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Why 13 is a magic number when it comes to honeybees

The chilly spring has grounded bees, delaying honey production and crop pollination on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

Thirteen degrees — that’s the “magic number” for honeybees to fly and begin their precious work as pollinators and honey producers, says beekeeper Dana LeCompte.

But this spring, 13 C has been a tough temperature to hit and maintain on the Island and Lower Mainland as chilly weather persists and keeps the prolific pollinators in their hives and honey production at bay by several weeks.

LeCompte and her husband, Bob Liptrot, have about 100 honeybee hives west of Sooke, where their Tugwell Creek Honey Farm has produced honey and mead for more than two decades. Liptrot said queen bees started laying eggs a few months ago and continue to do so. But with the bees unable to fly and gather pollen and nectar — and the late arrival of buds and blossoms — the rapidly growing hives are consuming their winter food stores and are being fed sugar syrups by their keepers to prevent starvation.

“If the population builds too quickly and too large, the queen will slow down,” said Liptrot.

But he said it can result in “weaker colonies” and less honey production.

Liptrot, who has kept bees for four decades, has noticed a trend of cooler springs and hotter summers, which are affecting the plant life that honeybees depend upon — and for the bees’ ability to effectively pollinate food crops.

Saanich beekeeper Bill Fosdick, president of the Capital Region Beekeepers Association, said forager bees barely have time to get out the door and explore their immediate surroundings before cool temperatures sweep through.

He said, like the rest of us, bees are “going a little cabin crazy” with all the rain, wind and cold.

Fosdick said plants and trees need warmer spring temperatures to get their nectar flowing and blossoms out so bees can pollinate, forage, build their combs and produce honey.

“The maple trees are just starting to bud, it’s very late,” said Fosdick. “Bees are temperature driven. At about 13 to 15 degrees, life gets good for them.”

But Fosdick said with temperatures dipping to 3 C overnight and staying cooler during the day, there’s a risk of bees “running out of temperature” and not making it back to their hives.

Honeybees can travel up to three kilometres to forage for nectar, but they do it in short hops, said Fosdick. They usually find what they need.

Fosdick operates a hive of about 10,000 bees in his back yard in Gordon Head, but also keeps two hives on the roof of the Harbour Air Terminal on the Inner Harbour. He said honeybees won’t cross the water into James Bay, but are finding their food in linden trees downtown.

Honeybees spend their lives foraging for pollen and nectar as food for their colonies, and do the essential work of pollinating plants along the way. The nectar stored in their stomachs is passed among worker bees until the water dissipates and becomes honey, which is then stored in combs.

While bumble bees and mason bees are less affected by cooler temperatures, honeybees need warmer weather to do their work.

Alanna Morbin, a beekeeper at Royal Roads University, said while it’s important to realize honeybees’ key role in pollination, several other native species of bees — as well as insects such as moths and mammals such as bats and birds — also contribute heavily to the pollination process and the health of plants.

Morbin said Royal Roads is adding an extra hive of honeybees this year — up to 100,000 — to help its kitchen garden project. Royal Roads started its Vision in Bloom fundraising initiative this spring to restore a five-acre patch to a productive food and native plant garden. University president Philip Steenkamp has pledged to use the campus gardens to produce food for on-campus and community use.

Resident bees will help that garden produce, Morbin said, and the long vision is create habitat for other native bee species.

The threat of varroa destructor mite

The populations of honeybees are also under a constant threat from the tiny varroa destructor mite. The parasite attaches itself to the larvae of honeybees and slowly weakens them and opens them up to other viruses that can cause mass die offs in colonies.

The varroa destructor has been on the Island for decades, but beekeepers have protected their colonies with treatments of acaricides and miticides, usually in fog applications or in strips in the hive.

But Liptrot said the timing and temperature of treatments is essential. He said beginner beekeepers often go by the calendar, but if it’s too cold, the treatment “will be less effective, if effective at all,” he said.

The parasite is wreaking havoc in hives across the Prairie provinces this year with some producers reporting bee fatalities of up to 80 per cent in their colonies. The Prairies produce about 75 per cent of the commercial honey in Canada.

Fosdick said early indications are the varroa destructor mite damage has been “about average this year,” saying a more accurate count of mortalities will come in the weeks ahead.

“Those in their first season with one or two hives might have lost both. The longer beekeepers with five or six hives might have lost one and the bigger commercial bee keepers with 40 or 50 hives might have a 10 per cent loss.”

He said bee deaths are most noticeable from winter to spring. While a hive can cope with a few of the mites, it can be overwhelmed if not treated and result in a hive being wiped out.

According to the province’s chief apiculturist, the average winter die-off of honeybees is about 12 per cent in B.C., but with extreme weather events and parasites, winter losses in 2020 were above 30 per cent.

Vancouver Island is the third-largest honey producing region in the province after the Fraser Valley and Thompson-Okanagan. There were 7,737 colonies on the Island in 2021 that produced 242,333 kilograms of honey, an average of 31 kilograms per colony, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

dkloster@timescolonist.com