immune systems.
“Whatever it is, there’s going to be no silver bullet that is going to fix this,” Cuthill says.
In the Kootenays, colonies are also collapsing at an alarming rate in the Creston Valley area, which in the past has been the prime bee raising area in the region because of it’s mild winters and large agriculture industry. Over-wintering losses near Creston have been as high as 50 per cent.
Bees also pollinate many of the grasses and grains that cattle feed on which makes them critically important to the agricultural industry as well, he says. “Every third bite we eat is connected with pollination by bees. If we lost that, we lose everything.”
In 2009, there were 1,745 be-keepers in B.C., a total that’s been dropping for the past five years. The 2009 crop was about 2.6 million pounds with a market value of more than $7.5 million. But the estimated total value of bees to Canadian agriculture is more than $800 million.
Despite the concern about colony collapse and its possible causes and a decline in the number of bee keepers in B.C. new people have been taking up bee keeping in recent years in the Kootenay which is at least one ray of hope in the troubled bee picture.
Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are indigenous to the Mediterranean region and were originally imported to North America from Europe. They normally thrive in temperate climates and consist of as many as 60,000 bees in a colony with one fertile queen as well as numerous female workers and drones.
Honey bees survive the winter by packing themselves in a tight, rotating cluster at the bottom of the hive and flapping their wings and moving their legs to keep warm. In the process of doing this, they may consume more than 70 pounds of honey over the winter, says Cuthill.
With CCD now affecting honeybees in parts of both North America and Europe, it’s more important than ever to find the cause of the malady and somehow over come it.
This may be difficult to do, but in the meantime Cuthill says there is one main thing that should be done. “The real answer is to get more small bee keepers and then we would have more biological diversity in raising bees.”