LETHBRIDGE -- Roughly 40 per cent of Canada's bee colonies are in Alberta and a new study out of the University of Lethbridge is looking at ways to keep hives healthy and sustain beekeeping in the province, even under the harshest winter conditions.

Alberta's agriculture sector contributes roughly $9 billion to the province's gross domestic product (GDP) and employs more than 77,000 people but without bees and their valuable pollen, those figures would shrink dramatically and Canada's entire canola sector would be left in shambles.

"Without that particular seed crop that needs bees to be produced, we wouldn't have canola growing across Canada," said University of Lethbridge biological researcher Dr. Shelley Hoover.

Bee colonies are not easy to maintain up north and Alberta beekeepers are constantly facing challenging weather conditions.

The queen bee is the heart of the colony and without one, the entire colony will die.

Generally beekeepers are able to import full colonies or queen bees from countries like Australia, New Zealand, Chile or the U.S.

However, this past winter, beekeepers in the province lost on average of 40 per cent of their colonies to poor weather conditions and to make matters worse, COVID-19 restrictions made it nearly impossible to import colonies or other queen bees from other parts of the world.

"It was glaring that we really need to work a lot harder across the country on being more self-sufficient," said Executive Director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, Connie Phillips.

A new study by Dr. Hoover is now looking at the relationship between queen bee health and colony success to try to identify methods of replacing failing queens and finding storage options for healthy queens to make sure beekeepers have access to them when they are needed.

The four year study will also look at some of the causes of queen bee failure.

Essentially, the goal of the project is to help beekeepers in Canada access high-quality queen bees without having to rely on other countries.

Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) is providing $496,513 over four years to support the research.

"The overall importance of bee health to our agriculture and food systems can not be understated," said the board chair of RDAR.

"If you ate today, there is no doubt that food relied on healthy bees."

Beekeepers in the province are also excited to have Dr. Hoover looking into queen bee health.

"I am thrilled Dr. Hoover continues to support beekeeping in the province of Alberta through her very valuable research on queens," said High River beekeeper Grace Storm.

"Dr. Hoover has listened well to the needs of beekeepers and continues to focus her work on meaningful ways of improving hive health. We are confident her research will lead to more sustainable beekeeping in the province."

Dr. Hoover's research at the U of L will support the work of undergraduate, masters, and post-doctoral students.