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Alberta beekeepers finding high winter mortality rates in hives

It's still too early to open hives up to the elements but many beekeepers in Alberta, and across the country, are discovering high numbers of dead bees.

It's normal to lose some bees in the winter but an acceptable number would be around 10 per cent, according to Kevin Nixon of Nixon Honey east of Innisfail.

"With what we have seen so far in our bees, were sitting well over 30 per cent," he said.

Nixon has been working with bees for almost 25 years and has 10,000 hives, with about 70,000 bees in each.

"We're not in a complete disaster yet for ourselves personally," said Nixon. "But there are some reports coming back from within Alberta and across Canada really that have some pretty severe winter losses."

Some beekeepers across the country are seeing winter losses of more than 50 per cent.

Renata Borba is the Alberta tech transfer lead and she and her team host education programs for beekeepers and research bee issues.

Borba says one of the major causes for bee mortality right now is the varroa destructor, a small mite that feeds on honey bees.

"There's several viruses that can be transmitted by varroa," she said. "With high mite levels, even without testing there's is a high chance that those bees are also dealing not just with mites, but also with several viruses."

There are chemical treatments for the varroa but they're not working as hoped.

"We have had in the past treatments that work really well but the mites develop resistance to these chemicals," said Borba. "Which is not uncommon in pathogens to develop resistance to those chemicals."

Connie Phillips is the executive director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, which represents 178 beekeepers in the province. Phillips says the commission is funding a number of research projects looking at different verroa treatments, as well as different mechanised treatments.

One promising bit of research suggests heating the hive to a certain temperature can kill the mites without harming the bees.

"So we're going to be looking at a couple of technologies that utilize that approach in addition to trying to develop new chemicals," she said.

Phillips says keepers who lose more than 30 per cent of their bee populations can purchase new bees from Australia, New Zealand and Chile, but the prices are higher than ever.

"Because there's such a high demand this year, I heard from our provincial agriculture (department) that some nucleus hives are being sold for as high as $700 that were typical priced at $200," she said.

Nixon says beekeepers are resilient and they will continue to find solutions to keep their bees thriving.

"We know for sure that that these mites are an issue, we can see them, we can physically see them dead or alive," he said.

"So we'll just do the best we can to manage those and try to keep the bees that are alive, healthy and get them going in spring here." Top Stories

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