Research, action aimed at saving bee population

This article by Brian Biesenthal was first published in the Chronicle Journal on Wednesday July 30, 2014.

The European or Western honey bee is the most widespread and domesticated of the honey bees. In recent years this honey bee has been in decline around the world. The Canadian Honey Council estimates that populations in Canada have dropped by about 35 per cent in the past three years.

     The European honey bee, Apis mellifera, is native to Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia and Europe. Honey bees in North America are subspecies of the European honey bee which was first introduced to this continent in the early 1600s. Records indicate honey bees were first used in Ontario around the 1830s.

     A honey bee colony typically consists of one queen bee, 50,000 or more worker bees (females), and in the summer a few hundred drones (males). A fertilized egg is laid by the queen in a beeswax cell that has been constructed by the ‘wax making’ workers. The egg hatches into a larva after three days and is fed by the ‘nurse’ workers for six days. The larva develops into a pupa that grows into a new bee and emerges twenty-one days after the egg was laid. The process with the drones is similar except the egg is not fertilized.  Queens are reared by workers by feeding young larvae a special diet of ‘royal jelly’, a milky food rich in protein.  A queen emerges from the pupa after only 16 days. Shortly thereafter she goes on a number of mating flights but then spends her four or five year life in the hive laying 2,000 or more eggs per day.

     Today honey bee populations face stresses from numerous different factors including parasites, loss of habitat, mono-cropping practices, and pesticide use. Feral hives in North America are for the most part gone due to loss of habitat in the south and cold winters in the north.

     The Slate River area of Thunder Bay has recently been invaded by Varroa mites. These mites were first recognized in Southeast Asia in 1904 and have now spread virtually worldwide entering North America in 1987. The Thunder Bay Beekeepers’ Association had fought them off for 25 years through the use of locally bred hygienic bees under the guidance of local beekeeper Jeanette Momot, but has unfortunately been overwhelmed by the accidental introduction of contaminated bees. Varroa mites are manageable. A recent survey of 37 of the local beekeepers revealed that 20 per cent have mites and that 70 per cent lost more than half of their hives over the winter. Mites are just one more stress factor as is a cold winter. 

     Given that a sizeable percentage of the food we eat is pollinated by honey bees, the global losses are of concern. The current prime suspect as the number one stress factor is the use of pesticides. Numerous studies link neonicotinoids and others to bee colony collapse disorder. Parts of Europe have imposed a moratorium on the use of neonictinoids. Ontario is planning to become the first province to restrict the use of a neonictinoids with a permit system. The Ontario Beekeepers’ Association is calling for an immediate moratorium on the sale of neonictinoid treated seeds with some limited use in specific cases.

     There is still considerable discussion regarding the worldwide loss of pollinators such as the honey bee. The American government has set up a panel to study pollinator and butterfly loss. Research is underway at Lakehead University on the possible connection between the honey bee’s lack of genetic diversity and colony collapse disorder.

     Part of the American program involves supporting the replacement of lost habitat through the planting of nectar rich plants. Locally, bird’s-foot trefoil, clovers and canola are good nectar sources. Canola production in the Slate River Valley is increasing. So far the canola in the area is disease free and so it will not be sprayed with pesticides around the time of flowering, while the bees are foraging. Those of us with gardens can ensure it is `bee friendly` - including a wide variety of native plants providing blooms throughout the growing season.  For more information visit environmentnorth.ca.

Brian Biesenthal is a beekeeper in the Slate River Valley and a member of the Thunder Bay Beekeepers Association (www.thunderbaybeekeepersassociation.ca).

The Ontario Beekeepers' Association is calling for an immediate moratorium on neonictinoid treated seed. They have written a very informative position statement:

  • "The widespread use of neonicotinoid seed treatments on vast acreages of field crops is not only putting the health of critical pollinators at risk, it is also discouraging farmers from using more pollinator-friendly practices like Integrated Pest Management and contributing to the evolutionary selection of resistant insects. ... However, as members of the agricultural community, we recognize that the limited use of pesticides when used with Integrated Pest Management and in a targeted manner may be necessary in some situations."
  •  click here for the full statement 112 KB. 

Websites for bee friendly gardens:

Idendification of North American subspecies of the European Honey Bee click here