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Winter a killer for honeybees

Survival rate was only 76 per cent

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Bee keeper Jim Campbell keeps bees near Stonewall, Manitoba. A new report states nearly one quarter of Manitoba's honey-bee colonies didn't survive last winter, but an industry official says that's still a big improvement from a year earlier.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Bee keeper Jim Campbell keeps bees near Stonewall, Manitoba. A new report states nearly one quarter of Manitoba's honey-bee colonies didn't survive last winter, but an industry official says that's still a big improvement from a year earlier. Photo Store

A NEW report states nearly one quarter of Manitoba's honey-bee colonies didn't survive last winter, but an industry official says that's still a big improvement from a year earlier.

The report from the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA) says a survey of Canadian beekeepers found about 24 per cent of Manitoba's 71,000 bee colonies -- about 17,040 in total -- perished during the unusually long, cold winter of 2013-14.

While that's higher than Manitoba's long-term average of about 20 per cent, it's still a big improvement from the winter of 2012-13 when 46 per cent of the province's colonies died, said Rhéal Lafrenière, Manitoba's provincial apiarist.

It's also well below Ontario's country-leading 58 per cent bee-mortality rate for last winter.

Lafrenière said local beekeepers cited bad weather -- an usually long, cold winter and a cold, wet spring -- starvation, and weak queen bees as the three biggest contributing factors to this year's overwintering losses. Others included mites, viruses and pesticides, which weaken the bees and hinder their ability to survive a harsh weather.

"But what really makes or breaks it for most hives is the weather," he added.

Jim Campbell, a Stonewall-area beekeeper and secretary for the Manitoba Beekeepers Association (MBA), got through the winter without losing any of his 10 colonies. The previous winter he lost one.

Campbell attributed his good fortune to letting his bees feed on honey all winter, rather than corn syrup or sugar and water.

"I feel it's more natural for them."

He said he can do that because he only had a few colonies. Most big operations don't have the same luxury.

MBA president Allan Campbell, for example, has about 3,000 bee colonies in his Dauphin-area operation.

He said he only lost 10 to 12 per cent of his bees this past winter, but that's because he wintered them in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, where the winters are considerably warmer. The previous winter he kept them here, and he lost nearly 80 per cent of them.

He said few Manitoba beekeepers take their bees out of province -- there were just two this past winter -- because of the cost involved and the time they would have to spend away from home looking after them.

"It's pretty tough on your family life."

Last winter was the first time Campbell has taken his bees to British Columbia, but he plans to do the same thing next winter.

He said he was able to offset some of his costs by renting out his bees this past spring to orchard operators in the Okanagan Valley and to blueberry growers in the lower mainland area, before bringing them back to Manitoba for the summer.

Allan Campbell and Lafrenière said despite the late arrival of spring, this year could still be a good one for honey production in Manitoba. They said canola crops were planted later and at different times this year, depending on how soon fields became dry enough to seed. So the crops are flowering at different times, which will lengthen the pollination season for bees and hopefully enable them to produce more honey.

"The early reports I'm getting is that beekeepers are pretty optimistic," Lafrenière added.

He said although last winter was even colder and longer than the previous one, the losses in 2012-13 were heavier because the 2012 crops were seeded earlier and harvested earlier.

"So there weren't a lot of resources left (in the fall) for the bees to kind of prepare for the winter."

He said that wasn't the case last fall, with harvest ending later and many farmers enjoying bumper crops. "So they (bee colonies) had an opportunity to get ready for a long winter."

He said some beekeepers have been rebuilding their operations by splitting up some of their surviving colonies. Although he won't know how successful that was until the next beekeeper survey this fall, "all indications are that colony development and the making of new hives seemed to go quite well this year."

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 B6

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Updated on Thursday, July 24, 2014 at 10:27 AM CDT: Adds photos, chart

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