Ed Nowek has been luckier than some of his fellow area beekeepers.
The owner-operator of Planet Bee, on Bella Vista Road in Vernon, reacting to a Vancouver media report of a honey bee operation in the Kootenays that lost 70 per cent of its bees over the winter, said current losses at his outlet are at about three per cent.
“We are not completely out of the woods just yet because there can still be cold weather periods as late as the third week in April,” said Nowek, who said he heard one local beekeeper has lost 50 per cent of his colonies and will have to replace at the cost of about $20,000.
Others, he said on Tuesday, following an overnight snowfall, have recorded losses of 10-to-15 per cent and winter does not appear to be over.
The cost of acquiring replacement bees has increased dramatically over the past few decades and there are still restrictions on where they’re allowed to be imported from.
The most common are package bees and queens from New Zealand, Chile and Australia, or queen bees from Hawaii and California. Bees raised in the Southern Hemisphere in opposite climatic seasons are more difficult to be successfully relocated.
“Keeping bees alive and healthy has been getting more difficult over the past 30 years with the global spread of pests, parasitic mites and viruses,” said Nowek. “Add to that the effects of changing weather patterns, extended fire seasons and unseasonably cold periods of winter weather and bee survival is too variable to predict.”
Nowek said normally the bees are better able to cope with extreme cold temperatures early in the winter. The queens would have stopped laying by mid-October, food consumption is reduced and cluster temperatures are much lower as the bees settle in for winter in a semi-dormant state, moving within their hives to access the winter stores of honey.
With the warmer temperatures in January, however, and with the extended daylight hours, the bees get tricked into believing that winter is over and the queen may start egg-laying and the new cycle of brood rearing earlier than normal, which requires they maintain much higher temperatures within the hive. This greatly increases food consumption and, subsequently, there’s a higher risk of winter mortality.
Warm weather is forecast to arrive in the North Okanagan this weekend, so Nowek is hoping for the first flowers within a couple of weeks.
“When bees come out for their first spring cleansing flights, you may notice the brown spots of bee poop on vehicles etc., but trust that this is a sign of their survival and that the critical pollination of our food crops will be available for another season,” he said.
Another word of caution might be mentioned now that bees will be looking everywhere for the first bits of food and may be seen rummaging through clusters of sawdust, organic waste and compost or open containers of sugar or honey.
“These foraging bees are normally not aggressive but are desperate to locate the first sources of food,” said Nowek. “Please don’t be alarmed, avoid swatting at them and avoid their flight paths when possible.”