A global environmental issue that hits close to home was recently brought to the attention of Pemberton council. The subject? Bees.
Councillor Jennie Helmer, who is also an organic farmer, brought the issue up at last week’s council meeting, citing the emergence of a mysterious new plight that has befallen honeybees: Colony Collapse Disorder.
Widespread in the U.S., CCD suddenly kills off entire colonies. Adult bees rapidly leave the hive, leaving behind young larvae and pupae and some young worker bees and the queen, who are unable to care for the young, leading to the collapse of the colony.
While the CCD phenomenon witnessed in the U.S. hasn’t arrived in Canada, yet, the president of the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists says they have seen higher rates of winter mortality.
Stephen Pernal said about 15 per cent of Canadian colonies typically don’t make it through the winter. But last year, that mortality rate doubled, to about 30 per cent.
“The concern is if we sustain that rate of loss again coming out of this winter, it’s really going to have a major impact on our industry,” said Pernal.
He added that it is particularly disconcerting that these bees often disappear without a trace. While no one knows why this is happening, there are many theories.
The issue caught Helmer’s attention recently, after she heard that a major cause of CCD might be a new chemical spray being used. Helmer explained that bees typically fly three to five kilometres from their hives, and return without a problem, but this new spray may interfere with the bees’ homing mechanisms.
Being an organic farmer, she was naturally interested in the issue, and after researching CCD, decided to try keeping bees last year. She soon discovered that the Village of Pemberton has a bee bylaw on the books, preventing people who live in the village from keeping bees. Since Helmer’s farm is in the SLRD, the bylaw doesn’t affect her personally, but she wanted to bring the issue to the attention of the public.
“When I saw that we had this bylaw, and given current circumstances and where I think we’re headed, it seems crazy to me to not let people keep bees here, because they really are not aggressive in any way,” said Helmer.
She thinks the bylaw was created in 2000, after the neighbour of a beekeeper was stung, but says it’s time to consider changing their policy.
“At the time, I think there wasn’t as much awareness around the importance of bees and their relative gentleness.”
Helmer says she has been stung twice in six months, but adds it was only because she was in the hives handling the bees. The chances of being stung by a wasp are much higher.
She points out that people who live in the valley should be concerned about CCD, as it could have an impact on the local agricultural sector.
“There are blueberry growers in the valley, and apples and plums — all of that stuff needs bees,” said Helmer. “So I think it’s incredibly important, and its strategic for our long-term food security to have an interest in at least taking care of the bees we have.”
Village staff will look into the bylaw and bring a report back to council.
If CCD continues to spread, Pernal says it will also impact the agricultural sector, as almost one-third of our diet depends on insect pollination, the majority of which comes from honeybees.
In the U.S., honeybees are estimated to be worth $15 to 16 billion to the agricultural economy, and in Canada, about $1 to $2 billion. High-value produce, like berries, and forage crops for cattle, are some examples of crops that are dependent on honeybee pollination.
“In a very simple sense, if we start losing the majority of our pollinators, then many of these fruits and vegetables simply wouldn’t be available,” said Pernal.
“…It’s going to have a major impact on the quality of life of a lot of people, and on the cost of food, so its nothing to be taken lightly.”
Pemberton certainly wouldn’t be the first community to become bee-friendly.
In 2005, the City of Vancouver rescinded a 30-year-old ban on backyard beekeeping, stating in a policy report that, “urban hobby beekeeping provides increased biodiversity and pollination for horticultural plants in backyard, community and public gardens.”
Pernal says only a select few will likely choose to become backyard beekeepers, so it shouldn’t harm the community.
“…If you’re talking about one or two colonies in somebody’s backyard in a small town, I think that’s going to have a negligible impact on the quality of life of most people.”
And while becoming bee-friendly won’t solve the problem of CCD, Pernal says it helps to educate the public.
“I think having people more open and aware of the importance of bees is certainly bound to help. The only silver lining in this rather unfortunate cloud over the industry this year is certainly an increased awareness.”
Pernal says in the U.S., scientists and specialists have teamed up to form a CCD working group, trying to get to the root of the problem. So far, researchers have made a few breakthroughs, although this fall a virus, called Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, was discovered to be associated with the collapsing colonies.
They’ve also discovered that a new strain of parasite, called nosema ceranae, may also be contributing to the problem.
While Pernal says neither of these factors is the “smoking gun” of CCD, he is optimistic they will soon find a solution to CCD, and in the meantime, they are trying to make it easier for beekeepers to make it through the winter.