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Fewer bee deaths in Ontario hives over the past winter, but apiarists say it’s too early to tell if they’ve turned the corner on massive losses in recent years

Azzura Lalani

By Azzura Lalani, The London Free Press

Ontario beekeepers are reporting a sharp decline in bee deaths over the winter. 
Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network

Ontario beekeepers are reporting a sharp decline in bee deaths over the winter. Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network

Beekeepers stung by huge hits to their colonies, especially in the Southwestern Ontario farm belt, are finally getting sweeter news.

A Canadian Association of Professional Apiarists report found a sharp decline in deaths of Ontario bees this winter.

“We’d like to see another year like this,” said Julie White, a spokesperson for the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association.

Bees — their population hard-hit by alarming collapses in recent years — survived in higher numbers because of the mild winter last season, said White, and a change in the equipment farmers use.

“A mild, short winter . . . enables even weak colonies to make it through the winter,” she said.

It’s a respite for beekeepers who’ve been helpless in the face of massive bee deaths for the last few years.

In total, Ontario beekeepers reported just under 18 per cent of their bees died over the winter, significantly less than the 38-per-cent losses reported in 2015 and the almost 60 per cent in 2014.

But White cautioned against too much optimism: “It’s one year, you can’t really make any assumptions about the health of bees based on that.”

Bees, the most common natural pollinators, are critical to plant life and such agricultural production as fruit, vegetables and some field crops.

The culprit behind the bee deaths, many beekeepers say, are neonicotinoids, a family of pesticides applied as a seed coating for major cash crops like corn and soybeans, both of which are heavily grown in Southwestern Ontario — one of the nation’s richest farm belts.

Ontario became North America’s first jurisdiction to restrict neonicotinoid use last year in response to massive bee deaths, but that measure — which kicked in last July, and will all but ban the pesticides by the time the acreage restrictions are fully rolled out — won’t have much effect yet, say beekeepers.

“It’s doubtful it will have any kind of impact because it’s a half measure,” said OBA president Tibor Szabo.

The reduction in Ontario crop acreage using so-called neonics is 50 per cent now, but that will rise to 80 per cent in 2017 under the province’s new restrictions.

alalani@postmedia.com

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