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Beekeepers co-operating with farmers

Top Saskatchewan apiarists talk about farmers, bee habitat and neonic bans

Apiarists Simon and Dan Lalonde have seen a lot of changes in the bee industry since their father, Tony, began the beekeeping operation near Clavet, Sask., in 1979. Tony and his sons gradually grew the business and today they run approximately 45,00 hives. As well as selling honey in bulk, their company, Tony Lalonde Sales, is a leading international distributor of beekeeping supplies.

One of the significant and positive changes that has taken place is the co-operation that exists today between beekeepers and farmers.

“I remember when I was growing up, it seemed to be the aerial applicators going against the beekeepers — one group battling another. Now there’s more communication with all applicators.

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“We have farmers who’ll call and tell us they plan to be spraying near a location where we have bees, so we can work out timing. In some cases, we can go in and protect the bees by placing wet burlap sacks over the entrances to prevent spray from drifting into the hives or we can relocate the beehives. There’s been a shift in awareness of the importance of bees,” says Simon Lalonde, currently a director of the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Development Commission.

A new app called DriftWatch is now available and is registered in Saskatchewan, the only Canadian province to utilize this tool, through funding from the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Development Commission, Aerial Applicators and the Government of Saskatchewan. According to their website this tool “enables crop producers, beekeepers and pesticide applicators to work together to protect specialty crops and apiaries through the use of mapping programs.”

Lalonde says the onus is on the applicators to inform beekeepers where and when they plan on spraying, but work is being done to add new developments in DriftWatch so it can alert an applicator to a sensitive area, such as bees, orchards, or organic land. “Farmers can spray a fungicide when canola is in full bloom. Restrictions are identified on each label, and farmers and applicators are required to follow those rules.”

Working together benefits both crop producers and beekeepers. Canola growers are aware of the economic benefit of granting beekeepers access to their land. “They understand they will get quicker pollination times for their crops, more consistent seed sets, higher volumes, and often a higher grade product,” says Lalonde. For beekeepers, the big honey flow occurs during the three or four weeks in July when canola fields are in bloom. Similar to farmers, beekeepers work hard in the field for nine months but only have approximately six to eight weeks to take off their entire crop.

Loss of forage areas

An area of change that has had a negative impact on beekeepers is the loss of forage areas for their bees. In the past, alfalfa, clover and other pasture wildflowers provided forage before and after canola flowered. “The big advantage for us came with the timing of the crops. In Saskatchewan, alfalfa usually begins flowering mid-June, and flowers for about 10 days, after which the farmers cut it for feed. Then canola starts coming into full bloom and under the right weather conditions, blooms for about three to four weeks. By the end of July when the canola is done, the second cut of alfalfa comes back into bloom, as well as various clovers.

“Many farmers around here don’t cut that second growth of alfalfa, so all through August and early September we had forage for our bees. That’s one of the crops that produces a beautiful white, creamy honey, and that’s where some of the profit in beekeeping can be realized. But when BSE hit in 2003, many farmers sold their cattle and turned their alfalfa and hay land over and began planting cash crops. So we lost those forage areas. There are areas in the province with a significant number of hives that depend 100 per cent on canola for a honey crop,” Lalonde notes.

As farmland increases in value, beekeepers like the Lalondes are finding that there are fewer places like old yard sites to house caraganas and dandelions.
photo: Courtesy Simon Lalonde

Also, with the increase in the value of farmland, many farmers are bulldozing old yard sites, bush lines and marshy areas, which provide shelter and forage for honeybees. As a result, beekeepers are losing more forage areas and bee yard sites sheltered by trees. The trees can help catch spray drift that comes in and might encroach into the bee yard and create protected areas from winter winds.

“In the spring, we used to have caraganas and dandelions that provided big spring honey flows that the hives would be able to sustain themselves. But we’re finding the diversity isn’t there anymore. We’re losing a lot of the spring flowers that bees depend on for spring forage.

“Prior to the 2000s we didn’t have to feed the bees in the spring. Now we have to put out an additional 40 to 70 pounds of feed per hive (approximately) to get the bees through those two months. So that’s not only an extra expense, but also, more importantly, it’s worse for the bees because they’re not getting the necessary nutrients from a diversity of flowers. The loss of forage sources seems to be starting to impact the bees.”

Neonicotinoids

Prairie beekeepers like the Lalondes are also concerned how the proposed neonicotinoid ban might affect their industry. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) will potentially phase out two main neonics used in seed treatments in canola, corn and soybeans because of the potential harm to aquatic insects when the residue ends up in streams, rivers or lakes.

“Right now, the concern to a beekeeper is: if there are no more neonics, what are farmers going to use? Will they turn to harsher chemicals that will be more destructive to bees? Or will a farmer spend more money from their bottom line to use a product that is safe for bees? It takes at least three years to develop new chemicals to replace neonics. In Western Canada we didn’t see a big spike in bee mortality back in 2002 and 2003 when farmers began using neonics as a seed treatment, possibly because of different crops and planting styles versus Eastern Canada and the U.S. Midwest,” he adds.

Prairie beekeepers like the Lalondes are also concerned how the proposed neonicotinoid ban might affect their industry. Will farmers turn to harsher chemicals?
photo: Courtesy Simon Lalonde

Bee losses appear to be higher in Eastern Canada and the U.S. than in the West, according to Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council. Lalonde wonders if the residual dust from the neonic pesticide that is vented into the atmosphere during seeding, is partly to blame for the higher bee mortality. “Corn seed is not smooth and round like canola seed, so there may be more chemical dust that is created during seeding which then settles on the flowers and bees are taking that back to the hive. This is a highly debated topic with studies from both sides of the argument to validate their points.”

The varroa mite is also having an impact on bee populations. “It’s the biggest disease pathogen that’s changed beekeeping,” Lalonde says. “The varroa mite acts as a vector for many other viruses. The mites weaken the bees’ immune systems, which appears to allow other viruses to be transmitted through the bee population.

“We do a lot of intensive mitemanagement. We have a simple way to check mite levels. If they get too high, depending on what time of season it is, there are different ways we can solve the problem. However, beekeepers must be aware of their mite levels and be prepared to act quickly and appropriately.

“The bee industry, like farming, has become a science,” Lalonde adds.

For more information, visit saskbeekeepers.com.

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