The hind legs or 'pollen basket' of a pollinating bee clings to a Salvia 'Mystic Spires Blue' sage flower at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington

Alberta's diminishing bee colonies could have severe economic, environmental implications, expert says

Canada's Alberta province has seen a 50% loss in its bee colonies this year alone. Experts fear this could have a major impact on crops and honey production. Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council, spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about the situation.

The World

The hind legs or 'pollen basket' of a pollinating bee clings to a Salvia 'Mystic Spires Blue' sage flower at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, Nov. 13, 2021.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File photo

Bees commonly buzz around in the summertime, but their numbers have noticeably diminished in recently years. 

Bees are critical for pollinating crops and producing honey and the significant drop in global bee populations has experts worried. 

The European Parliament recently released figures showing that about 84% of crop species and 78% of wildflowers across the EU depend to some extent on pollination. Nearly $16.5 billion of the bloc’s annual agricultural output “is directly attributed to insect pollinators.”

The decline in bee numbers is also worsening in Canada. This year, Alberta province suffered a 50% loss of its bee colonies.

Rod Scarlett, the executive director of the Canadian Honey Council, spoke to The World's host Marco Werman from outside Edmonton, Alberta, about the crisis.

Marco Werman: So, a 50% loss of beehives for commercial beekeepers, Rod. What's behind that drop?
Rod Scarlett: Most people say it's varroa, which is a mite, and it's kind of sucks on the bees guts. That mite, we've been trying to eradicate, or at least control as best as possible. And it appears, like last year, we just didn't do a very good job of it.
And is the danger of that mite a new thing, or has that been going on for a few years?
Oh, it's been going on for 25 years. It's just the products that we use to try to control the mite, the efficacy of those products seems to be going down and down. And so, we're trying to develop new techniques where you add in organic compounds and things like that to control the mite population over the course of the season. But last year, ultimately, it didn't work.
So, I'm really curious how this affects commercial beekeepers in Alberta and what their options are to replace them?
In Alberta, there's about 320,000 colonies and, each year, beekeepers lose probably 20% to 22% of those colonies. And that's a manageable number for beekeepers to handle. This past year, it was significantly higher — as you mentioned, 50%. So, to replace those colonies, beekeepers first have to either buy packaged bees, which is imported packages or imported colonies, mini-colonies from Australia, New Zealand or Chile, or they take their strongest colonies and split them in two, to get their numbers back. But that impacts the amount of honey that that colony could produce over the course of a year and the pollination capabilities of that colony. So, while they may get the numbers back, it has an economic impact both on the honey production side, so their financial well-being if they're strictly a honey producer, or they'll get paid less for pollination because they don't have strong enough colonies for the pollination contracts that they've signed. So again, it has an economic implication. If we experience the same thing next year, we are in a critically poor situation.
Like how poor? What would you be facing?
Certainly pollination problems. Also production problems, and production problems could impact things like seed canola. Commercial canola crops constitute 21 to 22 million acres in Canada. And the pollination that is done on seed canola feeds the commercial canola. If they can't meet the demands of contracts and sell honey or pollinate, it has some really severe economic implications. But there's the environmental side, too, of not having honeybees around to do pollination.
So, the decline in the bee population has been going on for years. Where do the troubles in Canada right now fit into the overall decline around the globe?
We've had regions and provinces in the past where there have been significant losses, but other provinces have been able to supply stock and help alleviate the pressures that the region that had that loss would have experienced. This year, it's pretty much Canada-wide, and so other provinces and other regions are unable to help. And that's what makes this issue in Canada this year so much different than in the past.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

Related: Mayan beekeepers launch legal battle to protect the environment