Quebec beekeepers, and the fruit growers who depend on their operations to pollinate their fields, are heading into spring with trepidation. The industry is concerned that bee mortality rates have been higher this winter.

Pierre Giovenazzo, a bee scientist in the biology department at Laval University, is worried about his 400 or so hives used in a research project.

"I'm worried," he says. "I'm asking my staff to go and check the vault. Right now, it looks good. But now, what's going to come out in three weeks when the snow leaves?"

Losing bees in the spring is a normal part of a beekeeper's production cycle. Winter is a difficult time for the hives with disease and lack of nutrition.

"The bees are in confinement from October-November until April," explained the professor. "It's tough for them. Overwintering mortality in Canada is often around 20 per cent to 30 per cent, normally. In good years, we might be at 18 per cent."

We will have to wait another month or so to get a clear picture of the situation in Quebec, but last summer's weather conditions were conducive to the spread of the varroa mite, a parasite. Last year, the summer was quite long. The varroa mite is a parasite that has a cycle of about 20 days. The longer the summer, the more cycles there are. With every cycle, the parasite doubles its population.

"It's still too early to confirm whether the mortality rate will be higher this year," said Raphaël Vacher, president of the Beekeepers of Quebec (AADQ), but he acknowledges that his members are worried.

Scans conducted last fall suggest that the treatment for the disease "didn't work well."

"In our scans, we realized that there were too many varroa mites in our hives compared to usual," said Vacher. In the past, when we've had this problem, we've always had a much higher loss rate in the spring.

"In the worst years of varroa propagation, the consequences can be dramatic for beekeepers," added Giovenazzo. "The last big mortality in Quebec was in 2003. I was there. The beekeepers were crying. Some had lost 80 per cent of their hives."


If it happens, this excess mortality will come at a time when it is more expensive to replace them. The disruption of the supply chain creates an inflationary effect, even for the import of bees.

Importing bees, which can only be done by air, has become a "cost burden" since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, Vacher says. He points out that transport prices have quadrupled.


The situation is of concern to Quebec blueberry growers, who rent nearly 30,000 hives each year to pollinate their fields.

"It's a big issue for us," says Nicolas Pedneault, president of the Quebec Blueberry Growers' Union (SPBQ).

Having a well-pollinated field can make all the difference for a grower, Pedneault said.

"You can talk about doubling or tripling the yield for a well-pollinated field, versus a field that is not well pollinated. There are really major impacts," he said.

Companies are using bumblebees to diversify their pollinators, but growers have little time to adjust if the varroa mite is more devastating than expected.

"The problem is that we have until the end of March to place orders for bumblebees," said Pedneault. "The date is pretty much gone. It becomes a bit of a roll of the dice, to see what the likely number of hives is that they think they can bring in and decide how many drones to order."

The anticipated scarcity of hives comes at a very bad time for producers, he continues. With rising inflation putting pressure on input costs, crop optimization is even more important for producers.

The previous year was a bad one for blueberry growers due to weather conditions. In the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, where the vast majority of production is located, 30 to 32 million pounds of blueberries were produced, compared to an average of 65 to 70 million pounds over the past five to ten years. Many producers were hoping for a better year to recover from a difficult year, added the SPBQ president.


- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on April 4, 2022