Peter Awram of Honeyview Farm inspects one of the hives at a blueberry farm in Yarrow. The blueberry farm hired Honeyview to use its bees for pollinating its berry crops.

Peter Awram of Honeyview Farm inspects one of the hives at a blueberry farm in Yarrow. The blueberry farm hired Honeyview to use its bees for pollinating its berry crops.

Bee shortage causing buzz in blueberry fields

Local blueberry growers are struggling to get bees to pollinate this season's crops.

During the past few weeks, Rosedale beekeeper Peter Awram has been getting panicked calls from blueberry growers from Chilliwack and the Lower Mainland. They’re asking him for hives, whatever he can spare, and he’s turning most of them away.

Blueberry farms in Chilliwack and across B.C. are in crisis mode. Blueberries need to be pollinated now. But there aren’t enough wild bees, and growers are constrained by the dearth of pollination services.

Awram works at Honeyview Farms in Rosedale alongside his parents and two brothers. The family business is the largest bee farm in British Columbia, with about 4,000 hives. While the company raises bees to produce honey, one-third to half of its business comes from renting out honeybees to growers to pollinate this season’s crops, especially blueberries.

“Just about everybody is using bees,” said Prof. Tom Baumann, who heads the University of the Fraser Valley’s Pacific Berry Resource Centre in Chilliwack. “It’s crucial to have bees. Otherwise there’s not much fruit, or miserably small berries.”

Each acre of blueberries needs several hives to pollinate it to ensure a good crop, but with honeybee populations in severe decline globally, Awram estimates that there’s not even one hive per blueberry acre in B.C. The results are usually the puny blueberries that shoppers see in the market.

Despite overwhelming demand for pollination services, Honeyview Farms hasn’t been able to increase its hive numbers in recent years because of the challenges of the bee business.

One is the mysterious and unsolved colony collapse disorder, which hit Honeyview last year.

“They started of, they looked fine, and then they just went down, down, down,” said Awram.

Another is the difficulty of nurturing bees through the Canadian winter, and replenishing hive numbers in the spring.

“We can count on losing 25 per cent of bees over winter,” said Awram.

Wintering equipment is very expensive, costing Honeyview $250 per hive. With 4,000 hives, that’s $1 million each year just on nurturing bees through the cold months.

What complicates the situation is that Honeyview, like all Canadian beekeepers, cannot import two-pound boxed packages of bees from mainland U.S. These packages grow into hives, and serve to restore a bee farm’s hive numbers in the spring.

In 1987, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency banned the importation of honeybee packages from the continental U.S. following a varroa mite outbreak. Within four years, the number of bee colonies in B.C. plummeted 30 per cent, from a high of 58,500 in 1987 to 40,500 in 1991, according to Statistics Canada. They have never regained that high, and were only 42,560 in 2012.

Honeyview Farms in Rosedale is financially contributing to a lawsuit against the Canadian government for $200 million in damages from banning the import of bee packages. Filed in Dec. 2012, the suit is signed by three beekeepers, including Surrey’s Honeybea Centre, and two in other provinces.

“If we had the free movement of bees, they would still be wintering here, but we would be able to make up those losses,” said Awram.

It’s increasingly more effort to keep the bees alive every year on Honeyview. The farm is still importing bee packages, but from Australia, New Zealand, and Chile, which cost much more. That cost is passed on to growers, and to consumers.

The Rosedale business is constrained by these challenges.

“We have this market if we can build it up,” said Awram.

Meanwhile, because bee farmers can’t produce enough bees, blueberry growers are starved for pollination services.

“We could probably produce 10, 20 million pounds (of blueberries) more if we had ideal pollination,” said B.C. Blueberry Council chairperson Mike Makara.

The lack of pollination is one of the top issues facing blueberry growers, and can be a deciding factor whether farmers stay in the business.

“When you’re spending a set amount of dollars per acre, and you’re getting less and less production per acre because you don’t have the bees, that is critical. And that could be the difference between you’re really profitable, or just scraping by. Or maybe you shouldn’t be farming,” said Makara, who is a third generation blueberry grower.

At UFV, Baumann has completed research on how to replace some of the “bee power,” as he calls it. This includes finding ways to strengthen the blueberries’ own plant growth regulators, like hormones in humans, so that the berries produce more fruit with less pollination. The service will be commercially available next year.

The federal food inspection agency has recognized that bee packages may be contributing to the bee industry’s decline.

“The CFIA is currently conducting a full risk assessment to determine if imported honeybee packages from the continental U.S. no longer pose an unacceptable level of risk to Canada’s domestic honeybees,” confirmed CFIA.

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