2017 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 18 bee yards in of Haldimand, Niagara, Norfolk and Timiskaming. 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 23,000 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 27% for the winter of 2016–2017. This was higher than the overwinter mortality reported in the previous year (18%).

Notable statistics about the 2017 Ontario beekeeping industry include:

  • number of registered beekeepers: 3,331
  • number of registered colonies: 105,244
  • average honey yield/colony: 19 kg (43 lb) per colony
  • total estimated honey crop: 3.0 million kg (4.2 million lb)
  • overwinter honey bee losses reported by commercial beekeepers: 27%

Pest and disease levels

During the 2017 beekeeping season, OMAFRA inspected a total of 1,006 bee yards. The presence of common apiary pests and diseases was assessed by ministry apiary inspectors through the brood nest inspection of 7,614 colonies. Inspectors checked for varroa mites in 2,400 of the colonies receiving brood nest inspections and checked for SHB in an additional 22,439 colonies through top bar inspections.

The prevalence of the following diseases among inspected colonies were:

  • American foulbrood: 1.18%
  • European foulbrood: 0.03%
  • sacbrood virus: 1.67%

American foulbrood (Paenibacillus larvae)

American foulbrood (AFB), a bacterial disease of honey bees, was detected in 90 honey bee colonies or 1.18% of the colonies inspected in Ontario. The 2017 data represents an increase in AFB from 2016 when AFB was observed in 0.51% of inspected colonies.

Sample analysis confirmed that the strains of AFB circulating in Ontario remain susceptible to oxytetracycline. This is good news since antibiotic resistant strains of AFB have been detected in other jurisdictions across Canada. 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.

AFB remains a very serious disease of honey bees with the potential to cause economic loss within a beekeeping operation and at a population level. Beekeepers who observe symptoms of AFB should contact their local Apiary Inspector immediately.

Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)

SHB is an insect pest of honey bees. A total of 18 apiaries, both commercial (operating 50 or more colonies) and small-scale (operating 49 or fewer colonies), tested positive for SHB in Ontario (one in Haldimand, 11 in Niagara, 5 in Norfolk and 1 in Timiskaming). This represents fewer new detections in 2017 compared to 2016 (n=21). 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.

Small hive beetle is capable of damaging colonies when conditions are ideal and when colonies are not managed properly. However, there have been very few reports of SHB creating damage under Ontario conditions. The presence of larvae, which is the main cause of SHB damage to colonies, is documented during apiary inspections.

Although SHB larvae has been found in honey bee colonies in Ontario, they are typically at low, non-damaging levels of infestation. Any potential impact from SHB will depend on the beekeeper’s management practices and specific environmental conditions that may allow beetle larvae to increase. To date, the impact of this pest in Ontario has been limited.

The province has transitioned to a management strategy, which is consistent with other jurisdictions with SHB. Through a SHB working group (comprised of representatives from the beekeeping sector, technology transfer specialists and government representatives), OMAFRA is collaborating with industry specialists and other provinces to limit the spread of SHB and mitigate the economic impact of this pest on Ontario’s beekeeping industry.

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.

SHB has been found in several other Canadian provinces (such as British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec) prior to 2017. SHB was detected in Alberta and New Brunswick in 2017, and these cases were in association with the importation of colonies from Ontario. The movement of Ontario bees to Alberta was determined to be non-compliant whereas the movement of bees to New Brunswick was compliant. Although all required protocols were followed prior to sending colonies to New Brunswick, the risk of SHB cannot be entirely eliminated. Ontario continues to work closely with trading partners to mitigate the spread of SHB across Canada.

Varroa mites (Varroa destructor)

The presence of varroa mites, which are parasitic mites of honey bees, is widespread in North America and they are 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 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, 2,400 (1,784 commercial, 616 small-scale) 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).

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 commercial honey bee operations.

Figure 1: Mean varroa mite infestation levels and treatment thresholds in Ontario commercial honey bee operations in 2017.

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

Figure 2: Mean varroa mite infestation levels and treatment thresholds in Ontario small-scale honey bee operations in 2017.

Among commercial operations, the mean varroa mite infestation remained below treatment thresholds and ranged from a low of 0.15% in May to a high of 2.54% in October (Figure 1). The degree of varroa mite infestation among small-scale operations was variable, ranging from a low of 0.52% in June to a high of 3.67% in October. The mean varroa mite infestation for small-scale operations was above recommended treatment thresholds in October (Figure 2).

The data presented in Figures 1 and 2 represents the colonies inspected in 2017 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. While most of the colonies sampled (represented by mean) during inspection for varroa mites were below the treatment threshold in fall (3 varroa mites per 100 bees), there were colonies that were above the threshold. This demonstrates that some colonies were likely going into winter with damaging levels of varroa mite infestation.

Compared to commercial beekeeping operations, fewer colonies operated by small-scale beekeepers were inspected. This resulted in smaller sample sizes, particularly for August and October when 54 and 18 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 August and October.

This report highlights the importance of late season monitoring for varroa mites, both in September and in October, after varroa treatment has been applied, to ensure that the treatment was effective at lowering the level of infestation.

Treatments for varroa mites

Treatments for varroa mites and any other pest or disease must be legally registered in Canada for use, including the product, the active ingredients and the application method(s). For effective treatment of varroa mites and to reduce the development of resistant populations, beekeepers must follow label directions when using control products. For example, if the label says to use 1 strip of an acaricide per 5 frames of bees, then a double brood chamber needs 4 strips. The Treatment options for honey bee pests and diseases in Ontario lists the only methods that should be used.

Beekeepers may have access to additional registered treatments soon. Bayvarol® is a synthetic strip product which uses the active ingredient flumethrin and was registered for use in Canada in November 2016. This product was available for the 2018 beekeeping season. Another product, Hopguard2®, which uses hops extracts, has recently been submitted for registration in Canada.

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 42% of commercial beekeepers, representing 34,300 colonies across the province.

Based on the responses, the estimated average honey production in Ontario was 19.3 kg (43.0 lb) per colony. This is a major decrease in honey production since 2016 (41.4 kg or 91.0 lb per colony) and below the previous 5-year average.

The honey flow varied by location and was affected by weather patterns. In most areas of the province, the weather was cool and rainy for much of the spring and summer. This contributed to high rates of swarming in spring and very poor conditions for a honey crop during the main summer flow. However, late fall (October) was characterized by very warm weather resulting in a better honey flow in the fall.

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) had been trending upwards until 2017. 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. In 2017, a decrease in the market demand and price for wild blueberries contributed to a decrease in the demand for honey bee colonies being contracted from Ontario for pollination services. Approximately 23,000 honey bee colonies were moved from Ontario to eastern Canada in 2017 for the purpose of pollination.

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. Of particular concern for inspection requirements was the spread of small hive beetle from regions in Ontario to eastern Canada.

Honey bee mortality

Overwinter honey bee mortality

During the spring of 2017, a survey was used to estimate overwinter honey bee colony losses. The survey was distributed to 179 registered commercial beekeepers. Responses were received from 55% of the beekeepers surveyed representing 44,183 colonies across the province. Based on the results of the survey, commercial beekeepers reported an approximate 27% overall honey bee colony loss during the 2016–2017 winter. This was an increase over the 18% winter loss reported in the previous year (2015–2016).

In Canada, 15% is considered the maximum acceptable winter loss. Small-scale beekeepers reported a 29% winter loss. See the full report on 2017 overwinter losses.

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 were 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 is in the process of implementing amendments to the Food and Drug Regulations and policies to increase veterinary oversight of antimicrobials. One significant 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 apply to all producers who purchase products containing medically important antimicrobials, including beekeepers. Once enforcement begins on December 1st, 2018, beekeepers will need to obtain a veterinary prescription which involves establishing a veterinarian-client-patient-relationship to purchase products including oxytetracycline and tylosin (both used to prevent AFB and European foulbrood). These prescription products will only be available for purchase from a veterinarian or pharmacist.

The Ontario government is working with stakeholders, including the apiculture industry, to inform them of the pending changes and facilitate relationships and communication with the College of Veterinarians of Ontario as beekeepers navigate new rules around access to needed products and to foster veterinary access to apiary knowledge and expertise.

For general information on antimicrobial use in agriculture, visit the Antimicrobial resistance in agriculture webpage. For more specific information on antibiotics for beekeeping in Ontario, refer to the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association’s Antibiotic Access Resources for Beekeepers.

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 the Environment, Conservation and Parks (formally 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.