2016 Season highlights

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ (OMAFRA) Apiary Program conducted regular and targeted inspections focused on assessing the presence of the small hive beetle (SHB), which was identified in 21 bee yards in Chatham-Kent, Niagara and Norfolk. All honey bee colonies and associated equipment at these yards were detained while beekeepers completed and submitted biosecurity and movement plans. The SHB quarantine area (Essex and part of Chatham-Kent) remains in place.

Approximately 38,000 honey bee colonies were shipped outside of Ontario for the pollination of blueberry and cranberry crops in eastern Canada.

Ontario beekeepers reported an overall overwinter honey bee mortality of 18% for the winter of 2015–2016. This was the lowest reported overwinter mortality since the winter of 2011–2012 (12%).

Notable statistics about the 2016 Ontario beekeeping industry include:

  • number of registered beekeepers: 2,896
  • number of registered colonies: 97,342
  • average honey yield/colony: 41 kg (91 lb) per colony
  • total estimated honey crop: 4.0 million kg (8.8 million lb)
  • overwinter honey bee losses reported by commercial beekeepers: 18%

Pest and disease levels

During the 2016 beekeeping season, the presence of common apiary pests and diseases were assessed by ministry apiary inspectors through the brood nest inspection of 9,684 colonies. Inspectors checked for varroa mites in 4,362 of the colonies receiving brood nest inspections and checked for SHB in an additional 31,301 colonies through top bar inspections.

The prevalence of the following pests and diseases among inspected colonies were:

  • American foulbrood: 0.51%
  • European foulbrood: 0.10%
  • sacbrood virus: 0.75%
  • chalkbrood: 11.14%
  • SHB: 0.16%
  • varroa mites: 29.90%

American foulbrood (Paenibacillus larvae)

American foulbrood (AFB), a bacterial disease of honey bees, was detected in 49 honey bee colonies or 0.51% of the colonies inspected in Ontario. The 2016 data represents a decrease in AFB from 2015 when AFB was observed in 0.95% of inspected colonies.

Sample analysis confirmed that the strains of AFB circulating in Ontario remain susceptible to registered antibiotics (oxytetracycline, tylosin and lincomycin). While antibiotic resistant strains of AFB have been detected in other jurisdictions, no antibiotic resistant strains of AFB have been detected in Ontario to date. Antibiotics are not a cure for AFB, they are to be used prudently as a management option to reduce the chances of clinical (observable) AFB infection becoming established in a colony. When a colony has clinical AFB, antibiotics are not effective and all infected colonies must be destroyed.

Other brood diseases that were tracked by the ministry's Apiary Program include European foulbrood, chalkbrood, and sacbrood.

Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)

SHB is an insect pest of honey bees. A total of 21 apiaries, both commercial (those beekeepers operating 50 or more colonies) and small-scale (those beekeepers operating 49 or fewer colonies), tested positive for SHB in Ontario (2 in Chatham-Kent, 16 in Niagara and 3 in Norfolk). Due to the high rate of inspection of colonies in the Niagara region to allow for the movement of colonies out of Ontario for pollination services, colonies in this region make up a large proportion of apiary inspections.

In addition to the standard inspection of colonies, ministry apiary inspectors also performed targeted SHB inspections where the top bars of frames directly below the inner cover were assessed visually. When a colony is suspected to be positive for SHB upon visual inspection, a specimen (either adult beetle or larva) is collected and submitted to the University of Guelph's Animal Health Laboratory for confirmatory testing using molecular analysis.

The province has transitioned to a management strategy, which is consistent with other jurisdictions with SHB. Another step to mitigate the spread of SHB in Ontario included the provision of funding to the Ontario Beekeepers' Association (OBA) to support increased knowledge transfer on the biology and management of SHB to help beekeepers plan and adapt their operations for SHB. This support included several workshops and meetings throughout Ontario led by the OBA's Technology Transfer Program and beekeepers with experience in managing SHB.

Additionally, the provincial apiarists from each of the eastern provinces to which Ontario honey bee colonies are shipped for pollination (Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) travelled to Ontario for an information session on SHB. This was an excellent opportunity to share information on inspection protocols and detection techniques, confirmatory testing methodology, laboratory service contacts, SHB best management practices, regional data on the biology of the pest, adaptations and changes in management related to SHB and industry concerns. Two commercial beekeeping operations in Ontario generously provided the venues for the information session for the visiting provincial apiarists, both in the field and in the honey extraction facility.

The ministry has an online map showing the number of SHB-positive bee yards confirmed in each township. This map provides current data for other jurisdictions that import Ontario honey bees and informs beekeepers about where SHB has been detected in Ontario, which helps them to manage the risk to their beekeeping activities.

Varroa mites (Varroa destructor)

The presence of varroa mites, which are parasitic mites of honey bees, is widespread in North America and found in apiaries across the province. This pest has been identified as the main culprit for the death and reduced populations of overwintered honey bee colonies in Ontario. Monitoring varroa mite infestation throughout the season continues to be essential for beekeepers to confirm the degree of infestation at key times in the season, to determine if and when treatments are needed to reduce varroa mite levels, what type of treatment may be required and to determine if mite control methods were successful.

Ministry apiary inspectors sampling for varroa mites during regular apiary inspections typically documented low levels of infestation throughout the beekeeping season. Across the province, 4,326 colonies were inspected for varroa mites using a standard alcohol wash (a sample of approximately 300 bees collected from the brood nest, washed in alcohol and the varroa mites filtered and quantified) and 1,293 of those inspected colonies were found to be positive. The prevalence of varroa mites in Ontario apiaries in 2016 was twice as high as what was observed in 2015 (29.9% in 2016 versus 14.5% in 2015).

As varroa mites are widely distributed across the province, the prevalence of these mites is not as informative as the degree of infestation. Guzman et al. (2010) established treatment thresholds for varroa mite infestations. Colonies should be treated for varroa mites in:

  • May if the infestation is greater than 2%
  • August if the infestation is greater than 3%

The mean monthly varroa mite infestation of small-scale honey bee operations.

Figure 1: Mean varroa mite infestation levels and treatment thresholds in Ontario small-scale honey bee operations in 2016.

Among commercial operations, the mean varroa mite infestation remained below treatment thresholds and ranged from 0.05% in March to 1.81% in September. The degree of varroa mite infestation among small-scale operations was variable, ranging from 0.46% in May to 7.21% in October. The mean varroa mite infestation for small-scale operations was above recommended treatment thresholds in March and October (Figure 1).

The data presented in Figure 1 represents the colonies inspected in 2016 and is not necessarily reflective of the beekeeping industry across the province. The low degree of infestation among commercial honey bee operations may confirm the success that some beekeepers have had with the management of varroa mites. Some commercial operations, however, anecdotally reported high varroa mite infestations in late fall. Compared to commercial beekeeping operations, fewer colonies operated by small-scale beekeepers were inspected. This resulted in smaller sample sizes, particularly for March and October when 4 and 16 bee yards were inspected respectively. Small sample sizes may have contributed to the observed increase in mean varroa mite infestation for small-scale operations in March and October.

Monitoring for varroa mites

In an OMAFRA survey on management practices, beekeepers were asked how they monitored for varroa mite infestations. Of the beekeepers that responded to this question, 78% of commercial beekeepers and 64% of small-scale beekeepers indicated that they monitor for varroa mite infestation in their colonies. These results highlight the need for improved monitoring and an opportunity for some small-scale beekeepers to improve varroa mite management. Survey respondents reported using several varroa mite monitoring methods, the most common being either an alcohol wash or a sticky board. Some beekeepers used more than 1 method to monitor for varroa mites. When beekeepers responded “other", beekeepers reported that they used the sugar shake method or visually checked their colonies for varroa mites. Some beekeepers reported examining drone brood for varroa mites.

It is important to stress that visual surveys for mites and sugar shake methods are not considered to be reliable. Reliable methods require the beekeeper to quantify, document and compare varroa to an established threshold using 1 of the 3 established varroa monitoring methods: alcohol wash, ether roll or sticky board.

In the same survey, commercial beekeepers were also asked which treatments were used at the beginning (spring) and the end (fall) of the beekeeping season. According to the survey results:

  • in spring, the most popular acaricide was a 65% liquid formic acid followed by Apivar®
  • in fall, the most popular acaricide was Apivar® followed by oxalic acid

To date, there have been documented resistance issues with both Checkmite++™ and Apistan® in Ontario.

Integrated pest management for varroa mites

The Apiary Program has committed to developing an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy for the Ontario apiculture industry in 2017. Pest management, as opposed to pest eradication, implies that some pests will always be present. IPM is an important concept in beekeeping. The goal of IPM is to manage pest populations below a threshold where they can be tolerated by the honey bee colony. An example of this IPM concept is the management of varroa mites below the treatment thresholds defined by Guzman et al. (2010). Beekeepers can use these thresholds as a guideline to maximize colony survival throughout the season and in advance of winter.

Ontario beekeepers currently have a variety of chemical treatment options available to manage varroa mites. Diverse treatment options for varroa mites are required for balanced and sustainable IPM. Rotating treatments to delay the onset of resistance in varroa mites to particular active ingredients is recommended. When treating for varroa mites, beekeepers must also consider the seasonal weather conditions, the degree of mite infestation and the properties of each treatment.

Honey production

Honey survey questionnaires were mailed to registered Ontario commercial beekeepers to estimate the average honey production in the province. Responses were received from 39% of commercial beekeepers, representing 13,000 colonies across the province.

Based on the responses, the estimated average honey production in Ontario was 41.4 kg (91.0 lb) per colony. This is similar to what was observed in 2015 and slightly greater than the 5-year average.

The honey flow varied by region. The weather was favourable for honey production in many areas of Ontario with high temperatures and dry conditions throughout the summer. In areas of the province where there was adequate precipitation and suitable forage, many beekeepers anecdotally reported greater honey yields than those beekeepers in dryer areas of the province.

Pollination services

In recent years, the demand for pollination services for berry crops in eastern Canada (Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) has increased. The number of honey bee colonies leaving Ontario to pollinate crops in eastern Canada increased from 12,600 colonies in 2010 to 38,000 colonies in 2016. Bees raised for pollination services now represent 39% of the total managed honey bee colonies in Ontario.

To ensure the demand for pollination services continued to be met, Ontario and the eastern Canadian provinces worked collaboratively to develop additional pre-transportation inspection requirements before colonies were shipped across provincial borders, which allowed for the continued movement of Ontario honey bee colonies.

Honey bee mortality

Overwinter honey bee mortality

During the spring of 2016, a survey was used to estimate overwinter honey bee colony losses. The survey was distributed to 203 registered commercial beekeepers. Responses were received from 72% of the beekeepers surveyed representing 67,250 colonies across the province. Based on the results of the survey, commercial beekeepers reported an approximate 18% overall honey bee colony loss during the 2015–2016 winter. This reported decrease in overwinter losses is encouraging. In Canada, 15% is considered the maximum acceptable winter loss.

In-season honey bee mortality

From 2012 to 2016, in-season incidents were reported to Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency. Starting in spring of 2017, Ontario beekeepers will be encouraged to report in-season honey bee mortality incidents to OMAFRA’s Agricultural Information Contact Centre. A honey bee incident is defined as atypical effects characterized by bee mortality, or sub-lethal effects observed in a honey bee colony and suspected by a beekeeper to be related to pesticide exposure.

Antimicrobial use in the apiculture industry

The federal government announced plans to amend the Food and Drug Regulations to increase regulatory oversight of antimicrobials for veterinary use. This proposed change will move antimicrobials deemed important to human medicine to Health Canada's prescription drug list, thereby requiring a veterinary prescription for purchase. This change will also apply to beekeepers since, once implemented, they will need to obtain antibiotics by veterinary prescription.

The Ontario government is working with stakeholders, including the bee industry and the College of Veterinarians of Ontario to provide beekeepers access to needed products and build on veterinary access to apiary knowledge and expertise.

Apiary monitoring

OMAFRA initiated a 5-year Apiary Monitoring Project in 2015 to determine the prevalence and load of apiary pests and pathogens in Ontario's apiculture industry. As part of this project, ministry inspectors visit selected apiaries across Ontario to monitor the prevalence of honey bee pests and pathogens multiple times throughout the season, assess and document the condition of colonies and collect samples that are subsequently tested for pathogens.

Additionally, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change initiated the Pollen Monitoring Network in 2015 to track the presence of pesticides in pollen collected by honey bees.

The data collected as part of the Apiary Monitoring Project will provide a starting point from which subsequent monitoring data can be compared and, over time, will provide seasonal patterns and measures of honey bee pest and pathogen pressures. Monitoring data needs to be collected for multiple years before any broad conclusions can be made.

Ontario's pollinator health strategy

The Ontario government initiated a Pollinator Health Strategy and released the Pollinator Health Action Plan to address current and emerging threats to pollinators under 4 broad categories:

  • reduced habitat and poor nutrition
  • diseases, pests, genetics
  • exposure to pesticides
  • extreme weather and climate change

As part of the strategy, the Ontario government highlighted 3 aspirational targets aimed at improving conditions for pollinators in the province:

  • reduce overwinter mortality rates for managed honey bees to 15% by 2020
  • an 80% reduction in the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed by 2017
  • restore, enhance and protect 1 million acres of pollinator habitat in Ontario

Ontario's vision is to become home to healthy pollinator populations that contribute to a sustainable food supply and support resilient ecosystems and a strong economy.

Further priorities and initiatives outlined in the Pollinator Health Action Plan include, but are not limited to:

  • releasing and consulting on a discussion paper about modernizing the legislative framework for beekeeping (among other components, the modernization proposals could include provisions related to beekeeper training, updated requirements for the location of hives, recordkeeping and traceability and modernized tools for pest and disease management)
  • launching a research call with 1 million dollars in funding for research addressing key knowledge gaps related to pollinator health
  • launching a digital awareness campaign to encourage Ontarians to plant pollinator-friendly gardens