Domestic Bees Suffer from Wildfires, while Native Bees Thrive

By Diane Dunaway –

Reports of honey bee losses are high this spring in the BC Interior. Many suffered after a tough summer and fall, followed by an old-fashioned winter and a long, cool spring.

Bumblebee and honey bee on apricot blossom. Photo: Diane Dunaway

Anecdotally, the bees had limited flying conditions for several weeks starting in early July of last year when the wildfire smoke was most severe. This caused them to stay inside their hives and consume their limited honey and pollen stores. Limited, because July is typically when honey bees are geared to fill their pantries. It’s also when their population inside the hive is at its highest at 50,000 plus bees. A strong work force, at five times the number of hungry mouths to feed when compared to the colony size of 10,000 to 15,000 bees in the spring and fall. It’s fair to say that nutrition was compromised due to these factors.

This prolonged dearth period, a beekeeper term for lack of available forage, happened at the worst imaginable time, when in late summer bees transition to winter mode. This is a phenomenon where emerging young workers change their physiology to that of “fat bees” that can live for three to five months, instead of the shorter lifespan of four to six weeks in the spring and summer.

Many of us tried to make up for this shortfall in the fall with extra supplemental feeding. And some beekeepers had success by feeding out early in August. However, to give you an idea of the bees’ duress, in the Quesnel area there are accounts of bees absconding from their hives in search of better habitat—self-preservation in action.

At our farm, we did not harvest any honey for the first time in 20 years of beekeeping. Whatever they managed to collect was best allocated for the bees’ own needs. Our region reported record low honey yields in 2017.

Many farmers in the Cariboo-Chilcotin experienced poor crop growth, attributed to the wildfire smoke that caused ultraviolet light blockage. This limited available forage for bees, livestock, and other wildlife. To compound matters further, we were besieged by drought conditions.

Perhaps as the effects of climate change and subsequent mega-wildfires become more of a common occurrence, there will be better scientific research directed towards the effects on domestic bees. This coupled with the co-operation of local authorities may enable emergency bee feeding. Permits were not readily available for some beekeepers to get across roadblocks last summer when they needed to reach their apiaries.

On a happier note, a two-year study completed in 2017 by Sara M. Galbraith, a post-doctoral researcher in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, suggests that moderate and severe forest fires create conditions that can lead to greater abundance and diversity of wild bees.

“Such studies are important,” Galbraith said, “because the early stages of forest development – what researchers call early seral forests – have become less common. This research adds to the evidence that there is high biodiversity in early seral forests relative to older stands, and moving forward, this could have an impact on services like pollination in the landscape overall. Without this fundamental information, we can’t be sure of the best management actions to conserve pollinator populations within managed forests.” Read more at: www.phys.org/news/2017-08-wild-bees-severe-forest.html#jCp

So, there we have it. Hope and room for improvement. A nice reminder as we walk through our gardens and orchards and listen to both domestic and wild bees buzzing in gleeful abandonment. Pollination. Go bees!

Diane Dunaway has kept honey bees for over 20 years. A bee master since 2001, and provincial apiary inspector since 2015, she teaches beekeeping and does extension work for the Ministry of Agriculture. Diane’s run up to 100 colonies from her Bee Happy Honey farm in the Soda Creek Valley. When not chasing swarms around the countryside, she can be found at home with her husband Dave and their menagerie of animals.

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