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Canadian beekeepers lost a record number of hives last year due to a fatal combination of unpredictable weather made worse by climate change, pests, pathogens and habitat loss.

In recent years, the losses averaged about 35 per cent. But bee die-offs reached a record of 50 per cent last year. This marks a significant increase compared to 20 years ago, when the number was only 10 per cent.

The spike in bee population losses has raised serious concerns among beekeepers about the future of the industry, prompting them to urge the federal and provincial governments for more support.

Paul Kelly, research and apiary manager at the University of Guelph’s Honey Bee Research Centre, estimates the total value of honeybees to the Canadian economy is $70 billion each year. The number includes honeybee pollination benefits, honey production and the income of farmers who depend on the bees. Beekeepers fear an even bleaker future and say without robust support, the die-offs could lead to the loss of an essential part of Canada's agri-food sector.

“The future is not looking good,” said Ian Grant, president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. “Unless we can put the research dollars back into funding how we are going to combat things like pests and diseases that affect our bee colonies — and if the funding is not there or the programs are not there, such as production insurance that really helps beekeepers during the times they need it — then beekeepers are going to say, ‘I can't stay in this business anymore.’”

To assist the Ontario grape growing and beekeeping sectors in offsetting the extraordinary costs caused by their losses, last month the federal and Ontario governments announced up to $10 million in financial support for both sectors affected by exceptional weather conditions in 2021-22. Eligible beekeepers will receive up to 70 per cent of the cost of purchasing bee colonies to replace those impacted during that time.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, in 2021, Ontario was home to 25 per cent of all beekeepers in Canada, with about 13 per cent of the sector’s colonies and seven per cent of the honey production.

Grant welcomes and appreciates the support from both the federal and provincial governments but says it’s not enough to replace a significant portion of beekeepers’ lost revenue.

“For beekeepers, we need robust insurance programs that will really help protect our farmers in bad years, whether it is climate change-related or due to other diseases. One of the things that we have to constantly struggle with is disease and pests, and we need to have robust research funded so that we can determine where these pests are coming from, understand the diseases and figure out how we can better combat them,” said Grant.

Bee die-offs reached a record of 50 per cent last year. Without support, Canadian beekeepers face an uncertain future, industry experts say.

Coming up with new ways of dealing with these things takes money, and beekeepers don't have the capacity to fund this research themselves, he added.

Grant said the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association conducted a survey last year of commercial beekeepers and asked them about their businesses. “A surprising number of them said, 'Listen, we can't continue with these large losses. Either we have to retire or we will go bankrupt.' So, in the future, without doing something, we are going to lose more beekeepers.”

The Ontario public must gain a deeper understanding of the sources of their food and the significance of supporting farmers and the agri-food sector within the province, Grant said, emphasizing the importance of public advocacy to press the government to support the beekeeping sector.

“The government will respond to the public. It is not just a matter of making honey; it is a matter of how we produce pollination,” said Grant, noting that without pollination, produce like apples and blueberries can’t grow.

The Varroa mite is the sector’s No. 1 problem, but weather conditions are also very important, said Kelly. “The biggest thing in terms of climate change is unpredictable weather… Bees don't do well if it rains all the time, or if it's too dry for the plants to produce nectar, or if it's too cold for them to get out foraging. We really need to learn more about how to manage our bees in these uncertain conditions.”

It is complicated because there are many other factors, such as parasites and other diseases, as well as the effects of pesticides, that combined with unpredictable weather, Kelly added.

As most of the losses happen in winter, Kelly says one of the solutions is to anticipate losses and be proactive by going into winter with more colonies.

“As the weather is unpredictable due to climate change, we encourage beekeepers to anticipate high losses,” Kelly said. Beekeepers should go into winter with a larger number of colonies than they expect to come out with in the spring, he added.

In terms of human food production, honeybees are the most important ones, and it has been said they are the most important insect on the planet, Kelly said.

“If you look at the food we need as humans, one-third … benefits from bee pollination, and of that one-third, 80 per cent of the pollination is done by honeybees.”

The University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, manages between 200 and 300 beehives for research and education purposes. It also produces honey, breeds and sells queen bees, and operates a farm and retail business.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.