The number of viruses, pests and diseases attacking bees have increased exponentially in recent decades. Tyler Olsen/Abbotsford News

Honeybee farmers hope science can allow hives to thrive

Pesticides and globalization has threatened the 21st Century existence of honeybees

There was a time when beekeeping was relatively simple: when just a handful of diseases posed a danger to their health and when the average person could order a bundle of the little buzzers in the mail, reap their honey, then kill them at the end of summer with cyanide.

Those days are, obviously, long gone.

And so, on a mild January morning, Mike Campbell sits in the loft of a converted barn at his honey farm and meadery and flips through a PowerPoint presentation about a tiny parasite that may be playing a role in the deaths of honeybees across North America.

Campbell, who runs Campbell’s Gold Honey Farm and Meadery on Lefeuvre Road near Aldergrove, recently teamed up with Kwantlen Polytechnical University professor Dr. Cameron Lait to try to find a solution to a pest that has been killing bees across the continent for more than a decade.

Like many agricultural professions, beekeeping has become highly scientific in recent decades. The details of Campbell’s and Lait’s project are highly technical, but the bottom line is that the study suggests that an expensive natural product created by a company in Croatia could help stop the parasite in question from killing bee colonies. That, Campbell says, should trigger more study of the product.

RELATED: The search for an effective way to save honeybees

But it won’t solve the myriad of challenges facing the bee world.

When Campbell started, he had to watch for two diseases that could kill his bees. Today, some 50 different afflictions have been found to be harming bees, and they interact in a tangle of ways. The increased use of pesticides has further contributed to widespread collapse of colonies across the globe.

Because of how bees are managed – with U.S. companies moving large numbers of hives from region to region, depending on the season – diseases also move quickly.

“The Americans have big industrial beekeeping,” Campbell said. “They move hundreds of thousands of hives from place to place. They start in Florida for the citrus crops. they go to Texas for the citron crops. They go to California for the almonds, they go to Oregon for the carrots and the onions. They come to Washington State for blueberries and raspberries and apples.

“So any bee that has a disease in Pennsylvania, last fall, will have been spreading that disease from Pennsylvania to Florida to Texas to California to Oregon to Washington State. And guess what? Bees don’t respect the border.”

Airplanes carry other bee diseases over oceans in the span of a few hours. Those that arrive on North American shores find victims with already compromised immune systems.

Some pesticides will kill bees immediately, others contribute to the months-long death of a colony, and others reduce bees’ ability to fight off pests like Nosema Ciranae, the tiny bug being studied by the Campbells.

“They have a significant effect on making the disease more virulent,” he said. “What happens with pesticides is they knock out the immune system of the bees.”

All those variables make the subject infinitely complex.

“You could keep PhD students busy studying this for the next 10 years,” Judy Campbell said.

It’s vital, she said, to match the expertise and practised eyes of beekeepers with scientists and their academic knowledge.

“You have to pair up the practice and the science to get at some of the solution.”

That complexity is the main reason the Campbells caution against deciding to “save the bees” by rushing out and buying a hive to keep them in your backyard. More knowledge and more science – not just more people raising bees – is the key, they say.

So it’s increasingly common for beekeepers to team up with scientiests.

As Mike Campbell flips through his slides, Bradford Vinson looks on from a chair and occasionally chimes in with a comment. Vinson, who is working for the Campbells on a part-time basis as a beekeeper, has a science background that includes work on a UBC study of hygienic bees.

That study suggested that, when it came to fighting one nagging pest, those hives with bees that are more diligent about cleaning up messes and their comrades’ dead bodies tend to fare better. That, then, has led to efforts to breed said bees.

Other studies are underway, including those looking at how blueberries interact with bees.

The range of bee-related subjects reflect the fact that a solution to collapsing bee populations is unlikely to be found in one study. But having survived thus far in an agricultural industry that has seen massive upheaval, the Campbells have learned the importance of keeping up with the latest science.

“Up to a few years ago, nobody knew anything about bee viruses,” he said. But the rising number of bee-killers has forced beekeepers to adapt and change.

To spread the knowledge he has learned, Campbell has been speaking about the results of his latest study to professional and amateur bee groups around the valley.

• • • •

Bees are fascinating creatures, and Campbell says the more you learn about them, the more interesting they become. Below, Campbell talks about the gender-dynamics of a honeybee hive, where the females do all the work, and the boys have all the fun, until their hedonistic lives catch up to them.

RELATED: VIDEO: Let’s Plant for the Bees in Abbotsford


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“If you carried on beekeeping like you always had and didn’t know about these things, then eventually you were an ex-beekeeper because all your bees would die.”

 

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