Beekeepers in Newfoundland are trying to keep a deadly pest at bay. The odds are stacked against them

Few beekeepers in Newfoundland and Labrador have practical experience with the varroa mite, an invasive parasite that plagues bees around the world.

Megan Samms is one of the exceptions, with years spent in commercial beekeeping in the Peace Country of Alberta, a bee hotspot in Canada.

“I saw him every day,” she said. “There isn’t a day that you keep bees out there without at least seeing them.”

Samms has not seen a mite – with the naked eye, these are just small red spots – since moving to the Codroy Valley in southwestern Newfoundland there have been a few years with his partner.

Newfoundland and Labrador is the last province in Canada and one of the last places on Earth to be free from this pest, and Samms has joined the efforts of local beekeepers to make it so.

On her small farm and apiary, one of the closest apiaries to the ferry to Nova Scotia, she acts as a sentinel hive: keeping an eye out for the mite if it manages to hitchhike Cabot Strait, and ready. sound the alarm and quarantine the bees if that happens.

Samms knows what’s at stake, having spent his beekeeping in front of fumigating hives in an attempt to keep the mite at bay, or dealing with the destructive consequences of the colony. Vampire-like arachnids not only feed on the bees themselves, but can infect them with a host of other deadly viruses, all of which have unappealing names, and are so far unseen in Newfoundland- and Labrador.

“I would never want to see another colony with the warped wing virus. It’s really sad. They can’t fly, they can’t feed. They wither,” Samms said.

A varroa mite, on the left, feeds on a bee. Mites primarily feed on what works like the liver in bees, but in doing so, they also inject bees with a host of viruses that can kill or deform them.

‘The silent spring’

Much of the world’s commercial beekeeping relies on a single species of bee: the western honey bee.

Native to Africa, humans have spread it around the world for its unparalleled honey-making and pollination abilities. Agricultural pollination far exceeds honey in the economic value of bees, although this commercial use results in the health of both bees and that of native pollinators, such as bumblebees.

At one point, the western honey bee encountered the varroa mite, a parasite native to Asia that feeds on another species of honey bee.

Western bees have little defenses against the mite and the parasite has taken over the world. He arrived in Canada in 1987, probably on the back of foraging worker bees that crisscrossed the border between Maine and New Brunswick. Initially, the parasite was controlled with acaricides, according to New Brunswick Chief Apiaries Inspector Fletcher Colpitts.

But the mites developed resistance, and the result was what Colpitts called “the silent spring” of 2007.

As he and his wife, fellow Apiary Inspector Mary Colpitts, began checking their hives after winter, the usual buzz of energy was rather an eerie calm.

“There are no bees, no noise. No sign of life, no noise of life,” he said.

“We looked under the covers of the bees, after we unpacked them, and all the colonies were dead.”

The Colpitt lost 140 of their 147 colonies. In total, 69% of the province’s colonies were lost that year, he said, with varroa mites being the culprit.

Peter Armitage, who runs Four Cousins ​​Honey on the Bonavista Peninsula in Newfoundland, and co-author of the Varroa Varroa Plan. (Lindsay Bird / CBC)

Pessimism action plan

The mite has since swept across Canada, thanks to a reproductive quirk: Female mites mate with their own sons to produce offspring, meaning a single mite can fuel an entire infestation.

But thanks to a literal rift around Newfoundland, a largely uninhabited border between Labrador and Quebec, and laws that strictly control the importation of bees, the mite has yet to reach the far east. from the country.

Feeling that it is only a matter of time, beekeepers across the province have been busy developing a mite prevention plan and defense strategy in 2020.

Voice of the Atlantic26:10Voice of the Atlantic: The fight against dust mites

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the last places on the planet where bees are free from a devastating pest. All-new beekeeper Lindsay Bird brings us into the hive to meet other beekeepers and scientists leading the charge against the Varroa mite. Here is the fight against dust mites. 26:10

But nearly a year later, one of its co-authors is pessimistic about the plan’s chances of success.

“I was naive,” said Peter Armitage, who runs Four Cousins ​​Honey, a company based on the Bonavista Peninsula.

When he started working on the plan, Armitage believed enough of the province’s beekeepers would play along. But as beekeeping exploded in popularity in Newfoundland and Labrador – by about six beekeepers in 2010 at around 130 now – he’s not so sure.

“I think we’re always going to be faced with this challenge of an individual who for some reason… makes an illegal import and then – bang,” he said.

Bees are pictured in one of Megan Samms’ hives. (Lindsay Bird / CBC)

Its fears of illegal importation are not exaggerated. This summer, Canada Post caught an illegal queen bee in the mail, triggering a provincial investigation into who ordered it.

Armitage said the incident “should be a wake-up call”. He compared his crusade to the Greek myth of Cassandra, who was cursed to be able to predict the future, but not to believe, after despising the god Apollo.

Bees “time capsules”

Another of the study’s co-authors, however, maintains optimism in the face of Long Chances.

“Hopefully we can get everyone to say, ‘Yes, this is important and we’re going to take the right steps,'” said David Peck, bee parasite expert and associate researcher at Cornell University. New York. .

Peck has been fascinated by bees in the province since his doctoral work on how New York bees evolved to cope with Varroa.

“These mite-free bees in Newfoundland were this very rare kind of time capsule of bees that are very difficult to find anywhere on the planet,” he said. They are now a control group, he said, “for the whole planet to experience what happens when varroa mites and bees meet.”

“So being able to come in and preserve this population was very important to me.”

David Peck, a Cornell University affiliate researcher specializing in honey bee parasites, is also the director of research and education for the beekeeping company Better Bee. (Submitted by David Peck)

Efforts are underway to breed a mite-resistant bee, and having varroa-free bees as a control group in this work is invaluable, he said.

Even if the varroa plan fails, Peck said, knowing which aspects of it worked and what didn’t can come in handy when the next bee pest presents itself.

Despite an uncertain future, Armitage and Samms are following the plan’s recommendations, with Armitage hoping the provincial government will support it as well.

Varroa mites could hurt the booming beekeeping industry in the province, he said, as well as complicate the province’s efforts to speed up its agricultural sector.

“We have a kind of blissful state here, and it would be nice to keep that,” he said.

With files from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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