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Spring looking promising for Alberta beekeepers battling Varroa mites

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Beekeepers are used to losing about 10 per cent of their bees in the spring when they open their hives up after having them covered for the winter months, but a new pest is driving those numbers higher in Alberta.

Alberta Bee Commission executive director Connie Phillips said producers are seeing higher numbers because of Varroa mites.

"What we're hearing overall is beekeepers are experiencing losses between 20 and 30 per cent which is not great," she said. "20 per cent is pretty good (and) 30 per cent kind of on the edge, but overall, it's looking quite a bit better than it did last year."

Phillips said last year many beekeepers were shocked to find mortality rates higher than 50 per cent.

"One of the things that contributed to the very high losses last year at least in Alberta was the very early spring and the very long fall which creates more brood cycles for the bees which the Varroa love," said Phillips.

MILLIONS OF BEES

The Honey Mill, just southwest of High River, has hives spread out in 110 locations in the surrounding area filled with millions of bees. Jose Madere is the team leader of a group of five from Mexico. They regularly visit each colony to check their health.

"The bees look really good," he said. "Even the ones (where we split the hives) and let (them) grow up, they are really good, I'm really happy because by the first day of July, they're gonna be ready for harvest."

Madere said in nearly 3,000 hives he saw a 15 per cent mortality to Varroa mites this spring.

"When it's very infested with Varroa you can see right away when you take the lid off," he said. "You can see right away when you pull out the frame, you can see the Varroa on the bees and this time they are very clean."

FEEDING BEES

Mariano Bernal has been working with bees in Canada for six year and would like to see beekeepers all over the province on the same page to treat varroa because they spread easily.

"If you know you have sick bees and the bees fly into the same flowers as the other bees, the mites spread."

He says the team is always monitoring hive health, checking to make sure the queens and her brood look strong.

"Sometimes a hive has good bees," he said. "But if you don't check inside, if you don't see what is the problem and maybe one month you don't have a hive, they're all dead."

Rassol Bahreini is a University of Alberta research associate in the department of biological sciences. He's been studying Varroa mites for 30 years.

"The mites feed on the fat bodies of the bees," he said. "So they cause the bees to get weak, they cannot produce honey and the (mites eventually) destroy the colony."

He's been working on a project since 2016 to find a new synthetic miticide to battle the parasites because they are becoming resistant to the current products on the market.

"So far we found at least two compounds that are promising to control mites," said Bahreini. 'They are testing in the lab and in the field and the hope is in the future, in the next few years that we can introduce the new product in the market for beekeepers."

Phillips says the commission is investing in four projects to find new ways to treat Varroa mites and one of them is with heat.

"It's tricky because you have to find a balance between killing the Varroa and not impacting the viability of the queens," she said "Or negatively impacting the brood within the colony."

She says all the equipment has been delivered to 10 beekeepers who will be testing the system out with their colonies in the spring of 2024.

Madere is retiring at the end of this season and heading back to Mexico. He says pollinators are an important part of agriculture in Alberta and bees need to be protected.

"They're important because the farmers need bees to have a good crop," he said.

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