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B.C.'s drought: Beekeepers say heat, temperature swings, dry conditions impacting colonies

Bees and other pollinators are a key part of a healthy local ecosystem. Without them, much of the produce in B.C. and beyond would not exist.
Honey bees are feeling the heat.

This story is the fourth in a multi-part series running throughout June exploring the wide-ranging impacts of persistent drought conditions and climate change seen across the province in recent years.

Some of B.C.'s smallest residents are feeling the heat right alongside humans, as climate change fallout continues to unfold in the province.

Honey bee colonies structure themselves around queen bees who reproduce, drones who help her do so and worker bees who keep them all fed and watered. Local farmers reap the benefits of those worker bees, who pollinate their crops.

But beekeepers and pollinator researchers alike are now noticing troubling trends — heat deaths, shock due to weather flux and failing fertility, among others.

Those on the ground report that the bees' story will likely be intimately tied to the future of B.C. agriculture.

Extreme temperatures 'stressful'

Blair Tarves, owner of Similkameen Apiaries in Cawston, looks back at 2021 as a particularly devastating year for his and others’ honey bees.

“A lot of plants actually stopped producing flowers. The nectar flow stopped, the pollen flow stopped,” Tarves said.

“[The bees] don’t have access to food, right? They’re like, the grocery store’s closed. They are living on stores that they have already collected.”

In normal years, relying on their savings might not hurt a given colony. Add in a sudden weather event, though, and suddenly the bees are facing stresses from all angles.

Bees are natural thermo-regulators, and work overtime when they need to to keep their hives and queens cool. They bring water back to the colony and fan with their wings, creating what Tarves described as an air-conditioning effect.

But it’s a lot of work for the insects, and when outside heat gets intense, it can be too much to handle.

“I raise queen bees and sell them and I had some of those ready to ship, stored in the hive, and one day 80 of them just fried inside of the hive. All dead in [roughly] an hour,” Tarves said.

“I have never seen that happen before.”

That is hard on an apiarist’s bottom line. Healthy queens are key to anyone wanting to create or refresh a colony, and can go for $50 a pop.

Colonies also rely on drones — male bees that mate with queens to keep the population growing — and when temperatures soar, the bees do not.

“During the heat dome in 2021, drones literally rained out of the sky on our farm. It was terrifying,” said Emily Huxter of Wild Antho farm in Armstrong.

“So breeding becomes really difficult when you only have the female half.

“For the bees to regulate hive temperature when it's above 40 and 42 degrees [Celsius] outside becomes really difficult for them. It's very stressful. They need a ton of water to be able to air condition the hive."

Huxter said the farm now insulates their hives even in the summertime. It used to be just a winter practice, wrapping them up to stay warm.

“But now with these periods of extreme heat […] you're actually insulating from the heat because it's too hot.”

While bees are resilient, it is the swings in temperature that worry Huxter.

This January saw some of the warmest on-record temperatures early in the month, then a sudden swap to a cold snap.

“That’s really tough on bees. It's not so much the cold or the hot that’s the problem, it’s the up and down,” Huxter said.

The bees form a cluster and expand or contract to respond to outside temperatures, and ensure that inside the hive, everything is in the Goldilocks zone — just right.

That is a lot harder to do when it feels like early spring one day, and the next, winter is back.

“They're breaking cluster and coming back into cluster, and that takes a lot of energy for them, and if they aren't back in cluster fast enough when we have these very quick extremes, they die. And so it's the variation that's the real killer for bees,” Huxter said.

“They can withstand cold, they can withstand warmth to an extent for sure. It's ups and downs that are very difficult.”

Huxter, like Tarves, also raises queens and mini-colonies, which are shipped across Western Canada.

They are popular in provinces with historically harsher winters which have suffered losses due to prolonged extreme cold periods.

In the past, that has not been a worry for Okanagan beekeepers, but those days may be gone.

“We often got a warm week in January, and a warm week in February and that's really predictable, but it gently warms and usually gently cools. It's not these really drastic, 30-degree swings that we got this year that are just out of nowhere,” Huxter said.

Smoke chokes

Hand-in-hand with increasingly hot, dry summers has come ever-more frequent and prolific wildfires, which bring another type of threat to bees and those who care for them.

Bees use sunlight as a sort of compass, to keep track of time and remember how to get home to their hive.

They also breathe through tiny holes in their thorax — essentially their torso — and smoke particulate can easily jam up their system. When the sky is full of smoke, they tend to stay home.

“Last year, for about two weeks [my bees] didn’t leave the hive, it was too smoky,” Tarves said, adding this in turn leads to the bees clocking fewer hours on the job pollinating.

“We’ve had forest fires before but not like this, smoke in the air two or three weeks at a time.”

It is also hard on workers providing necessary regular care to the hives.

"Beekeeping is actually an extremely physical job, lifting boxes and working hard and sweating ... It's just hard for people at work when it's smoky," Tarves said.

"And that's, I think, an impact of climate change, if human beings can't work outside."

We need the bees

Bees and other pollinators are a key part of a healthy local ecosystem. Without them, much of the produce in B.C. and beyond would not exist.

“They feed up the food chain, they are critical for that. A third of the food you see or more is because bees have pollinated it […] Watermelons or pumpkins or apples or cherries or strawberries or blueberries, on and on,” Huxter said.

Alison McAfee is a honey bee specialist with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She said bees play a significant role in making sure crop yields are optimum.

"At a time when we're not creating more farmland and we are creating more people, we need to do everything that we can to make the system more efficient, and honey bees do that," McAffee explained. "They increase the amount of food that you can produce from the same area of land."

Tarves estimates about a third of his business is about raising bees to sell, a third is about honey and another third is about pollination for many local farms.

“This year, in the field, the entire cherry crop froze. So we lost half our pollination contracts," Tarves said.

In addition, he saw devastation on his own farm.

"I've got a bunch of trees here that are native, that have grown for 40 years and a whole bunch of them died," Tarves said, explaining many were great flowering plants for his bees.

Heat has fertility side effects

McAffee has noted in her research that extreme heat does not bode well for the future of a hive.

"Temperatures in the range of around 40 to 42 degrees [Celsius] is quite damaging for the bees' fertility because for even just a couple of hours, it is sufficient to kill their sperm," McAffee explained.

"And that's important for not just the male bees, but also maybe even more so for the female bees because the queens actually store sperm from the males inside their bodies in a specialized organ for their whole lives."

Queens only store that sperm during one period in their life, McAffee said. If it's spoiled, it won't be replaced.

"So that's pretty worrying, because that means that the colony that she is the queen of will lose productivity, like she won't be able to lay as many fertilized eggs," McAffee said.

She added that spring-like temperatures too early in the winter can also be a danger if colonies start "brooding" a new generation before it is safe to do so.

"If the colonies start rearing brood, and then another cold snap happens after, that can be a big shock to them," McAffee explained.

"Once they start rearing those new bees they need to keep the inside of the nest at around 30 to 35 degrees [Celsius]. Thirty is like absolute minimum, 35 degrees is ideal for brooding. And you can imagine it's really hard to do that when it's minus five or minus 10 again outside."

McAffee's research into bee fertility as it relates to heat is ongoing.

"I was really, really motivated to do this research because queens are shipped in little queen cages all over the world but also domestically, and so there's always a worry that they might get too hot if they're like in the back of a cargo van for too long or something," McAffee said.

"When those temperatures hit during the heat dome, then I started actually worrying about bees that were inside colonies on the ground for the first time. So I think it's becoming more and more of a risk and something that we need to need to keep looking into."

Heat, drought and an unpredictable future

As Tarves prepares for another summer which, by many reports, is set to be just as hot and smoky as recent years, he is worried.

“The two things that scare me the most, as far as beekeeping goes, is drought and also those heat domes," Tarves said, noting drought leads to fewer nectar and pollen sources.

"That heat dome was absolutely terrifying as a beekeeper."

Huxter said she is facing uncertainty. It feels difficult to look too far in advance.

“Every day is such a different day these days," she said.

Bob Lalonde, associate biology professor at UBC Okanagan, said insects play a significant role in the health of ecosystems. If there is a drought, insects that feed on plants will suffer too.

“Even if there are flowers, there will be less nectar and pollen in them if they are drought-stressed,” Lalonde said, adding if the plants aren't doing well, insects aren't doing well.

“You can have green plants that are drought-stressed, but their water content is going to be lower, the amount of food wherever the insects are feeding is going to be lower.”

Trying to adapt

Changes to B.C.'s climate come in increasingly rapid shock waves, it seems. But there are ways farmers are battling back.

McAffee said some beekeepers in B.C. have been experimenting with different techniques and materials to cover their colonies in both the winter and summer, looking at how much light and heat gets in or escapes. Polystyrene foam has, she said, proven effective in keeping heat in hives down slightly.

"It was [down] by about 4 C, which might not sound like much but if you think about what 34 degrees feels like outside versus 30, it's kind of going from the range of intolerable to 'I can handle this,'" McAffee said.

"Beekeepers are smart people and they can learn [to adapt to] these things. It's just that you need the experience, and I guess we're unfortunately only just getting that experience now."

With a file from Darren Handschuh