I thought that there can’t possibly be so many people curious about beekeeping. But there are. It’s great to see lots of folks interested in bees, ecology, the environment, and the sport of beekeeping. But the numbers amaze me.
New beekeepers keep signing up. In the fall, I helped teach an introductory beekeeping course which had 60 Calgary-area folks enrolled. During the 2-day course, I asked how many of the 60 already had bees. No one. None. Nary and not a single hand up. This spring, all will likely be beekeepers. And so it grows.
Last week, the Calgary and District Beekeepers held its monthly meeting. I’m not a director, executive, nor was I a speaker at last night’s program. Instead, I had a chance to relax, listen, learn, and count bees’ wings. I sat with 180 (!!) other beekeepers in attendance. Holy bee smokers.
Our keynote speaker was Dr Medhat Nasr. He’s our provincial chief apiarist. He has the unenviable task of satisfying the beekeeping needs of the keepers of 310,000 colonies of Alberta bees in the most productive honey jurisdiction in North America.
A few highlights from Medhat’s presentation.
Soon, antibiotics will no longer be sold alongside hive tools and smokers. This is a federal law – not specific to just Alberta. It affects beekeepers across Canada. In fact, this new regulation will help Canada align with American rules as well as the statutes in Europe, Latin America, and most of the rest of the world. Meds will need to be prescribed by vets. Diseases such as AFB and nosema and pests like varroa will need to be active and diagnosed before magic powder is dusted around the hive. This change recognizes that indiscriminate use of medications reduces their potency and promotes evolved resistance in pests.
Our chief apiary inspector has already met with veterinarian groups to help design a course of study for future grads which will include bee disease studies. This is new for us. Although honey bee health has long been part of the curriculum elsewhere in the world, North American vet schools are just beginning to teach it here.
British Columbia is much milder than Alberta in the winter. Rather than letting bees sit on the frozen prairies, about 15% of Alberta hives spend the winter near the Pacific coast. An inaccurate contrast is illustrated in the photos to your left.
In the winter, it’s cool and rainy in BC’s lower mainland (the area broadly around Vancouver) but whenever the sun comes out, bees gather pollen. In Alberta in winter, whenever the sun comes out, bees cower ever more deeply in the dark nethers of their wrapped snow-clad hives. In BC, bees build up early, nucs can be spun off in April, and sometimes cash can be earned hauling bees into apple orchards. Bees in BC survive winter better and increases are made (rather than losses taken). However, BC’s milder weather and longer seasons can spread pests.
The chief apiary inspectors of each province enforce biosecurity rules for provincial bee movement. Before bringing nucs or hives from Saskatchewan or British Columbia, the following criteria need to be met:
Bees must be inspected in the originating province;
An import permit from the government of Alberta must be issued by Dr Nasr;
Colonies free of American Foul Brood;
Colonies must have varroa counts below 3%;
There must be no hive beetles;
Importing beekeeper needs an inspection certificate.
Alberta beekeepers continue to import bees from abroad. Although valiant attempts have been made to develop a home-grown queen and nuc business, Canadian breeders continue to sell fewer than five percent of the queens sold in the country. The rest come in from Chile, Hawaii, and New Zealand.
One Alberta beekeeper imports tens of thousands of packages from New Zealand. At over $200 each, it starts to look like real money. One the companies that collects a bit of that Canadian cash is Arataki bee farm in New Zealand. This video gives you an idea of what’s involved in the production and shipment of bees from the other side of the world.
Medhat told us that anti-AFB antibiotics have not been used at the government research apiaries for years. This is certainly encouraging. While we hear about resistant American Foul Brood, we also learn that bees can be kept in Alberta without AFB medications. It’s a lot harder to monitor foulbrood and clean up infections than it is to dump medications into the brood nest, but I’m sure we will learn to keep our bees clean.
The most memorable moment from Medhat’s bee talk was surely the clip of small hive beetle larvae running amok in an Ontario bee hive. The sheer yuck factor was 12.7 out of a maximum of 10. Good thing food wasn’t being served while the video played. But the little movie with all the wigglers was a good way to convince beekeepers to monitor for the messy beetle and not sneak uninspected bees into Alberta from BC or Ontario. At the moment, SHB has not been spotted in Alberta.
In discussing varroa, Dr Medhat Nasr reminded us that the real issue is the role the mite plays in spreading viruses. The mite is a nasty blood-sucking creature, but it also functions as a virus vector. This seems to cause the most harm. We don’t directly fight Zika virus (for example) but try to eliminate mosquitoes. Similarly, we want to eliminate mites to reduce bee viruses.
From this, we were walked through the problems with resistance to the varroa-fighting pesticides we’ve used in the past. Although they remain less difficult to administer and relatively cheap, the strips are being supplemented by somewhat natural treatment systems which aren’t likely to result in resistant mites. Medhat described screened bottom boards (which might kill 10% of the mites), essential oils (not very effective), oxalic and formic acids (may work quite well), and hops products.
As usual after a bee disease and pest management talk, beekeepers were a bit glum. But that passes quickly and we carry on better informed than before.