Interview with Local Beekeepers (Gainor Family, Fairhaven Farms, Hillsburgh, ON)
Q: What do you personally believe is the biggest cause of honeybee decline?
A: “There is a combination of many factors, but I would say monocultures in southern Ontario are the biggest issue. Corn is bad for bees because these genetically modified plants, owned primarily by Monsanto, are modified to produce their own pesticides. The corn seeds are coated in a pesticide, so when they are planted, a dust cloud is formed that hits young bees early in the growing season. This first hit weakens the bees’ immune systems, thus making them more susceptible to disease and parasitism. As the corn continues to grow, the fields are sprayed again by a pesticide which is enough to kill the already weakened bees as they did not have enough time to recover.
Corn is a poor food source for bees because it doesn’t produce nectar which bees require as a food source. Ontario is predominantly composed of monocultures of corn and thus bees are starved and don’t have time to recover from the large amounts of pesticides used on these fields, therefore weakening their immune systems.
There are no flowering plants in between corn crops for bees. Instead of being surrounded by one bad food source, bees require a diversity of marsh flowers and tree pollen to help them grow strong.
You can see in some areas that hives are too small now to fight off mites that infect their hives. When hives are infested by mites, this can “blow” the hive. Anything preying on bee larvae has an easy way of getting into the hives when bee populations are small and weak. For example, parasitic flies that typically lay eggs on wasps are finding that bees are such an easy target, such as the “zombie” bees on West Coast of Canada.
Canola is another commonly grown crop in Ontario, which requires bees for pollination. However, canola pollen and nectar causes honey to crystallize very quickly and this rapid crystallization has led to gastrointestinal problems in bees (leading to dehydration and eventually death). Some people have started to manually pollinate canola and in turn have relied on bees less for pollination.”
Q: What are the economic issues associated with massive corn production?
A: “Farmers require massive corn production for livestock, so now there is less hay production than corn (a bale of hay now selling for $8 instead of $4). More farmers are using corn as it is cheaper and you get massive amounts, however, corn uses many chemicals.
Herbicides, such as Roundup, are negatively affecting the soil. Fields are essentially turning into deserts due to pesticide and herbicide applications- they are stripped of all their natural nutrients. By using new pesticides and herbicides in tune with genetics, all other organisms such as worms are being killed. There have been some mitigation efforts – farmers are trying to plough back in corn stock and what is left of wheat to try and return fibre into the soil.”
Q: What is the major cause of disease and parasitism for beekeepers?
A: “The weather was particularly good for mites this year. Varroa mite has been bad for everyone. At Fairhaven Farms, we treat this mite with oxalic acid that’s heated up to vapour at the end of the year when temperature is around 0°C. The hives are fumigated with this acid as it doesn’t bother bees and parasites don’t build up resistance to oxalic acid. Using oxalic acid is much better than using massive doses of antibiotics because bacteria can’t build up a resistance to the acid, and antibiotics are much more harmful to bees. We also use formic acid to fumigate mites as this is a natural product found in honey.
Another issue is that a lot of small beekeeper farms (2-3 hives) don’t get their beekeeping license so they don’t get inspected regularly, and they lack the knowledge of beekeeping. They get American foulbrood, for example, and they won’t recognize it. This bacterium is considered to be so serious that all hives used to be burned on a farm when AFB was present, but now only the infected hives are destroyed.
American foulbrood (AFB) is a bacterial larva that infects only larval honeybees. AFB is considered to be the most fatal of honeybee brood diseases. This bacterium has a rotting meat smell and turns bee larvae into mush (similar to molasses); when the brood dies, the entire hive suffers. It is vitally important that beekeepers are aware of the symptoms of AFB and are able to detect the disease very quickly as it infects larvae that are less than 48 hours old. Foulbrood can be carried on adult bees to other colonies even if adults themselves aren’t diseased, as this bacterium is in the form of spores. Therefore, AFB can be transferred to healthy colonies if the disease isn’t detected right away.
AFB can live in wood for up to 70 years because it is resistant to extreme temperatures and chemicals, so sterilization has been the only effective solution to this problem. This means beekeepers lose all equipment and boxes of infected hives.
A major problem with AFB is that weakened bees (due to starvation, pesticide exposure etc.) are more prone to getting foulbrood, so this bacterium is secondary and opportunistic.”
Q: What do you do at Fairhaven Farms that is beneficial for bees?
A:“We don’t use antibiotics, as this is much better for bees’ immune systems. We also have Russian bees, as opposed to European bees that many people use. Russian bees are more aggressive; they are one step below Africanized bees. They also produce more honey, but their aggressiveness is very beneficial because these bees will kill parasites right away (such as a parasitic fly laying parasitic egg in bee larva).
European bees are tamer, which more beekeepers are attracted to, but these bees are not as good at controlling parasites.”
Q: Have your marketable products declined?
A: “No, but our farm hasn’t been around as long as others. The ‘Old-timers’ say that since 1935 there was a big change. On a one hundred acre farm, you used to have fifty-five hives, and now you typically have about thirty-five hives. Seventy-five to a hundred years ago, there was everything: wheat, buckwheat, apples, corn, with so much diversity and no use of pesticides or toxins. After World War II, agriculture changed completely; there were bigger tractors working on larger fields and farmers switched to producing one crop! The bottom line is that bees are not getting enough nectar and pollen supply anymore.”
Q: What do you recommend is the best solution for saving declining bee populations? What can people do locally and globally to help?
A: “Beekeepers need to put hives in varied farming areas; this will allow for stronger bees and more of them. I believe that knowledge and licensing is so important, especially for small beekeepers.”
The Gainor Family also offers some tips on how to be bee-friendly:
- Plant clover in your bee-friendly garden as it is easy to plant and grows all year long;
- Keep your dandelions on your lawn while they are in bloom;
- Support local beekeepers. This means buying good quality honey that is unpasteurized;
- Have diverse colonies if you are a beekeeper.
Did you know…that Billy Bee honey is actually from all over the world? Much of this honey is bought from outside of Canada and is pasteurized, filtered honey. This company is not a friend to beekeepers.
Great website for more info on American Foulbrood: http://www.countryrubes.com/images/American_Foulbrood_AFB_pdf.pdf
Contact the Ontario Bee Association to learn about their protocols on AFB for the Kingston region, as well as to learn more about the Kingston region beekeepers:
Ontario Beekeepers’ Association
Call Maureen VanderMarel, Business Administrator at 905-636-0661