Vigilance required to ensure Quebec bee health, says expert

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Quebec beekeepers have experienced abnormal losses of their colonies this spring.

Are these incidents, or does this point to a more worrisome situation for the future of honey bees, also known as domestic bees?

Data on the mortality of these pollinating insects in 2021-2022, expected in July, should answer this question, but the testimonies reported in recent weeks by some producers are reminding the province of the fragility of bee populations, as well as that of the 350 native species living in Quebec, as World Bee Day approaches on May 20.

For the past 10 to 15 years, Canadian and Quebec beekeepers have been noticing an average of 20 to 35 per cent of their colonies dying after winter. This is two to five times higher than normal, says Maxime Gauthier, a doctoral student in environmental toxicology at UQAM and Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1.

He said, this year, beekeepers have reported an "alarming" number of losses, of between 60 and 85 per cent of their hives.

"This can be quite devastating for a beekeeper when, at the end of winter, he realizes that he has lost 85 per cent of his colonies. On a stock of 100 hives, there are 15 left, so the economic pressure is very important for them," said Gauthier.

Data from the Canadian Association of Professional Apiarists will soon confirm whether this trend is being observed on a national scale.

"If we average over 30 or 35 per cent (of deaths) in Quebec, it will be a record year," said Gauthier. "We will really have to ask ourselves questions.

"It will be a clear message that we need to put our efforts in the right places because despite existing strategies, the situation does not seem to have improved over the past 15 years."

There are many reasons for bee losses.

Gauther explained that, first and foremost, climate change is being blamed with the province experiencing very harsh winters, wet autumns and very high summer temperatures.

Exposure to pesticides is also one of the main factors, including the presence of bacteria and viruses in bees or monocultures that offer low floral diversity, the doctoral student said.

However, Gauthier said honeybees are not necessarily under threat of extinction because beekeepers keep them alive "in a semi-artificial way."

"They will have recourse to the duplication of their colonies to try to compensate in part for the mortality," said Maxime Gauthier.

According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the number of colonies has increased in the province since 2004 to reach about 55,000 in 2020.

SPECIES AT RISK OF EXTINCTION

Beekeeping methods, however, do not benefit the hundreds of native species that are equally important for pollination.

Their future is much less rosy, as they do not benefit from as rigorous monitoring as their domestic cousins.

"In these species, we could see extinctions as has already happened in some countries," said Gauthier.

Canada has 970 species of native bees, including over 350 in Quebec. Among the different families of bees, there are notably Andrenes, Megachilles, Hallictidae and Apidae.

INDIVIDUAL ACTIONS

Each person can try to do his or her part to save the various bee populations, which contribute directly or indirectly to more or less 40 per cent of Quebec's food products, according to the Apiculteurs et Apicultrices du Québec website.

Gauthier suggests having native Quebec flowering plants that are pollinators to improve the bees' food. He also encourages leaving dandelions to grow, despite their reputation as weeds, as they represent "little pantries" for bees, being a source of pollen and nectar.

Gauthier also recommends installing small troughs, such as bowls, with water and small balls for them to rest on. With this access to water, the bees can both refresh themselves and cool their hive during very hot weather.

Limiting the use of pesticides for lawns and flowers is also a preferred action, he concludes.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on May 15, 2022. 

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