A healthy hive comes through the winter with lots of bees left alive and honey left. (Neil Corbett/THE NEWS)

Bees facing high mortality after long, hard winter

Some Pitt Meadows beekeepers seeing half of their hives die

Following a tough summer and fall, when wasps attacked their hives, beekeepers around the Lower Mainland endured a long winter.

They were left with more dead hives.

“We’ve all facing the same thing right now – there’s a massive die-off of hives over the winter,” said Christian Hall, of West Coast Bee Supply in Pitt Meadows.

He said there is always some mortality after a winter, but 2019 has been particularly tough.

Hall has been a blueberry and cranberry farmer for 20 years and started an apiary to pollinate his crops. It made a big difference in the success of his farm. Six years ago, he added commercial beekeeping to his farming and said he loves working with bees.

“I’ve always had great success over the last five years,” he said.

But last fall, he opened hives to find some had lost battles with wasps. They were rampant after a long, hot summer left wasp populations swollen. A strong hive of bees can defend itself, but wasps will identify weakened hives and kill bees for their honey, he explained.

Now a long, hard winter has killed off more hives. He doesn’t know the exact mortality rate yet, but based on examining some of his hives, he expects some beekeepers will lose half of them.

“This has been an exceptionally hard winter for bees,” said Scott Gordon, a provincial apiary inspector for the Fraser Valley who also operates Bee Natural Apiaries in Pitt Meadows.

He said some operators are left with 50 per cent mortality – half of their boxes of bees are dead.

“Even some of the better commercial operators are reporting higher than normal mortality,” he said.

His own hives are at 15-20 per cent mortality based on what he has seen so far, which is about double the typical winter die-off he anticipates.

Gordon said mites are the largest problem, because they attack hives and carry diseases with them. Also, spraying crops with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides all contribute to weakening bee hives, and a diminished hive has a tough time surviving the winter.

Gordon inspects for diseases and will get busy as spring begins.

Earlier last week he was in Richmond speaking to a beekeepers club and also heard many wasp complaints. But he said wasps can’t defeat healthy hives, so it is disease, crop spraying and other factors that must be dealt with.

“Wasps are only culling the colonies that are already weakened,” he said. “In general, I don’t have too much concern about wasps.”

While there has been much concern about diminishing numbers of bees in recent years, he said beekeepers are generally keeping their numbers strong.

“There are a lot of pressures on commercial bee stock, but over the last 10 years I’m not seeing a decline.”

Ron Lin agrees with that. The proprietor of Dr. Bee in Pitt Meadows opened up a hive on Wednesday afternoon and was pleased to see large numbers of bees had survived the winter, and they still had honey to consume.

He has thousands of hives across the region, has been in operation for more than 20 years, and said he concentrates on leaving his hives with lots of honey to feed on over a long winter, and keeping them well insulated against the cold.

In general, he said disease is the real enemy of bees, and keeping hives strong allows them to weather other hazards like wasps and winters.

Lin teaches beekeeping from hobbyist to a commercial level of expertise. He said his students feel a sense of social responsibility, and “they just feel the bees are amazing.”

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