Alberta has more bees than any other province, but not for long.
John McDonald/the Gauntlet

Bees with disease bring farmers to their knees

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With winter just around the corner, Alberta bee farmers can expect a sharp decline in their honeybee populations this year.

Alberta has over 250,000 bee colonies, surpassing the number of bees in any other province. It is estimated that Alberta's honeybee population is declining by 30 per cent while the U.S. is experiencing a large decline of over 36 per cent.

According to Vancouver-based bee expert and Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue director Mark Winston, man and not nature is contributing to this major problem in North America.

"By overusing chemicals [to exterminate bee-threatening mites] we've put ourselves in a position where we don't have treatments that are available and effective," said Winston. "You have catastrophic losses in colonies which makes beekeeping an uneconomic profession. I would say beekeeping has a very dim future."

Winston also said that warm and wet temperatures cause bees to become increasingly active during what should be the coldest season. As a result, honeybees are quickly dying as they eat their entire honey supply during the winter.

He added that another leading cause in Alberta bee deaths is the varroa mite, a large, blood-sucking parasite that feeds off the weakest honeybees. The mite leads to destruction of the entire bee colony in approximately one to two years.

"You hear a lot of colony losses have to do with viruses," said Winston. "They only become active when the colonies are excessively stressed and what happens is the varroa mites are one of those stresses that activate viruses."

University of Calgary entomology professor Robert Longair said honeybees have also been affected by less serious tracheal mites. These mites clog the breathing tubes of bees, causing death.

"If you have one diseased colony and there's mixing going on, you can get transmission of these parasites and pathogens from colony to colony," said Longair. "There's always concern that if you bring in certain types of bees from certain places, you may bring in a new disease or parasite that you can't control."

Many bee experts blame the alarming death rate of honeybees on Colony Collapse Disorder. The condition is described by scientists as a mysterious phenomenon in which adult bees suddenly disappear from their hives and abandon larvae and pupae.

"Normally the workers never leave a colony if there are capped cells with the young ones with it," he explained. "That's why people are referring to this as the disappearing of bees. They don't actually find big piles of dead bees, they just aren't there anymore."

Nosema, an intestinal disease, is also a leading culprit of honeybee deaths.

Like Longair, Winston believes that humans can prevent beehives from fully collapsing. In turn, honeybees can pollinate agricultural crops and prevent bee farmers from becoming bankrupt.

"Bees support each other," said Winston. "Bees without us would do just fine. The problems we're seeing in beekeeping today are completely human caused and they are all avoidable."