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Council buzzes about urban beekeeping

Gerbasi suggests allowing apiaries

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Winnipeg may review its ban on urban beekeeping in light of concerns a significant number of honeybees are dying.

Next week, council's protection and community services committee will discuss a recommendation that calls on Winnipeg to examine whether its existing bylaw could be changed to allow people to keep honeybees within city limits.

Beekeeping is restricted under the exotic animal bylaw, which does not allow Winnipeg residents to keep things such as venomous snakes, monkeys, sheep, horses or other animals that could be a nuisance in a city.

Apiaries are not allowed in commercial or residential neighbourhoods, and bees can only be housed on urban areas zoned for agriculture, such as the University of Manitoba agricultural research field.

Coun. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) called for the exotic animal bylaw review at a recent city centre community committee meeting. Gerbasi is out of the country and could not be reached for comment but Coun. John Orlikow (River Heights) said in an email that bees are critical to the ecosystem and their populations are in serious decline.

Manitoba beekeepers have said in recent years they've lost about 30 per cent of their bees every year, in part due to a parasitic pest and bees' weakened immune systems. Bees help pollinate everything from blueberries and canola crops to backyard gardens and flowers and contribute about $1 billion to the Canadian economy every year.

"For the past three years, we've had significant losses over winter," Manitoba Beekeepers' Association secretary Jim Campbell said. "Bees are dying."

Campbell said part of the reason more bees are dying is the migration of the varroa mite, which attacks honeybees. The pest first spread from bees in Asia and Europe to the U.S. in the mid-1980s. Campbell said the mite attaches to bees and feeds on them, which weakens their immune systems and makes them more susceptible to other diseases.

Chemical pesticides have also had an impact, he said.

Industries that rely on pollination -- such as almond producers in California -- have had trouble finding enough bees to help grow their crops, Campbell said. Alberta has brought in bees from elsewhere in Canada to pollinate canola fields and a New Brunswick blueberry grower recently sought Manitoba bees to pollinate fruit crops on the east coast, he said.

Last year, the average Manitoba bee colony lost 34 per cent of its bees over winter.

U of M entomologist Rob Currie said the average bee loss was between five and 15 per cent before the mite arrived.

Other cities, such as Vancouver, have amended their bylaws to allow urban beekeeping to boost the bee population, Currie said. Doing so in Winnipeg would be a positive step and would help pollinate plants within the city, he said.

The City of Vancouver stipulates residents may only keep two beehives and must ensure a six-foot-high fence or hedge surrounds their property. That ensures the bees' flight paths don't interfere with people, Currie said.

"I think it would be a positive thing," he said. "I think some people may have fears associated with bees but for the most part, there shouldn't be any major concern."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2012 A6

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