Blaine Hardie has seen a lot in his many years harvesting honey and beeswax from the many hives he cultivates in the Cowichan Valley.
Hardie owns Duncan’s Hardie Honey, which opened in 1996 and currently produces approximately 10,000 pounds of honey each year that he sells mostly to local retail outlets and individuals who drop by the bee farm on Robson Road.
Hardie’s business was much larger in years gone by, dropping from up to 400 bee hives per season to approximately 125 this year as he begins to slow down operations and plan his retirement from the industry.
Each of his hives can contain as many as 80,000 honeybees during the peak of each season and, each year, he places his hives near forest roads where fireweed plants grow.
Hardie said the nectar the bees collect from the fireweed gives his honey its unique colour and flavour.
He said he first started honeybee farming 36 years ago as a hobby after his father and grandfather introduced him to the business, but decided to go at it full time in 1996 when he opened Hardie Honey.
Hardie works with Italian honeybees, which he finds are the best for his honey production, while Carniolan bees are more common among other honey producers in the Valley.
But, regardless of the type of bee each honey producer chooses, all have faced challenges in recent years with the mortality rates of the bees.
While many point to a phenomena that has become known as “colony-collapse disorder”, most bee specialists are hesitant to point to just one cause for the ongoing problem.
But it’s a fact that most honey producers in the Valley, and across many parts of North America, have seen a significant number of their bees, if not all, suddenly die off or go missing some seasons.
Added to the problem is the discovery of what are called “zombie bees” in Nanaimo just this summer, and the fears the infected bees will spread across the Island and into the Cowichan Valley.
It’s generally believed the zombie bees, which get their name from the zombie-like symptoms they develop after they are infected by a fly parasite, recently crossed the border from the U.S.
A female fly lays the egg into a living bee and when the larvae hatches, it starts to eat the bee from the inside and eventually causes the death of the bee
While there have been no reported cases of zombie bees in the Cowichan Valley at this time, it’s another worry for local beekeepers.
Hardie said he has lost up to 60 per cent of his bees in some recent years which significantly cut into his honey production.
And it’s not only the honey industry that is taking a hit from the die-offs.
The die-offs of many pollinating bees, of which there are more than 450 species in B.C. including the honeybee, are also responsible for loss of crops that rely on the pollination by bees.
That’s causing major concerns in B.C.’s highly productive agriculture sector.
Pollinating bees contribute an estimated $470 million each year to the province’s economy, through their pollination of crops, and $2 billion across Canada.
“It’s certainly costly for my honey operation when die-offs happen,” Hardie said.
Hardie said there are likely many reasons for the die-offs, but he believes a significant part of the problem is related to the fact that the varroa mite, which is originally from Africa and makes bees susceptible to other viruses, has migrated to North America.
“They were first discovered on Vancouver Island in a honeybee farm in the Coombs area back in 1996, and have been spreading across the Island ever since,” he said.
“I also believe that climate change and the use of pesticides are also playing a part in the die-offs. But every time it happens to us, we just start over with new queens. There’s no giving up.”
The Cowichan Valley is home to between 150 and 200 beekeepers, ranging from backyard hobbyists to commercial operations like Hardie Honey, and most of them are members of the Cowichan Beekeepers organization.
Julie Robinson is a director with the Cowichan Beekeepers and, together with its president Don Fowler, she cares for approximately 40 hives on an annual basis.
She said Cowichan Beekeepers has approximately 140 members, a big jump from about 85 members in recent years.
But Robinson said many of the new members aren’t interested in making honey.
“Many have seen news reports on colony-collapse disorder and bee die-offs and want to do their part to try and keep bees around the area,” she said.
“They know how important bees are for pollinating plants in their gardens and the Valley.”
She said the honey industry has plenty of challenges in the Valley, even before considering the impacts of bee die-offs.
“We may have a mild climate here, but it’s also a very wet one and that can have adverse impacts on bees and the hives,” Robinson said.
Robinson said she is aware of a number of local beekeepers that have experienced significant mortality rates over the years, but, like Hardie, she couldn’t offer any definitive reason why.
“No one can say for sure what’s happening, and no one can really define exactly what colony-collapse disorder is,” she said.
“It’s been said that it could be a combination of pesticide use, climate change, fungi and mites, but it’s mostly just speculation and no one really knows..
“It may be that we’re only hearing so much about bee die offs these days because more people are reporting it than ever before.”
But, despite the ongoing challenges, Robinson said more queen bees can always be ordered in if beekeepers lose all or a significant amount of their hives.
However, she said they must be ordered in from New Zealand.
“We can’t produce enough queen bees here to keep up with demand, and we can’t get them from the U.S. anymore because the border has been closed to them in an effort to prevent diseases from coming into Canada,” Robinson said.
“They must come from New Zealand because that country has no mites; at least not yet.”
Paul van Westendorp, an apiculturalist with the Ministry of Agriculture, agreed with the assessment that no one cause is attributed for colony collapse disorder, but added that humans may be playing a part as well.
He said the incursion of roads, parking lots and other developments into the natural habitat is having “huge impacts” on honeybees and other bee species.
Van Westendorp said, as well as the loss of habitat, forest companies are beginning to deny beekeepers’ access to forest roads on their properties where, like Hardie, they would set up their hives to take advantage of fireweed and other plant species that grow there, for their nectar.
He said the new policy is likely related to liability concerns by the forest companies.
“Many beekeepers are now struggling to to find suitable locations for their hives,” van Westendorp said.
He also said the nature of the honeybee business is changing, with fewer smaller companies.
“There just weren’t as many diseases or as much pesticide use 25 years ago as there are now,” van Westendorp said. “Now the queens have to be replaced frequently and the hives have to be monitored more, so operating expenses have gone up dramatically while productivity has not, making some smaller operations economically unfeasible.”