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Golden Opportunity for Abandoned Farms

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Issue: 51 Section: Agriculture Geography: Atlantic Cape Breton

April 25, 2008

Golden Opportunity for Abandoned Farms

Organic beekeepers co-op fighting to keep Cape Breton free of varroa mite

by Frank MacDonald

Honey bees at the entrance of a hive. Photo: Jean Timmons

Organic beekeepers on Cape Breton Island are responding quickly in an effort to ensure the island remains free from the spread of the varroa mite, a suspect in the epidemic called Colony Collapse Disorder. Last winter, Colony Collapse Disorder affected between 50 and 90 per cent of commercial bee colonies in the United States. In Canada, 30 per cent of commercial colonies were killed off.

With bees responsible for as much as 30 per cent of our food needs, the consequences of the varroa mite and the colony collapses constitute a looming disaster, and a Cape Breton beekeeping organization is making an effort to keep the island free of those destructive forces.

The Cape Breton Organic Beekeepers Co-op (CBOBC) is currently taking steps to keep Cape Breton varroa mite-free, and potentially will soon be the only mite-free area in Canada or North America, explained CBOBC president, Dennis Laffan of North River Bridge.

Laffan credits another beekeeper, Cyril Welsh, with fostering the idea following two reported incidents of varroa mite on the island. “That was a clarion call to action. We had to do something right away because Cape Breton is one place in the world that has not been affected.”

Beekeepers in Cape Breton have been receiving their hive stock from two experienced beekeepers on the island. “Pretty much everyone got started by them and they always had clean stock,” said Laffan.

The situation began when the senior beekeepers retired and two blueberry growers used imported bees from mainland Nova Scotia to pollinate the blueberry fields, resulting in two reported incidents of varroa mite last year. The beekeepers’ response was immediate, Laffan said. One keeper burned his hives. The other destroyed affected bees and has been monitoring the rest.

“We knew we had to get organized to keep free of the varroa mite or it would destroy beekeeping,” Laffan said, pointing out just how destructive the mite can be on the industry. In Western Canada, he said, beekeepers raising conventional honey receive 60 cents a pound for their honey. In Cape Breton, organic beekeepers receive $4.50 a pound.

The are just 20 members in the Cape Breton Organic Beekeepers Co-op, but Laffan and fellow co-op member Jean Timmons of Coady Road in Margaree Forks believe that the industry can be increased to a hundred or more keepers, especially if the island can be kept free of the varroa mite. None of the Co-op members import queens or packages of bees from off Cape Breton Island.

“Cape Breton is really on the edge of the bee world,” Laffan explained. “This is the northern frontier economically. It’s really the last place where beekeeping has a financial reward. Various beekeepers have made a good living here but those people are retiring.

“Our objective is to have every beekeeper on the island associated with us for the simple reason that if we have one renegade beekeeper bringing in bees from outside, it threatens us all.”

One of the strengths of Cape Breton as an ideal location for organic beekeeping, explained Timmons, is found in the unfortunate failure of so many farms in Cape Breton. “Because farming has been in decline, a lot of the fields have had no pesticides. Along the Margaree River, very little pesticides have been used. It is an ideal world for beekeeping.”

The local beekeepers say that in other areas, besides raising bees for honey, people rent their hives out for pollination, which helps spread Colony Collapse Disorder. It is a hive disaster that has been slowly making its way towards Canada. The disorder puts stress on the bees, causing losses in the millions in the United States. Coupled with the varroa mite, which is a carrier for many other diseases, the danger to local beekeeping operations exists, unless the response is fast and total.

“It wouldn’t be hard to contain the varroa mite on Cape Breton with a strict protocol,” Laffan said. That protocol would require monitoring very, very closely, hives brought in from the mainland by blueberry growers, a situation that will continue to exist until the Cape Breton organic industry reaches the numbers of hives needed for both honey and pollination success.

Currently, the organic Co-op’s membership has approximately 100 hives. To meet both the need for honey production and pollination, Laffan and Timmons estimate that 1,000 hives will need to be nurtured on the island.

The organic keeping of bees, along with having pesticide-free fields, also requires a major “priming of the organic pump.” While organic beekeepers in Cape Breton are receiving an impressive price for their honey, they only harvest half the honey in each hive, leaving the rest for the bees to feed on throughout the winter. In other commercial practices, all the honey is removed and the bees are fed sugar, which both Laffan and Timmon feel is not an adequate food source.

“We are trying to put together a two- to three-year proposal. We have talked to blueberry growers and to their suppliers of bees (on the mainland), which bring 300-400 hives here for the blooming season—-usually one month,” Timmons explained. “We want to see of we can help the blueberry growers.”

The CBOBC would like to see the bees brought to Cape Breton in enclosed semi-trailers, help co-ordinate where they would be put, and monitor them for the presence of varroa mite. They would also watch for bees that may split themselves off from the hives to form new swarms, and they would watch those swarms closely.

The project would involve having a full-time beekeeper dealing with the varroa mite and controlling the swarms. The Cape Breton growers would also make a commitment to monitor every hive. Meanwhile, the co-op would be creating its own hives and would over time be able to provide local blueberry growers with the hives required.

“At that time, we are fairly confident we could control the varroa mite,” said Laffan. “We need to be involved with the blueberry growers. It’s a growing industry and if we are not involved in it, we are not going to be involved in beekeeping, either.”

If the Cape Breton Organic Beekeepers Co-op -- which is not in itself certified organic, Laffan explained, but whose individual members are -- is successful in its efforts, it foresees a not too distant time when the island, clean of varroa mite and Colony Collapse Disorder, could become the the continent’s safest source of queens and bee packages to beekeepers in other parts of the North America and the world.

This article was originally published in The Inverness Oran, February 27 2008.

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Anyone know any addresses?

Anyone know any addresses? Email or snail mail. Email me at: louisbourg@gmail.com I am interested in getting some bees and joining the group. I have 150 acres over in Mira that was an abandoned farm and would like to put some hives there.
Thanks for any and all info...........

Varroa mite free beekeeping area in BC

The Powell River Beekeeping District on BC's Sunshine Coast has been kept mite free for many years. Regulations prohibit honey bees to be brought to the isolated area and BC Ferries restrict the transportation of bees on the ferries.

Beekeeping Information

What ever happend with this?

varroa mite

I am from Port Hood, Cape Breton (originally - likely will go home eventually). Recently, I've created an environmental law course for SAIT Polytecnic, where I created various environmental cases involving pollution. I've been a working scientist and consultant in environmental for 18 years.

I did some statistics on colony collapse disorder (CCD) for one of the cases I have created for the course, and there is statistical evidence of a correlation between CCD and air pollution in the U.S. The varroa mite may be an example of a commensalistic relationship which has moved to parasitism as the bee health goes down hill with air pollution problems.

If anyone wants the Excel statistical sheets from this study (which was just one case in this course that I created under contract to SAIT), please let me know. I only recently did these statistics last month as part of this environmental law course contract, and it seems none of the apiary scientists researching this matter of CCD have figured this one out yet and published papers on this matter.

bees and cape breton

Hello, I have bees in my backyard in Santa Monica, California. They live in a stucco wall. They have lived ther for many years, and returned twice after the neighbour called an exterminator. I just ran across this artical because I amd browsing, thinking all the time of taking a flight to Halifax and a rental car to Mabou to visit my friend who recently discovered cancer in her own body. I lived with her nd her family when I was a teenager, in 1976-77. they kept bees at that time, I have so many strong, deep memories from that year, and am pulled to return there. I wish i were there right now and am very tempted to take a flight tonight. I am due to return to work this coming Monday, so i probably won't be able to make it.
hope to meet you some day,
Mary MacQUeen

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