Niagara beekeepers are losing honeybees at an alarming rate

Somer Slobodian and Maddy Gordon

After all of his honeybees mysteriously died, farmer Dave White had to completely reinvent his bee business.

“We started our hives with honey in the fall so they have food all winter long. (Then in) spring they were all dead,” said the owner of White Orchard Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

He lost all of his hives, instead of the usual one or two victims that normally fall in the winter.

A few years ago, he had 14 hives. Then there were 10. Last fall he had eight. Now there is none.

And oddly enough, there was no evidence to indicate what caused the bees’ demise.

“They just passed away. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen this. We’ve been doing it for about six years now,” he says.

It’s a widespread problem — and costly, about $4,000 in White’s case. But he’s not the only one. The problem is much bigger than one small operator in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

According to the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists’ colony loss reports, 45 percent of winter colonies across Canada have died. In Ontario, that rose to 47 percent.

White had to think of new ways to run his business. He recently brought in six nuclear colonies called bee nucs. Each contains about 20,000 bees and the purpose of the nucs is to serve as a springboard for a hive.

The nucs contain a queen, workers and eggs. They come in a box with four frames, which farmers then put in their beehives. White said the queen, along with the eggs and her workers, will regenerate the hive.

“It’s like starting all over again,” White said. “It’s kind of a boost instead of starting from scratch.”

If this works and the bees don’t die, he will bring in another 20 or 30 nucs next year.

“We’re going to step it up again,” he said.

The decline of honeybees is a problem that beekeepers have been warning the government about for years. Now, in 2022, millions of bees will be dead, leaving beekeepers stunned.

“What’s happening here in Niagara is the worst we’ve ever seen in bee deaths,” said George Scott, the director of Niagara Beeway, an organization that protects native wildlife.

No one knows exactly why the bees die. However, there are many factors that can contribute to their rapid decline, including pesticide use.

“Looking at how those bees died, we have no doubt that it was due to exposure to chemicals,” Scott said.

In Scott’s family, beekeeping is a multi-generational business. It’s in his blood.

Now his main consideration is, “How can we completely revolutionize and innovate our business so we can stay in business?”

“Or do we just stop and let food prices rise? Let the pollinator services fall apart?” he added.

Giving up beekeeping would be devastating, he said.

Niagara Beeway offers a free swarm rescue for residents of Niagara. It used to have five teams in Niagara, but now there are three left, another victim of the bee death.

‘For the first time in 22 years I have to fire people because we don’t have enough income. First time ever. Does anyone care?” said Scotsman.

The Varroa mite, a parasite that feeds on the honey bee, has also wiped out a large number of bees.

George Dubanow, president of the Niagara Beekeepers Association, said beekeepers should start treating the Varroa mite in early August rather than September because of climate change.

Beekeepers are frustrated with the way the federal government is handling the situation. Or rather, how the government has not dealt with the situation.

“The government isn’t very willing to cooperate, to figure out (the cause) or to do some lab testing and things like that,” said Ed Unger of BY’s Honey Farm at Concession 6 in Niagara-on-the-Meer.

BY can only supply about half of people seeking honey, he said.

Unger also teaches beekeeping classes, but due to the bee shortage, there aren’t enough bees for the students to work with.

Scott said Niagara Beeway wants help from Global Affairs Canada, but when the department talks to beekeepers across the country, provinces don’t seem to agree on a strategy.

Imports of “fake” honey are a major concern and Scott said Niagara beekeepers want Global Affairs to take over enforcement from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it takes honey adulteration and food fraud seriously.

The agency said it is working to reduce the risk of food fraud by verifying that the industry complies with Canadian regulatory requirements, a CFIA spokesperson told The Lake Report via email.

Nephoning is made with diluted real honey with syrups such as high fructose corn syrup or beet syrup, according to the media site Insider.com. Or, fake phoning can be created when manufacturers chemically alter the sugars in syrups to make them resemble real honey.

The prices of fake honey were lower than those of real honey, which has consequences for beekeepers and their business.

“Misrepresenting food can damage the industry’s reputation and harm compliant food companies as they compete with counterfeit products that can be produced more cheaply,” the CFIA spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Scott is concerned about the amount of fake phone being sold in stores and how it affects the industry.

And beekeepers can’t pinpoint exactly why they’re losing entire colonies of bees, uncertainty that has worried many of them, he said.

“At this particular point, beekeepers are the only thing that disappears faster than the honeybees.”

Somer Slobodian, reporter for the local journalism initiative, The Lake Report

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