Desperate times call for desperate measures. That’s why, in 2012, when 150 of beekeeper Bill Termeer’s 3,000 hives were stolen, he immediately suspected another commercial beekeeper.

Termeer and other beekeepers around Peace River had seen years of catastrophic populationlosses over the winters in the mid-2000s, when anywhere from 40 to 45 per cent of their bees died off each year. The sheer hopelessness of the situation, and the financial consequences that followed, could have driven one of his competitors to steal his hives to compensate for his own losses. Termeer estimated that the theft cost him $60,000 in lost hives, equipment and honey – and those weren’t covered by insurance. The culprit was never found.

It’s no secret that bees, which are prized both for their ability to produce honey and their crucial role as pollinators for a wide range of agriculture crops, are under threat. But it’s not just from covetous beekeepers with an eye for their neighbours’ hives. Colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition in which normally ­communal-minded bees turn into suicidal hive-­abandoners, has become a major concern for both beekeepers and the industries and people that ­depend on their labour. In Canada, one of the key frontlines in the fight to better understand and protect the bee is here in Alberta, where nearly 200,000 hives crank out 40 per cent of the country’s honey.

It’s not easy being a bee, either. They have to deal with a wide variety of potentially lethal risks, from mites and viruses to a widely used class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids (or neonics), which are known to be disruptive to their nervous and immune systems. Jerry Hayes, the honeybee health lead at Monsanto, explains how this happens. “The honeybee, individually, is just a bug,” he says. “Communally, it’s a super organism. When a bee is feeling sick” – because it’s plagued by varroa mites, viruses, nutritional issues or is reacting to pesticides – “it leaves the colony so that it doesn’t expose its sisters to the illness. Bees will go out into the environment and sacrifice themselves.” When this happens over a short period of time and only a handful of bees and queens remain, it’s considered CCD. In Ontario, where overwinter losses have been as high as 60 per cent, beekeeping advocates, with the belief that the use of neonics are behind CCD, have been pushing for a ban on the sale of the pesticide.

But not all bee die-offs are a result of CCD. In the case of Ontario’s 58 per cent overwinter kill in 2013 and Alberta’s two particularly bad years a few years earlier (when overkill rates approached one in two), some experts point to something far less mysterious: prolonged cold weather. That’s why Hayes prefers to talk about honeybee health more holistically, seeing it as a complex relationship that involves managing varroa mites (the control of which could improve bee health by 70 to 80 per cent, Hayes says) and other pests, pesticides, nutrition and hive management.

Medhat Nasr, meanwhile, says improvements to overwinter kill rates can be made by helping beekeepers raise their game. Nasr has been Alberta’s provincial apiarist since the mid-2000s, when he oversaw a campaign to investigate all aspects of the then-catastrophic losses beekeepers were facing and ensure that they were aware of best practices in the industry. “We hired people to go out into the field and sample the hives in front of the beekeepers,” Nasr says. “If they found issues, they’d point them out to the beekeepers.”

Photographs Ryan Girard

Beekeepers, Nasr found, were initially skeptical of and resistant to the new methods. He describes it as an, “I do what I do every year, I don’t want to change” attitude. As time passed, however, so did the resistance to change. Nasr says drastic improvements in how many bees survived the winter, “made [beekeepers] value [the] monitoring and surveillance” that he was introducing. “I used to get 3,000 calls a year. ‘Medhat, my bees died. Do you know why?’ My answer? ‘I’m not your wife. I don’t know what you did last year.’ ”

Nasr says the notion that what happened last year is decisive to the year ahead is pivotal. If the bees are properly fed in the fall and medicated when the first signs of sickness appear, they stand a better chance of making it through the winter. Newer strategies have involved treating bees with Apivar, a varroa mite treatment, in the spring to improve their year-round immune response. Each year, the government publishes an extensive report of its monitoring called the Alberta Honey Bee Survey of Winterkill. “Now when I get phone calls, it’s a few guys with 80 per cent ­losses,” he says. “They say, ‘Medhat, I’m sorry I lost my bees. I did a shortcut and my bees didn’t survive.’”

There was a time that apiarists in Alberta didn’t even bother overwintering their hives. Each spring, they’d simply buy new hives from the U.S. and start anew. It was cheaper to buy whole hives, or “packages,” than to put the effort in to overwinter and possibly suffer 50 per cent losses. And those hives were cheap – $40 or $50 back in the 1980s. (The hives that beekeepers now bring in from New Zealand and elsewhere run in the $150 range.)

In 1987, however, everything changed. The Canadian government, fearing that Africanized bees (also known as “killer bees”) would enter into the gene pool of Canada’s bees, shut the border to all imports. Later, the threat of varroa mites, which render bees anemic and compromise their immune systems, became clear – as did the fact that these mites were rapidly developing immunity to treatment methods. The decision kept Canadian bees isolated from the dangerous bee genetics, bee parasites and parasitic immunities developing south of the border, but it also demanded a major shift in how beekeepers did business. First and foremost, they suddenly had to learn how to keep their bees alive over the winter.

Tim Townsend, who keeps just over 3,000 hives at TPLR Honey Farms near Stony Plain, Alberta, was one of the first beekeepers to explore overwintering hives. He spent a season in New Zealand, where many beekeepers purchase their hives, in the 1970s and started experimenting with overwintering in 1979. Back then, it was not common practice. “There were a few guys playing with it, but that was it,” he says. His operation, which now ships honey exclusively to Japan, made it, but many beekeeping families did not.

The secret to his success? Knowledge. “Beekeepers are much more aware of diseases and how to treat them. We’re doing a better job of maintaining hive health.” This despite the fact that the past few winters have been brutally hard for bees, who must expend energy to keep the hives warm through the winter, and then require at least a few warm days in the spring to leave the hive and eliminate waste. Townsend credits much of the success of Alberta’s post-border-closing honey industry to the methodological, scientific approach towards beekeeping that Nasr developed. In other words, the relative success Alberta’s beekeepers have enjoyed in protecting their hives may be an unintentional byproduct of the border closing rather than a direct consequence of it.

Thinking like this supports the belief that the border ought to be reopened to bee packages, despite the opposition of both the Canadian Honey Council and the Alberta government. At last year’s AGM of the Beekeepers Commission of Alberta, beekeepers still reeling from a 2012-13 winter kill loss of 37 per cent, voted, according to chair Grant Hicks, unanimously in favour of opening the border. The BCA sees it as yet another case of western interests being ignored by central and eastern-dominated organizations, given that Alberta’s longer winters give its beekeepers more overwintering challenges than they do their counterparts in Ontario.

Moreover, Hicks points out that some producers such as himself send their hives to the Okanagan valley to overwinter, a practice that improves the bees’ chances of survival (die-off rates are around 10 per cent there, he says), but it’s expensive. Accordingly, the BCA is pressuring Canadian honey producers to advocate more strongly for opening the border. As for concerns about Apivar-resistant bees, or Africanized bees, entering the Canadian bee stock as a result? Hicks doesn’t seem to be too worried. He admits that he’s not a scientist, and that his conclusions might be at odds with the consensus among bee researchers, but he believes there’s little science showing Apivar-resistant bees in the U.S. And even if there is, he says, Canada will inevitably get them anyway. “You can’t negotiate,” he says. “We will get resistance to Apivar. But there’s no sign of it anywhere in North America.”

Others, including the Canadian Honey Council and the Albert government, aren’t quite so blasé about the potential risks posed by Apivar resistance. Monsanto’s Jerry Hayes, for one, estimates that almost one-third of the bees in the U.S. show signs of Apivar-resistance, and his research is squarely focused on helping bees adapt to the threat it poses. “We want to get away from this chemical soup if we can,” he says. The work that he is involved with at Monsanto, if successful, would use sugar water (a common food for bees in the off-season) to imbue the immune systems of bees with a better defence against the mites.

But for all the challenges they face – mites, cold weather, even unscrupulous neighbours – Alberta’s beekeepers are a generally sunny lot. Townsend, who in his 45 years of keeping hives has seen his share of grim moments, remains optimistic about the future. “We’re looking at a really great year. Honey prices are up, demand is up. I can’t think of a better industry to be in.”

The Business of Bees

Even at the best of times, commercial ­beekeepers in Alberta have to deal with losing a certain percentage of their hives each year. But normal or not, losing those bees comes at a cost. Bee Maid, the main supplier of bees and beekeeping supplies in Alberta and B.C. operates as a co-operative and sells hives (which include both the bees and the physical box-hives) for $375. Just the bees, about 20,000 of them, which are typically brought in from New Zealand, will set you back $175. As Monsanto bee scientist Jerry Hayes puts it, “In Alberta, if they were losing 30 per cent of their cattle every year, there would be people stumbling over themselves figuring out the problem.”

Each hive based in Alberta produces approximately 65 kilograms of honey in a year. In order to belong to Bee Maid’s co-op, you have to commit to supplying more than 2,250 kilograms each year. (Smaller operations sell mostly at farmers’ markets.) The Bee Maid prices are stable, and the co-operative takes care of the processing, packaging and distribution of the honey. Derek Johnston, manager of member relations with Bee Maid, says that it has recently been selling honey in the range of $4.75 to $5 per kilogram. Larger honey producers, however, often take a part of their supply and sell it to brokers in Eastern Canada or the U.S., where they can get higher prices in the open market. Some capitalize on ­Canada’s international reputation for high-quality honey and sell to Japan, China and Europe at premium prices.

Keeping the bees producing honey is easy. Keeping the bees alive over winter, on the other hand, is more difficult. Most beekeepers treat their hives once a year with Apivar, to ward off varroa mites, which costs about $5.80 per hive, Fumagillan, a fungicide, at the cost of about $2.80 per hive, and oxytetracycline, an antibiotic that fends off American Foulbrood disease, at the additional expense of less than 50 cents a hive.

Interested in becoming a Beekeeper?

Here are some resources to help you on your way:

Beekeeping for Beginners
Canadian Honey Council: About the Industry
Beekeepers Commission of Alberta