Articles to read
Beekeepers refuse to put thousands of colonies in Fraser Valley blueberry fields
by Larry Pynn - April 2, 2018
Photo I: John Gibeau, president of the Honeybee Centre, with commercial hives on a property in Surrey on March 29. - by Gerry Kahrmann
Video: Perfect storm causing tragic fate for Lower Mainland bees Video
Beekeepers, including major operators from Alberta, are refusing to put thousands of their colonies in the Fraser Valley this spring due to health concerns related to blueberry pollination. That decision is predicted to cost blueberry farmers millions of dollars in lost production.
“It could be a big problem for blueberry growers,” said Kerry Clark, president of the B.C. Honey Producers’ Association. “If you don’t have bees, you don’t get berries … all that investment in the fields won’t produce.”
Honeybees get nectar to produce honey and pollen to fuel their population. Blueberry flowers that aren’t pollinated will fall to the ground and not produce fruit.
It’s been known for decades that blueberries — a monoculture crop that can cover vast areas — doesn’t offer honeybees the greatest nutrition, making them more susceptible to disease, such as European foulbrood, a bacterial illness that affects honeybee larvae.
“It’s a single fruit,” said Clark, retired from the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and living in Dawson Creek. “It’s like going to a buffet and the only thing there is salsa. It doesn’t give you a balanced diet.”
In recent years, some honey producers have expressed concern that other factors might be at play, including the potential for fungicides to affect bee health, especially during a wetter spring, Clark said.
“Over the last few years, the big operators of bee colonies … have started to notice that the ones that went to the blueberry fields were not performing as well as the ones that didn’t. They were sick.
“It’s become less and less attractive, to the point where the beekeepers have decided not to bring thousands of colonies into the blueberries this year.”
A $120,000 study is being launched to determine whether the concerns of the beekeepers are valid and, if so, what can be done about it. “We’re looking for answers and solutions,” Clark said.
Marta Guarna, the federal research scientist heading the study, noted that Canada’s blueberries are grown in wild lowbush and cultivated highbush varieties, and that most cultivated blueberries are produced in B.C.
The study will monitor colonies with and without nutritional supplements (protein patties) before and after they pollinate blueberries. Colonies will be inspected to determine their strength and disease status.
Risk factors in addition to nutrition and chemicals may include the amino-acid composition and acidity of blueberry pollen combined with a lack of alternative foraging sources.
Paul van Westendorp, a provincial apiculturist, said there is no scientific proof directly linking blueberry fungicides to poor honeybee health and increased susceptibility to disease from which they don’t recover throughout the pollination season. “There is wild speculation going on …,” he said. “It’s not proven. We don’t have the scientific data to back it up.”
Besides the private honey/pollination sector, study partners include the University of B.C., Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the National Bee Diagnostic Centre and the Ministry of Agriculture apiculture program.
So far, the blueberry industry hasn’t stepped up to the plate despite having so much at stake. Anju Gill, executive director of the B.C. Blueberry Council, couldn’t be reached at her Abbotsford office.
Some beekeepers feel that the concerns are overblown and suggest that wet springs — like last year — simply result in reduced productivity. Hope for a better year is always just around the corner.
“It’s much ado about nothing,” argued John Gibeau of the Honeybee Centre in Surrey, the Fraser Valley’s top blueberry-pollinator operation. “If it’s nice weather we do well. If it’s poor weather we do poorly. That’s farming. You ride it through. And in good years, you take advantage.”
Gibeau said he manages more than 6,000 colonies, 1,400 his own and the rest from Alberta and Manitoba. Due to increased blueberry production, the net shortage to his operation should be about 2,000 hives. He estimates a drop of 5,000 hives overall from the 45,000 typically employed across the Fraser Valley, resulting in a loss of $500,000 to beekeepers in pollination services, plus $12.5 million in lost blueberry production.
“There’s definitely going to be a shortage of bees in blueberries this year. It will be worse this year. The plants will be there, but the bees won’t be there to pollinate them, so they won’t get the berries,” he said.
The Ministry of Agriculture reports that B.C. blueberry farmers in 2016 generated more than $151 million (58 per cent) of Canada’s farm cash receipts in blueberries, ranking B.C. tops in the nation.
B.C. farmers cultivated more than 9,500 hectares of blueberries, 96 per cent of those in the Lower Mainland-Southwest region. In 2016, about 82,000 tonnes of blueberries were harvested from B.C. farms.
Gibeau said that due to the forthcoming shortage, beekeepers may be able to hike their fees to $120 from $100-per-colony-per-pollination season, although some are locked into multi-year contracts with farmers.
Native bumblebees are better pollinators than the European honeybees used by beekeepers, but there are simply not enough to go around.
Larry Pynn, Vancouver, BC
Award-winning Environment Reporter for The Vancouver Sun.
Author of two non-fiction books, "Last Stands: A Journey Through North America's Vanishing Ancient Rainforests" 212 pages - publisher: Oregon State University Press (Dec 1 1999) and "The Forgotten Trail: One Man's Adventures on the Canadian Route to the Klondike" 235 pages - 235 pages
publisher: Doubleday Canada; 1st Edition edition (Oct. 1 1996)
He lives in Tsawwassen, British Columbia.
Member of the Explorers Club.