Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Agriculture and Forestry
Issue 14 - Evidence - Meeting of September 18, 2014
OTTAWA, Thursday, September 18, 2014
The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry met this day at
9:01 a.m. to study the importance of bees and bee health in the production of
honey, food and seed in Canada.
Senator Percy Mockler (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: I welcome you to this meeting of the Standing Senate
Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. Today our witness is from Bern,
Switzerland. Before we introduce our witness officially, I would like to have
the senators introduce themselves. My name is Percy Mockler, senator from New
Brunswick and chair of the committee. I would now ask the other senators to
introduce themselves, please.
Senator Hubley: Elizabeth Hubley, senator from Prince Edward Island.
Senator Robichaud: Fernand Robichaud from Saint-Louis-de-Kent, New
Brunswick. Good morning.
Senator Beyak: Senator Lynn Beyak from Dryden in northwestern Ontario.
Senator Enverga: Tobias Enverga from Ontario.
Senator Maltais: Ghislain Maltais from Quebec.
Senator Dagenais: Jean-Guy Dagenais from Quebec.
Senator Ataullahjan: Salma Ataullahjan, Ontario.
Senator Ogilvie: Kelvin Ogilvie, Nova Scotia.
The Chair: Thank you very much, senators.
The committee is continuing its study on the importance of bees and bee
health in the production of honey, food and seed in Canada. Our order of
reference was given to us by the Senate of Canada that the Standing Senate
Committee on Agriculture and Forestry be authorized to examine and report on the
importance of bees and bee health in the production of honey, food and seed in
Canada. In particular, the committee was authorized to examine this topic within
the context of:
(a) the importance of bees and pollination to produce food,
especially fruit and vegetables, seed for crop production, and honey
production in Canada;
(b) the current state of native pollinators, leaf cutter and
honeybees in Canada;
(c) the factors affecting honeybee health including disease,
parasites and pesticides in Canada, and globally; and
(d) strategies for governments, producers and the industry to ensure
Honourable senators, we welcome today by video conference from Bern,
Switzerland, Dr. Geoffrey Williams, Secretary, COLOSS (Prevention of honey bee
COlony LOSSes). COLOSS is an international non-profit association headquartered
in Bern, Switzerland, that is focused on improving the well-being of bees at the
global level. It is composed of scientific professionals that include
researchers, veterinarians, agriculture extension specialists and students from
over 60 countries.
Doctor, thank you for accepting our invitation. I invite you to make your
presentation. It will be followed by questions from the panel of senators.
Geoffrey Williams, Secretary, COLOSS (Prevention of honey bee COlony
LOSSes): Thank you very much. For the question period, I'll ask if I could
listen in English rather than French in my connection, please.
The Chair: Okay.
Mr. Williams: Good morning, honourable senators. Can you hear me all
The Chair: Yes.
Mr. Williams: It is with great pleasure that I speak to you on a topic
that is important to me and many others. As a brief introduction to what was
already provided, I work for the University of Bern's Institute of Bee Health in
Switzerland. I also act as an executive committee member and secretary of the
honeybee research association, COLOSS. The former, the Institute of Bee Health,
teaches biology and veterinary students about bees and performs research about
factors that we believe are most important to bee health. The latter
organization that I'm involved with is called COLOSS. It's an association
composed of nearly 400 scientific professionals and students from over 60
countries. The majority of COLOSS members come from Europe, as the association
is a descendant of a research network formerly funded by the EU networking
initiative called European Cooperation in Science and Technology, or COST.
I suppose I have a relatively unique perspective because I received my
graduate school training in honeybees in Canada and I have spent nearly four
years working in a similar field of research in Europe. My interest primarily
lies within the area of honeybee health. Therefore, I will mainly focus on the
last two of your committee's specific points that relate to bee health. I will
leave it to others to brief you about the importance of bees to ecosystem
services and food security in Canada, which they undoubtedly do.
My focus on honeybees in no way implies that I believe that this species is
more important than other bee species. Both are complementary, but honeybees
have a unique contribution in North America due to large monocultures that rely
on the species for pollination. During these past years I observed one clear
similarity in both Canada and Switzerland: a single honeybee colony can be
concurrently exposed to a number of stressors. In previous years, I worked with
an EU research consortium called BEE DOC. The purpose of one of its projects was
to survey parasites infecting honeybee colonies in a number of regions around
the world, including in Canada. Our Canadian data show that a single honeybee
colony can be infested with the Varroa destructor mite; it can be
infected by six viruses as well as one microsporidian parasite and one
trypanosome parasite. This colony was fed with litres of nutritionally deficient
sucrose solution in the autumn after its honey was removed in the summer. It was
treated with a miticidal pesticide to control the Varroa destructor mite
and it was exposed to agricultural pesticides during its pollination of
blueberries. Unfortunately, this honeybee colony is not unique; there are many
just like it.
With this example, I want to highlight the complex environment that this
important species finds itself in and the difficult task researchers face not
only understanding what these stressors are doing to honeybees but also how to
mitigate their effects to improve honeybee health.
Resources limit us from fully investigating all possible stressor scenarios.
Therefore, we must choose what is most important, both from a honeybee and human
perspective. Experiences from my own research, as well as my time with COLOSS,
and my recent attendance at this year's European Conference of Apidology, also
known as EurBee, suggest a common theme that seems age old; that is, introduced
exotic parasites, agriculture and beekeeping pesticides and land use are
currently the most important threats to honeybee health and most likely
contribute to the majority of honeybee colony deaths annually. Unfortunately,
these categories contain a broad array of stressors, as highlighted by my
earlier example, so I will further prioritize where I believe our research and
extension efforts should focus.
First, the ectoparasite mite Varroa destructor: No doubt you've been
thoroughly briefed on this introduced species, which, by feeding on a bee's
blood, can transmit viruses that weaken a bee's immune system. Despite its
arrival to the Western world over two decades ago, it remains the most
ubiquitous, single greatest threat to honeybee health in combination with the
viruses it transmits. A recent study by the University of Guelph's Ernesto
Guzman further supports that this parasite is highly relevant to the Canadian
beekeeping situation. Yet despite its importance, a sustainable, long-term
strategy has not been successfully developed or adopted.
Second, miticide pesticides used by beekeepers to control the mite Varroa
destructor: Studies in the United States have highlighted that the greatest
levels of chemical residues in honeybee colonies belong to the synthetic
miticides used by beekeepers to manage Varroa destructor. The situation
is likely the same in Canada. Exposures to these residues are known to affect
honeybees, particularly queens, during development. Furthermore, these chemicals
support the propagation of colonies susceptible to mites, essentially propping
up unhealthy colonies year after year. Future work is needed to understand the
effects of these chemicals on honeybee colonies so that proper decisions can be
made regarding their use, and this could further highlight the need to develop
alternative Varroa destructor control strategies.
Third, neonicotinoid insecticide pesticides: It is clear that neonicotinoids
can harm bees in the laboratory and that their chemical residues can be found in
honeybee colonies due to their widespread use and environmental stability. What
is not fully understood is their effect upon whole honeybee colonies, and those
few monitoring and epidemiological studies that have occurred suggest there are
no associations between neonicotinoids and honeybee colony productivity and
survival. Because of the few data available, and because of the widespread use
of neonicotinoids for food production, more colony level studies are urgently
Fourth, honeybee nutrition: Recent laboratory studies reveal that nutrition
plays a critical role in honeybee immunity. As a result, today's monoculture
farming practices and widespread replacement with nutritious winter honey stores
for human consumption with high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose may severely
impair a honeybee's ability to defend against disease. Currently, only a limited
amount of field-level research has been performed, particularly regarding how
farming practices can successfully incorporate honeybee-nutritious forage
alongside field crop margins and how beekeepers can improve the nutrition of
their colonies while still managing them for honey production and crop
Finally, there are the interactions among stressors, particularly those
mentioned above — Varroa destructor and its associated viruses,
pesticides and nutrition. Countless resources can be spent studying each
potential stressor alone, but without understanding the effects of multiple
stressors in combination, as seen in real life, we will never truly understand
their impact on honeybees. Numerous studies have demonstrated not only additive
effects but also unexpected synergistic ones. This should further rationalize
research efforts in this direction.
Here I provide five research foci that I believe are most important to
understanding and improving the health of honeybees. Despite this list, few
inroads can be made in Canada without proper resources — resources to hire
personnel and resources to perform studies and to extend knowledge from
researchers to the real world. Beekeeper and grower education should be
paramount, with a deeply entrenched philosophy that incorporates integrated pest
management. Integrated pest management, IPM, is a series of best management
strategies developed for agriculture whereby the grower, in this case the
beekeeper, monitors pest populations regularly and keeps population levels below
a critical threshold using specialized non-chemical management techniques. Only
once the pest population reaches a defined critical threshold should chemical
control agents be used.
In the case of beekeeping, true IPM is not fully adopted because current
forms are often viewed as impractical, particularly for large beekeeping
operations, because IPM may not be taught effectively and because in many cases
we, as researchers, do not fully understand the basic biology of the pest
organisms to develop an appropriate IPM strategy.
In closing, I remind this committee that I opened my statement by suggesting
there was a similarity between Canada and Switzerland; that honeybees in both
countries are concurrently exposed to multiple stress factors. Here I end my
statement by highlighting a difference, and it is related to resources.
In Switzerland, a country of 8 million humans, 200,000 honeybee colonies and
a land area smaller than Nova Scotia, the federal government employs four
research scientists and three technicians dedicated solely to honeybees. By
comparison, Canada, with 35 million humans, 700,000 honeybee colonies, and a
much larger and diverse landscape, employs, to the best of my knowledge, one
federal research scientist and one or two research technicians dedicated to
To ensure the health of honeybees, governments must first identify the issues
at hand, which is why I very much appreciate this committee's efforts. Once this
is completed, they must then develop a solid strategic plan and provide the
appropriate resources needed to bring it to fruition.
With that, I thank you for your attention. I very much appreciate your
invitation to speak to you today.
Senator Robichaud: Dr. Williams, the last comments you made show that
there is definitely a lack of resources for research pertaining to bees. Of
course, the question will answer itself: How can we make up for that? We need to
have more researchers. With the research we have, how long will it take to find
solutions to all those factors that affect bee health?
Mr. Williams: I guess a definite time frame is difficult to put down.
Regardless of the number of researchers, it's hard to place a specific number.
With the limited resources that are available, it's critical that researchers
focus on what is most important and critical. For example, the EU recently
created a research consortium to deal with Varroa destructor and with
breeding tolerant and resistant populations. That time frame is four to five
years, during which they hope to make significant inroads. That's just for an
understanding of the basic mechanisms of what can create these tolerant or
resistant populations of honeybees. Implementing that into beekeeping practice
could potentially take even longer. A definite time frame is difficult to put
Senator Robichaud: This is only one factor that affects bee health, is
Mr. Williams: Exactly. Varroa is only one. As I highlighted, there are
numerous stressors. If you ask the majority of researchers and even beekeepers,
they will say that at the moment varroa is the number one threat.
Senator Robichaud: Where do neonicotinoids fit into this pattern?
Mr. Williams: There's no doubt that neonics are an important factor.
As I mentioned, at the colony level, major monitoring programs haven't
identified a link between reduced colony productivity and neonicotinoid usage.
There have only been a few studies performed, one in Germany and one in France.
I think they are working on one now in the United States. There are few data
because you need many colonies over a long period of time; and that's where the
controversy lies with neonicotinoid pesticides.
Senator Robichaud: How widespread is the use of neonicotinoids in
Europe compared to North America?
Mr. Williams: In the past they were widely used, similar probably to
North America. However, you may have heard that in the last year, the EU
temporarily banned three neonicotinoids in Europe. The partial ban was issued
only on plants that are most likely to be bee friendly. It is not a full ban on
all neonicotinoid pesticides. Right now, Europe has a partial ban that is
supposed to last for two years. At least from my point of view from research and
outside the EU and the European Food Safety Authority, we don't know what will
happen after those two years. It's not clear what direction will be taken in
terms of research and risk assessment for these pesticides.
Senator Dagenais: Good morning, Mr. Williams. I do not know whether
your organization was involved, but a global study on the genome sequence was
carried out to better understand the evolution of the bee called Apis
Mr. Williams: I was not part of this program and I'm not a molecular
biologist, but I do know that with the inroads they've made on this, they can
further use these resources to better understand the mechanisms potentially
responsible for varroa tolerance and resistance. Otherwise, I'm not familiar
with that program as I was not involved. Essentially it's to use techniques at
the molecular level to better understand the honeybee. In the future, it can be
used as a resource to discover the mechanisms responsible for tolerance to
varroa, for example.
Senator Hubley: Dr. Williams, I noted with interest when I was
listening to your presentation that you didn't mention anything about climate
change or the fact that we are experiencing, in some instances, dramatic changes
in the environment where bee colonies live. Is that something you have looked
into? Could that be considered a stressor in some situations?
Mr. Williams: It is not something that I've directly looked at, but
certainly it's linked to honeybee nutrition. We know there are droughts,
increased or decreased temperatures, or differences in precipitation. These
could all potentially affect honeybee forage and therefore the nutrition of
honeybee colonies. In Switzerland, for example, we had a poor summer with a lot
of rain and not much sun. As a result, our colonies really suffered. We had to
feed them a lot of sucrose in the middle of summer, when normally we wouldn't do
that. The sucrose is not as nutritious as the honey that they normally feed on.
Certainly, if we have these types of scenarios year-after-year, they will no
doubt bring potential harm to bees or increase their susceptibility to other
Senator Hubley: I believe it is your initiative that bee colonies be
maintained year round. Is that one of your aims?
Mr. Williams: Can you repeat the question?
Senator Hubley: I believe it's probably one of your concerns that we
are able to maintain a bee colony year round; is that correct? In Canada we
would deal with overwintering, as in many other countries. Would it be one of
your objectives to ensure that colonies could be maintained on a year round
Mr. Williams: Of course, this is the main goal. In previous years in
Canada, a beekeeper would kill his or her entire colony at the end of summer and
then buy new package bees from the United States. This practice has ended due to
economics and the border being closed. Now in Canada, as in Europe, beekeepers
want to maintain their colonies year after year. The primary goal is to keep the
bees alive during winter as this is the most critical phase of a bee colony's
Senator Maltais: Welcome, Mr. Williams. What is the current bee
mortality rate in Switzerland?
Mr. Williams: Currently, in Switzerland, the mortality rate is
approximately between 15 and 20 per cent, so it's generally slightly lower,
maybe 10 per cent lower than the traditional norm now in Canada that's about 25,
30 per cent.
Senator Maltais: Is the monoculture production system in Switzerland a
factor that affects the quality of honey?
Mr. Williams: In Switzerland, we do not have large monocultures of
crops, so the bees often have a variety of resources that they're able to forage
on to collect nectar. Our fields are much smaller than particularly in Western
Canada. But with that said, most of the summer honey that is created or produced
by honeybee colonies comes from rape, which is essentially canola in Canada, so
the bees do choose these widespread crops when they can to bring back nectar and
turn that into honey.
Senator Maltais: The production in Western Canada, of course, consists
of large monocultures, but in eastern Canada, the provinces of Ontario and
Quebec, as well as the Maritimes, do not have that many field crops. However,
those provinces have a fairly particular flower source — wild flowers — which
brings balance to the quality of the honey. I am specifically thinking about the
province of Nova Scotia and southern Ontario, with their fruit trees. Can we
compare the bee mortality rate in a relatively small country like Switzerland —
which you say is 15 per cent to 20 per cent — to the rate in eastern Canada,
where similar proportions are noted in terms of mortality rates?
Scientists have found that mortality rates were much higher in large-scale
monoculture production systems than in areas with more specific crops. Can that
be compared to Switzerland in terms of mortality rates?
Mr. Williams: I think it would be difficult, but certainly Nova
Scotia, southern Ontario are much similar to Switzerland, where there are many
orchards and wildflowers and more natural places.
Climate conditions again are more similar to Switzerland, although it is
inland; it doesn't necessarily have the continental climate such as the Prairie
provinces. For example, where I'm living the winter temperature usually doesn't
get below minus 15 or 10 on this plateau. So it's possible to make more similar
comparisons, but I would be extremely wary. Beekeeping practices are much
different. There are also different parasites and viruses, for example, that are
here, so we would have to be very careful about making these direct comparisons.
Senator Maltais: What kind of an effect do chemical products have? In
Switzerland, how many registered chemical products are used for farming corn,
potatoes or other products you grow? How many pesticides do you use?
Mr. Williams: I can't give you the exact numbers, unfortunately, but
pesticides are used here. We do use neonicotinoids at a reduced rate now in
these past few years, but I believe in Switzerland, at least, there is a very
high push for organic agriculture. This, although I don't have the numbers,
could potentially have played some role, but I could not say for sure. There is
generally a push for reduced chemical usage in agriculture in general, but even
bee colonies. For example, in Canada, beekeepers are allowed to use a synthetic
chemical called fluvalvinate, whereas in Switzerland it is not allowed to be
used because they do not want residues left in the wax, particularly from
Senator Beyak: That you, Dr. Williams. That was very impressive.
Canadians watch this broadcast from sea to sea. Your knowledge is wonderful to
You mentioned that there was a parasite some 20 years ago. I wondered how
long Switzerland had been studying bee health and if you know how long the
Canadian government has been studying bee health, and if there has ever been a
collapse of this magnitude in the past in the bee colonies, and if that parasite
that feeds on the bee's blood could be a major problem? You said that was about
20 years ago and I wondered if you could give us a little more information.
Mr. Williams: In Switzerland they do have a long tradition of
researching honeybees. From my point of view, what's quite different between
Switzerland and Canada is this culture of beekeeping. In Switzerland many
beekeepers have small amounts of colonies — they are almost like their pets —
whereas in Canada fewer beekeepers have more colonies, where it's really a
commercial operation. At least where I'm located, they have done research on
honeybees for over 100 years.
In Canada, unfortunately I don't know the numbers, but I believe that it has
been many decades that there has been research in Canada on honeybees. I don't
know the exact number.
It's true that there have been large scale die-offs and colony mortality in
previous years. It's very hard to determine what caused those in the past. For
example, there was one occasion in the United Kingdom that was caused by the
tracheal mite, which was present in Canada, and I think it has been more or less
wiped out through breeding practices.
Regarding the Varroa destructor mite, there was really an increase in
colony mortality both in Canada and Switzerland and other locations as soon as
this mite arrived. I believe in Canada, prior to the mites, mortality during the
winter was approximately 15 per cent. In Switzerland, I believe that they were
experiencing around 10 per cent mortality. The introduction of this mite has
increased colony mortality by at least 10 per cent.
Senator Enverga: Thank you, Dr. Williams, for your presentation, and
we're glad you have a connection to Canada.
In your report you mentioned parasites, viruses, pesticides and chemicals,
and maybe climate change. Because of the demand for food and crops, we're trying
to commercialize the production of bees at the same time. Have you or your
organization considered the fact that we have a shallow or deep gene pool in the
bee colonies? Are they from the same colony all the time? Is it one of the
causes why we have a weakened colony, because of the weak gene pool we have?
Mr. Williams: There has been quite a bit of discussion on that in the
past. This field of breeding is actually not my specialty, but what I do know is
that in some cases there have been studies showing that bees do have a reduced
There was actually a recent study performed by researchers at York University
in Toronto. They showed that beekeeping breeding techniques in the recent past —
I can't remember the exact details — have actually increased the genetic
diversity of bees. This is a study performed out of York. I don't know any more
specific details on that.
For the COLOSS network, we have a group of researchers looking at the
influence of environment and genotype on honeybee colonies. This doesn't
necessarily apply to Canada because Canada doesn't have a native honeybee
species like we have in Europe with our several subspecies. To summarize that,
they found that local species did better than species that were introduced. You
have many species from Italy being imported by beekeepers in Germany and vice
versa; so you have different types of subspecies moving around. They found that
the local strain of bee performed better.
Senator Enverga: Is there a plan for COLOSS to expand more on the
genetic process, if there is one, regarding the loss of bee colonies? Do you
have a plan?
Mr. Williams: From my perspective, I do not know, but a number of
researchers are looking more at the genetics side of bee breeding. Pierre
Giovenazzo is breeding bees in Quebec, and Stephen Pernal and Leonard Foster are
also doing bee breeding and looking at developing resistant or tolerant lines
based on proteomics. There is work to look at the influence of this genetic
diversity and colony survival or productivity.
Senator Enverga: Some plants are genetically modified. Would their
pollen affect bees or their health? Would it be a stress factor?
Mr. Williams: I would say right now that there haven't been many
studies to investigate that, so I cannot make a comment on that, unfortunately.
Senator Ogilvie: You have given us a very good overview of the
situation in Switzerland. I would like to clarify two or three points that you
You indicated that there may well be a greater preponderance of small colony
keepers in Switzerland than in Canada — not large professional colonies that are
moved around substantially from one plot to another. Could you expand on that a
little? Are there any beekeepers in Switzerland who maintain a large number of
colonies that they move from site to site, either within Switzerland or to other
countries in Europe on an annual basis?
Mr. Williams: There is migratory beekeeping in Europe, but it's not
nearly on the scale that it is in Canada or in the United States. In Switzerland
there are few of these so-called commercial beekeepers. In fact, even fewer are
moving their colonies for crop pollination.
I have to say that there are more beekeepers in Switzerland and they tend to
fewer colonies. You stated that they aren't professional like in North America,
but in Switzerland, even though they may have 5 to 10 colonies, they are highly
professional and in most cases fairly well educated on beekeeping and bee
One difference between Switzerland and Canada is that beekeepers do not
receive a fee for pollination in Switzerland like they would receive in Canada.
They have stationary colonies and with these colonies, because there is such a
high density in Switzerland, they basically perform the pollination services
required in cooperation, of course, with any type of wild pollinators.
Senator Ogilvie: I certainly didn't mean any challenge to the quality
of the individual beekeeper. Our experience is that those who consider them as
``pets,'' as you use the term, may actually be far more knowledgeable in the
care of bees than perhaps the group that I referred to as professional. We tend
to associate professional with those who have large colonies that are moved
around on a commercial basis. It was in that context that I was using the term
There isn't really an opportunity to see whether there is any major change in
survival rates among the very large colonies versus the small colonies in
Switzerland simply because of the lack of numbers in that category.
With regard to a second aspect in terms of influence on bee survival and
health, Switzerland has a highly varied topography. This is a case where perhaps
the larger number of small colony keepers might be useful. Have you noticed any
significant difference, in any kind of sustainable way, in the survival rates in
the different topographies within the Swiss boundaries?
Mr. Williams: I'll speak briefly again on the migration issue. Recent
studies show that migration affects honeybees and honeybee colonies. There are
also studies in the United States by — and maybe you are familiar with them —
the Bee Informed Partnership run by Dennis vanEngelsdorp. He does a good job at
comparing, for example, migratory beekeepers versus non-migratory beekeepers,
beekeeping operation size and looking at the effects on honeybee colonies. If
you're not familiar with that, your committee would do well to learn more about
that from him.
Regarding the type of landscape and its effect on honeybee colonies, we're
looking at that right now. Few studies have incorporated so-called geographic
information systems, GIS, to look at land use or topography on honeybee
colonies. We are performing such a study at the moment in Switzerland, so I hope
that I can give you further details. Most colonies are kept in this agricultural
mix of urban and rural landscape in Switzerland. There are very few maintained
higher up. In Switzerland, there are not necessarily pristine locations such as
you have in Canada with tracts of forests and land without any urbanization.
I was in Zermatt two days ago, where you can still see honeybee colonies
1,600 metres above sea level, whereas most of the agricultural zones are 500
to700 metres above sea level. Beekeepers are maintaining their colonies in a
diverse set of landscapes. I hope that in the future I can better answer your
Senator Ogilvie: My final question goes back to the issue of neonics
directly. You gave us a summary of their varied and perhaps not as substantial
use in other countries. You also indicated that in Switzerland there has been a
fairly lengthy observation of the use of bees in Switzerland, perhaps much
longer than here. Has there been any significant trend in the change in bee life
stability in colonies in the roughly decade and a half since neonics have been
available in any form?
Mr. Williams: Yes, there certainly appears to be some kind of
connection because these large-scale colony deaths started in the past six to
eight years, since around 2006. There has been a sustained increase in colony
I will speak briefly about an example in France where they were using one
neonicotinoid called imidacloprid, which they banned in France. As far as I
know, there was no difference in colony mortality after that ban.
I can't say whether the pesticides were still stable in the environment or
persisting in the environment, but at this point there doesn't seem to be a
close connection between the neonicotinoids and colony mortality. More thorough
studies need to be performed. It's too soon to state what is happening at a
colony level. Certainly in the laboratory we can feed or expose bees to
pesticides and we do see an effect, but right now more work is needed at this
colony field, realistic level.
Senator Ogilvie: Parallel to that, the other major problem for bees is
the varroa mite. Over the last decade and a half, has there been any significant
change in the number of varroa mites?
Mr. Williams: It certainly continued to disperse and increase its
distribution. Right now it's located in every region in the world, apart from a
handful of places. I am happy to state that in Newfoundland they do not have the
varroa mite despite them having a beekeeping industry. It is small but they do
not have the varroa mite. There are regions that don't have it, but primarily
the mite is spread everywhere.
In terms of the total number of mites, I don't have data on that. Over the
last few years we have something called a critical threshold of mites. We have a
certain level and if your colony meets that level, chances are your colony will
die over winter. It appears that that critical level has been decreasing over
Senator Ogilvie: Thank you very much.
Senator Robichaud: Dr. Williams, are we paying enough attention to
wild pollinators, or is the lack of research resources keeping us from going and
finding out if the wild pollinators have developed some kind of immunity to the
stressors that do stress the honeybees?
Mr. Williams: I think it's very particular to the type of stressor. No
doubt studies have shown that pesticides, for example, can also harm bumblebees
like they can honeybees. There have been more studies showing at colony levels
that bumblebees and other wild bees may be particularly sensitive to these
Regarding parasites, it's really dependent on the parasite. For example,
Varroa destructor does not invade bumblebees or other wild bees; it's
strictly limited to honeybees to our knowledge. Recent studies have shown that
there's this transfer particularly of viruses or other microorganisms between
honeybees and bumblebees and wild bees.
Senator Maltais: Mr. Williams, Senator Hubley asked you a question
earlier, to which you replied that, owing to the Swiss climate, the hibernation
period of bees was much shorter than it is in Canada. How do you preserve your
bees? Here, in Canada, once the bloom cycle ends, bees go into hibernation and
return next year. That is when the mortality rate is noted. After the flowering
season in Switzerland, which does not last 12 months a year, how do you manage
to preserve the bees in hives?
Mr. Williams: Although the climate may be different in certain regions
of Canada, other regions — for example, mainland British Columbia, or the Lower
Mainland, or Vancouver, or coastal regions in Eastern Canada — can be fairly
similar to what Switzerland experiences. They're not really these continental
climates that are very cold and very long.
In terms of beekeeping, we still have this typical overwintering period where
usually there is a time where the queen stops laying eggs and stops the
production of broods. In that sense, Switzerland does have an overwintering
period like that in Canada. They may not experience the same length of
overwintering period or the same temperatures, but we still have an
overwintering period. This is quite different from places like Mediterranean
Europe or even the southern United States, where they may have a dearth of
nectar which can also be connected to a lack of brood production, but they don't
necessarily have a so-called winter period.
Senator Maltais: Mr. Williams, you gave an example of climate change.
You had a rainy summer this year, and that delayed flowering. You mentioned that
you give your bees sugar solutions. How much honey do the bees produce under
Mr. Williams: We had a poor summer, so we didn't have a typical summer
where we had dry periods and warm weather. That meant there was not the same
amount and quality of plant forage for the bees this summer. As a result, we had
to feed our colonies with sugar solution, or sucrose, to ensure that they had
enough carbohydrates to keep going. Our colonies really were starving; they had
Recent studies out of the United States clearly show that there is a
difference in nutrition between sucrose, for example, and nectar, which is
converted into honey by bees. Sucrose doesn't contain the same type of minerals
or vitamins that honey does. We really don't have a good understanding on how
this type of nutrition, vitamins and minerals, affects bee health, but it
certainly promotes it compared to substances that do not contain those
Senator Beyak: We've learned today that there are many factors
contributing to the colony collapse since 2006. After the collapses in the U.K.,
what did they do to bring the health back? Can we learn from that? Do you have
any recommendations that our committee could take forward?
Mr. Williams: In the U.K., they had that collapse. That was prior to
2006. In fact, it was almost a hundred years ago. That was my example, namely
that there have been these collapses in the past.
Right now, we're in this modern period of sustained, increased colony
mortality and it's a difficult task. This is what researchers and extension
agents are working to solve and to help promote beekeeping. It relates back to
the five research or extension foci that I gave in my talk earlier. Varroa, I
think, is the single greatest threat that we should deal with.
Senator Beyak: I understood that the collapse was quite a while ago,
but I wondered if you knew anything about the way they recovered. If it was a
hundred years ago, there is probably no history of it.
Mr. Williams: Increased colony mortality since 2006 is more or less
sustained now. Since this time we have had these elevated colony mortalities of
30 or 35 per cent, like we see in Canada at the moment. In 2006, it was a
special period because this is when researchers first identified and coined the
term ``colony collapse disorder.'' There is a defined set of criteria to meet
it. It was only a small proportion of this increased colony mortality, yet
because it was mysterious and we don't know necessarily what caused it, this is
what really promoted research and public interest on the issue. Since 2006, we
have had this sustained increased mortality and I do not think we've come out of
this period yet.
Senator Beyak: Thank you.
Senator Enverga: You mentioned in your report that there is less bee
mortality in Switzerland than in Canada. Is there any difference between the
bees of Switzerland and the bees of Canada?
Mr. Williams: They could be different subspecies, but I don't know the
exact details. The major differences are in beekeeping practices. Fewer colonies
tended to by the beekeeper allows a beekeeper to spend more time with his or her
colonies, which in turn, we would hope, means that this could improve the
quality of those colonies. The environment is different and migration does not
happen in Switzerland. There are a number of environmental features in
Switzerland and Canada that could potentially result in differences in
mortality, but it is not exactly clear.
The Chair: Dr. Williams, COLOSS brings together researchers from
around the world to facilitate cooperation and dialogue, as per your statement.
Previous witnesses have identified the challenge of transferring research
outcomes to beekeepers. How has COLOSS addressed that challenge?
Mr. Williams: That's a very good question. We had a meeting this past
month in Spain that was tied to the EurBee meeting. Because we feel this is so
important, we have our own task force on beekeeping and knowledge transfer. We
realize this is a major issue that we have to deal with. Up until this point, we
had mainly focused on networking, communication and dialogue among researchers.
Now our future goal is to work more toward that knowledge transfer.
In Switzerland, we have developed a fairly good system. Having identified
this as very important, they created over the past two years this extension
service, this interface between researchers and beekeepers. Everyone
acknowledges that beekeeper education and the transfer of knowledge are very
important. To sum it up, stay tuned to what COLOSS can do for this extension in
knowledge transfer. We are working on it.
The Chair: Dr. Williams, on behalf of the Standing Senate Committee on
Agriculture and Forestry, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for a
very professional and educational presentation. Before I close, do you have any
Mr. Williams: No. I really appreciate the invitation to come and speak
to you. I look forward to your outcome.
The Chair: Thank you, Dr. Williams.
(The committee adjourned.)