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The trouble with queen bees and how a Nova Scotia apiarist is raising his own

Ben Cornect extracts the last batch of honey for the season from hives at Cornect Family Farm in Denver, Guysborough County, on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Ben Cornect extracts the last batch of honey for the season from hives at Cornect Family Farm in Denver, Guysborough County, on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. - Aaron Beswick
DENVER, N.S. —

Ben Cornect was down to his last couple hives on Friday morning.

Over the 14 days, the Guysborough County man has extracted 27,000 kilograms of honey — half from his own hives and half belonging to  seven other northern Nova Scotia beekeepers.

With the end in sight, the 36-year-old wouldn’t slow his movements between the varied stainless steel contraptions of his one-man processing line to explain the trouble with queens.

“They’ve got Africanized bees moving up through the States, merging and taking over colonies,” said Cornect while pumping on a drum spinner that forces the honey from the celled frames.

“Soon we might not be able to import queens from California anymore.”

There’s a lot to explain.

Invasive ‘killer bees,’ Canadian food Inspection Agency rules, the Canadian dollar, mites and cold damp springs are all contributing to a problem for apiarists like Cornect.

Queen bees are getting really expensive to import.

Long-term threats to our ability to import them are mounting and that matters to all of us who like to eat.

A brief history of bee woes

It is unfortunate that on an October day in 1957 the visiting beekeeper at biologist Warwick Kerr’s apiary in Sao Paulo, Brazil, acted before asking a rather pertinent question.

Because the screens the visiting beekeeper removed were there for a reason — to prevent imported African ‘killer bees’ Kerr was using for genetic testing from going out and interbreeding with local honey bees.

According to maps maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture, the highly aggressive bees that unprovoked will chase a person for a quarter mile have reached a rough line extending from California across to Florida. As they expand they force out local European honeybee populations.

This continued northward march caused the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to change its rules last year to allow the import of queen bees from breeders within 50 kilometres, rather than the previous 100 kilometres, of confirmed Africanized bee colonies.

That’s because the majority of the 220,000 queen bees imported to Canada last year so beekeepers could have fresh hives ready to pollinate farmers crops came from California.

If the Africanized bees continue their advance, and predictions are that they will, Canadian apiarists will become more dependent on distant sources like Hawaii, Chile and New Zealand.

The rules of supply and demand for an agricultural industry reliant upon honeybee pollinators mean those bees will be more expensive.

And they’re already expensive.

Busier than a bee

On March 3, Cornect was digging out his hives, adding miticide to protect them from the tiny pests and giving them corn syrup as needed to trick the bees into thinking there’s lots of food around.

Then to make up for winter losses and to grow, he began splitting hives.

His bees would usually produce new queens that take off with their own loyal subjects in what’s called a ‘swarm’ to build a new colony in May.

But every spring he needs his hives to be ready to pollinate blueberry fields.

So he takes worker bees from one hive and provides them with an imported queen — turning one hive into two.

When he started a decade ago, he was paying $20 for each of the 300 queens he buys in the spring.

This year the price ranged from $38 to $45 per queen bee.

In 1988, Canadian apiarists spent $148,000 on queen bee imports.

In 2017, they spent $7 million.

“Mass importation also creates an unsustainable and precarious dependency on a bee source that is subject to policy decisions like border closures due to disease and pathogen events and other agricultural concerns,” reads the 2019 Canadian Honey Bee Queen Bee Reference Guide.

“Canadian beekeepers are inadvertently supporting foreign queen breeding industries at the expense of our own Canadian breeding economy and overall honey bee health.”

Queens of Nova Scotia

A survey of apiarists conducted for the reference guide found the primary cause of hive death in Canada last year was trouble with imported queens.

The document posits that local queens have better genetics for their environment.

“Whoever is in charge is always going to get the finger pointed at her,” cautioned Kevin Spicer.

“The queen always gets the finger pointed at her but there are thousands of other variables that influence hive mortality.”

At the orchard and apiary he runs with his brother outside Berwick, Spicer raises to sell over a thousand queen bees every year.

He is one of the largest of a handful of queen growers in Nova Scotia.

“To me it’s the ultimate in beekeeping,” said Spicer.

A broken leg at 13 saw his father sign him up for a beekeeping course to keep him busy.

For those who fall under the thrall of this unique specie that, unlike humans, have evolved to live and work together efficiently in groups of many thousands to the common good — one hive is never enough.

He now has over 500 — most of which head to blueberry fields around Parrsboro in the spring.

He delegates as much of the work around moving hives in the spring and honey production as possible to free himself up for breeding queens.

In the spring Spicer scoops queen larvae from mother hives and gives them to starter units of worker bees to raise for about eight days.

In a complex process he has refined over decades of trial and error and self education he transfers his young queens to mating units in a building kept at 22 degrees Celsius.

His queens are specially selected for mite resistance and come from a genetic stock imported from England by his own teacher, Don Amirault, three decades ago.

“I’m told our local queens do perform better, but I can only go by what my customers tell me,” said Spicer.

His queens aren’t usually ready for sale until June. Cold, wet springs have pushed that back to July the last couple years.

That is well after most beekeepers need queens to split their hives to be prepared for pollinating agricultural crops.

There’s been a push on by the Department of Agricultural to get more beekeepers raising queens to help address biosecurity concerns.

Along with the federal government, it provided funding for the Dalhousie University Agriculture Campus in Bible Hill to develop a commercial queen production course. The first iteration of that course was held in July and drew thirteen experienced beekeepers.

At his farm outside Berwick, Spicer has been conducting his own knowledge transfer program — to his son Matthew.

Asked about the potential for raising bees earlier in the season to accommodate the needs of beekeepers, Spicer wasn’t optimistic.

“It’s not completely out of the question but it is difficult,” said Spicer.

“There are significant economic factors involved.”

In his steel building in Denver, Guysborough County, economic factors are rarely far from Cornect’s mind.

He dove full into bees and honey production seven years ago — borrowing to invest nearly $150,000 into his honey extraction line. At the time it was the first of its kind in the province. It increased his speed of extraction from two and half months to two weeks and has allowed him to contract his services out to other northern Nova Scotia beekeepers.

The increasing cost of queens is just one of many economics pressures on his business.

“You see that truck outside,” he said of the flatbed for moving hives.

“I didn’t want to buy that, but it was a necessity.”

Queens are a necessity too.

And despite the pressures on queens he still sees a healthy future for his family, which has grown to three children under six years old, in beekeeping based on a rather clear equation.

Everybody needs to eat.

We don’t get to do that without bees.

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