Features / The New Farm

'Everyone is pitching in': Canadian beekeepers going all in for pollen

There are a record-breaking 800,000 honeybee colonies in active duty this year on Canadian farms. Here's how experts keep these perky pollinators healthy and happy.

Alberta beekeeper Kevin Nixon, president of the Canadian Honey Council, says things are looking up for bees everywhere.

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Alberta beekeeper Kevin Nixon, president of the Canadian Honey Council, says things are looking up for bees everywhere.

Canadians are paying huge attention to pollinator-friendly crops, flowers and weeds, in everything from farmers’ fields to backyard gardens and public spaces. And it’s making a difference in honeybees’ lives.

As researchers at the University of Guelph and elsewhere dig in to help ensure the country has healthy honeybees and other pollinators, Canadians everywhere are rolling up their sleeves to nurture the insects that keep us fed through pollination. It’s said that one of every three bites of food we consume is thanks to pollinators.

“It’s great that people are getting involved,” says Prof. Nigel Raine, who holds the Rebanks Family Chair in Pollinator Conservation at the university. “The health of our pollinators is essential for sustainable agriculture and supporting natural ecosystems.”

For example, in urban areas, environmental programs such as Bees Matter are equipping gardeners with helpful varieties of plants for pollinators. 

Kevin Nixon, an Alberta beekeeper and president of the Canadian honey Council, says there is a misunderstanding that the honeybee population is collapsing.

Elizabeth Cameron/Metro

Kevin Nixon, an Alberta beekeeper and president of the Canadian honey Council, says there is a misunderstanding that the honeybee population is collapsing.

And on Canadian farms, almost 800,000 honeybee colonies are in active duty this year. That’s about 10 per cent more than 2016, which was another record. In fact, the number of hives have been climbing since the late 1990s.

Western Canada is the source of about 80 per cent of Canada’s honey. The prairies are home to 500,000 hives and 20 million acres of canola, which is a major source of pollen and nectar for western Canadian bees.

In Ontario, honeybee losses due to pesticides at or around corn and soybean planting times are down. Farmers, who already provide the lion’s share of opportunities for pollinators, are employing even more pollinator-friendly production practices. After a disastrous 2014, overwintering loss rates for honeybee hives improved for the 2015 and 2016 winters.

Alberta beekeeper Kevin Nixon, president of the Canadian Honey Council, says things are looking up everywhere.

“There’s a misunderstanding that the honeybee population is collapsing, but that’s not true,” says Nixon, whose organization represents 9,500 beekeepers across Canada. “In cities and on farms, everyone is pitching in to save bees.”

Expert Nigel Raine suggests including a healthy selection of pollinating plants that can survive the entire growing season, such as beardtongue, red bud, pussy willow, bee balm, hyssop, wild lupine, black-eyed susan and milkweed.

ELIZABETH CAMERON/METRO

Expert Nigel Raine suggests including a healthy selection of pollinating plants that can survive the entire growing season, such as beardtongue, red bud, pussy willow, bee balm, hyssop, wild lupine, black-eyed susan and milkweed.

Adds Gregory Sekulic, an agronomist with the Canola Council of Canada.  “Farms and beekeepers everywhere are doing a great job. We’re seeing a lot of good beekeeping in this country.”

Honeybees still face a big problem, though, with nasty bloodsucking parasites called Varroa mites. They arrived from the US in the 1980s, and immediately started to harm the honeybee population. Beekeepers and researchers liken these mites to having a bloodsucker the size of a rabbit on your back, with no way to get it off.  In the hive, these mites weaken their victims and infect them with viruses that lead to disease.

Researchers at Guelph are making progress against the predators. But Raine says the drive for consistent tools to fight Varroa mites is “a constant quest” and calls for continued vigilance, as well as care for pollinators.

“Doing what we can as individuals and communities to provide the flowers pollinators need for food, and the places they need to nest, in our landscapes is as important now as it’s ever been,” he says.

                 

Native plants survive the best

Exotic plant species may struggle with Canada’s variable climate or produce little pollen or nectar. Guelph pollinator expert Nigel Raine suggests gardens include a healthy selection of native plants that can survive the entire growing season, such as beardtongue, red bud, pussy willow, bee balm, hyssop, wild lupine, black-eyed susan and milkweed.

Biodiversity, one acre at a time

More than 700 Canadian farmers and ranchers participate in a voluntary program called ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services). It helps fund small-scale ecological projects for clean water, air and pollinator-friendly biodiversity. ALUS is recruiting new participants now and hopes to have 25,000 acres of farmland in the program by 2018. 

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