Lack of honeybees impacting fruit production at Okanagan orchards
“Some growers had to be shorted beehives this year because there wasn’t enough bees and manpower.”
By : Mark Brett • Penticton Herald
Okanagan fruit growers who are already stinging from labour challenges and low prices now have a possible shortage of honeybees to worry about.
“I don’t want to be an alarmist, but this was the most difficult (season) in our history of doing pollination over the past 20 years,” said Penticton apiarist Kevin Dunn.
“It was very, very stressful and very, very difficult to source out these bees … and now next year there will be potentially a shortage of bees.”
Dunn, who has been in the commercial bee-keeping business with his wife, Janelle, for 20 years, had to go all the way to Manitoba this spring to find enough hives to meet demand in the Okanagan.
“Some growers had to be shorted beehives this year because there wasn’t enough bees and manpower,” noted Dunn.
He and other experts blame much of the shortage on an unexplained, higher-than-normal die-off of bees in some regions of the province during the colder months, which cost commercial beekeepers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We work with two partners in Peace River and both of them had catastrophic losses over the winter, the reason for which we are still trying to get to the bottom of,” said Dunn.
Catastrophic winter losses meant that there were fewer beehives available to provide to orchards for pollination.
“That service is critical for fruit production because without those bees in the orchard you really don’t have fruit production because we’ve destroyed all of our natural habitats (for bees) and we need bulk pollinators by the millions to do the job.”
As the insects fly from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen for their hives, some pollen sticks to their bodies and is deposited on other flowers. That cross-pollination fertilizes the other flowers, which then produce seeds and fruit.
But if the pollinators’ numbers keep dwindling, it could spell disaster for the agriculture industry, according one of B.C.’s top bee experts.
“In modern agriculture, there is no question: The growers can simply not operate if they don’t have access to bees. They would be in serious trouble,” said apiculturist Paul van Westendorp of the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.
“If there is a steady and persistent decline in the overall abundance of pollinating insects, the productivity of these crops become uneconomical, and the effect would be no fruit or less fruit.
“Basically, if we were to take the pollinators out, if all the honeybees and other bees were eliminated, then we face ecological collapse.”
And it all comes in a time of unprecedented demand for – and danger to – bees. Van Westendorp estimates there are just under 60,000 managed bee colonies in B.C., only about a quarter of which are used for commercial pollination.
Over the past 20 years, he continued, consumers have pushed grocers to stock a variety of the high-quality fruits at affordable prices, which has in turn pushed growers towards high-yield varieties.
That has increased orchardists’ demand for honeybees, a non-native species to North America, to assist with newer fruit-growing techniques that prize densification.
“Let’s not kid ourselves: Agriculture is a drive towards reduced biodiversity, not enhanced biodiversity,” said van Westendorp.
“We have a tendency to eliminate, to destroy, to spray, to pull out, to mow down and burn off anything we don’t place a monetary value to. That is a grave concern.”The tendency to spray is of particular concern to van Westendorp.
He believes if growers and bee-keepers worked closer together, it could prevent problems, such as the use of some pesticides that can kill entire colonies.
“But not all pesticides are the same. Beekeepers should be primarily concerned if there is an insecticidal spray versus an herbicide because an herbicide doesn’t affect bees that much,” added van Westendorp.
Bee-keepers have to know their stuff, too, he continued, “but also some growers often have a very rudimentary understanding of what pollination is all about that is not totally understood.” Dunn is astounded by the lack of respect for pollinators that he sometimes sees in the fields.
“We understand that growers have to spray and it’s important – spraying doesn’t mean big bad and evil, it’s a reality – but we’re always begging growers to not spray during the day,” he said.
“When we go to pick up beehives in the early evening and we see a cloud of spray and a rampant disregard for all the work we’ve done to bring them bees, it’s really, really frustrating.
“It seems often when the grower has had the use of our bees and got what they needed then they don’t care, they’re just going to spray when they need to and we are racing to beat the spray tractors, literally.”
Despite their frustrations and the hard work their craft demands, the Dunns consider bee-keeping a calling.
Each year, they deploy 200-plus hives of their own and lease as many as 900 more for periods of one day to several weeks. An average hive is leased for about $100 – which is “extraordinarily cheap” in the grand scheme of things, according to Dunn – and has to be placed by hand by an experienced beekeeping crew. And there aren’t many.
“Janelle and I and our partner in Peace River are responsible for almost all of the pollination from Osoyoos to Summerland. People don’t know it’s all reliant on three people. Three people to do pollination for almost all the fruit in this valley,” said Dunn.
“Growers need to know and the public needs to understand that pollination comes at a high cost to us as beekeepers.
“We feel very responsible for what we do and don’t want to see it go down the toilet because the health of our bees isn’t respected.”
By sounding the alarm about disappearing bees, Dunn is hoping to spark conversations between growers, apiarists and the broader public.
“It’s a complex problem,” he said, “and it involves everybody from bee-keepers to growers to people consuming food to gain an understanding to how complex and important and difficult the pollination can be for bee-keepers.”