Canadian Honey Producers and CCD: I Remember You

Last year amidst the many farm rallies I’d often see some honey producers in front of me.  Both at Guelph and at Ottawa beekeepers came to tell their agricultural story.  With Argentinean honey being mixed with Australian honey and put on Canadian food shelves, they surely had a beef.

In many ways the problem with the price of honey is just like may other Canadian agricultural products.  It’s all about Canada’s cheap food policy.  However, this past week it seemed to turn into something else.  Media plebs like myself were inundated with news from Germany that cell phones might be the reason so many honeybees in the US, Canada and Europe are disappearing.  The radiation might be preventing the honeybees from returning to their hives.

It’s been called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) where thriving hives are suddenly left with only queens, eggs and hive bound immature workers bees.  This is untenable, as any beekeeper knows.  My experience with bees is a lone Apiculture course at the University of Guelph.  However, I’ve never forgotten those beekeepers standing near the stage at the many farm rallies last winter.  I managed to contact one of those beekeepers (who is a reader of this column) to discuss this current radiation, CCD problem for Canadian honey producers.  This is part of what this reader wrote me about the current problem.

“Scientists have isolated not one, but nine different pheromones the Queen bee gives off to instruct the different levels of workers within a colony about what activity they need to perform to keep a colony behaving in a normal, industrious fashion.  The workers all have their jobs to do but can, at a moments notice, shift gears, so to speak, and take on a different task as required.  The workers know their jobs…nurse bees take care of the egg and brood, housekeepers keep the colony clean, groomers groom the bees and keep them clean, pollinators bring in pollen, nectar gatherers bring in nectar and hand it over to the “honey production” team that add moisture or fan out moisture as required, propolis workers bring in propolis (the propolis also known as bee glue is what bees use to seal their boxes against elements and also has high medicinal properties in it which is also used in certain medicines/ointments by pharmaceutical companies), the Queen’s entourage groom the Queen and feed her “Royal Jelly”, the wax producing workers, and the guards that protect the colony from intruders.  I think I covered most of the jobs bees have.  The Queen decides when the colony becomes crowded and it’s time for expansion; hence, the swarm..natures way of expanding the population.  Or, the beekeeper can intervene and make splits when a colony gets strong.  Therefore, in the case of Colony Collapse Disorder, in theory, something must be affecting the Queen in a very big way.  The possibilities could be some invisible adverse micro-magnetic force (consider the claims from cancer victims who firmly believe their cancer in the head and neck areas was caused by cell phone usage), chemicals in crops that have been tampered with like GMO, pesticides to rid harmful insects sprayed willy-nilly without consideration for beneficial insects…and my two favourite theories 1- importing junk from other countries polluting our eco system instead of using our own technology and farmers (look at the harmful insects imported that have ravaged the pine, maple and ash trees) and 2 – pollution from industries, fuel emissions from autos, landfill sites, water sources etc. I’m also a paranoid farmer and firmly believe in other countries penetrating our atmosphere with harmful substances for specific purposes.  I also heard that there would be some studies on bee colonies kept by Amish beekeepers to see if what they do in the way of farming might be an advantage for bee colony survival….this will be a little tricky as bees need to be in a secluded area of a seven mile radius…so their bees may, depending on location, be flying outside the Amish farming community.” (Quoted from an Ontario Beekeeper and reader of this column)

It’s an interesting explanation for sure. Keep in mind Canadian scientist David Suzuki claims 30% of our food is directly the result of pollination by honeybees.  Losses in Ontario alone this year for lost bees is about $5 million.  The potential damage to the greater fruit and vegetable economy is anybody’s guess.  Should we say the answer will be “buzzing in the wind” this coming summer.

Does CCD belong in the realm of “strange but true”?  Or does it belong in other agricultural quasi-mysteries such as the effect of “tingle voltage” on dairy cattle?  Or how about the concept of “dirty electricity” and its effects on livestock production?  Where it fits in I don’t know.  Nonetheless, the cell phones explanation seemingly came out of nowhere.  It makes me wonder what else there is in the environment, which may be affecting agricultural production.

Of course for grain and oilseeds producers in 2007, we’d like to see a little bit of CCD hit those pesky soybean aphids.  Whether that happens I don’t know.  It’s unlikely.  Still, it should serve as an example of what could happen.  Nobody in the honey industry saw CCD coming.  Ditto for the soybean aphid in the year 2000.  So what to do?  Pick up that cell phone or go back to yelling across the field and hoping somebody hears you.  At the end of the day just like honey producers, we’ll all just move on.  What’s affecting us out there, nobody really knows.