John Gibeau says he can sometimes see American honeybees flying around just across the border when he takes his own colonies to pollinate blueberry crops in the southern part of British Columbia.
But if Gibeau wants to buy those bees in bulk — say, to restock his colonies after a long winter — he can’t do it. The Canadian government has long placed a ban on the importation of large shipments of U.S. bees.
A long-simmering feud over where this country’s honey producers can obtain bees to replenish their stock goes to the courts Monday, pitting some of Western Canada’s beekeepers against the federal government in a battle over whether this country’s ban is lawful or necessary.
But the class-action suit is also threatening to expose major rifts within the apiary community, delineated on one side by those who argue that the risk of importing pests and diseases along with the U.S. bees is too high, and on the other by those who feel that the importation ban is unfairly harmful to their businesses.
Win or lose, those involved say what is at stake is not just the already-plagued beekeeping industry, but the health of Canada’s food system.
“Your food is not produced in the stores … It’s (produced) in farmers’ fields,” said Ian Grant, president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, adding that up to a third of crops are pollinated by bees.
“Without bees, you’re not going to have the same quantity of food or quality of food.”
Canadian winters are harsh. That is especially true for honeybees, a non-native species imported to North America by European colonists. Canadian beekeepers see varying levels of die-offs every season. The 2022 winter was a particularly brutal one, with beekeepers reporting an average of 45 per cent losses — double the recent average.
Aside from weather, a long list of pests and pathogens have also beset honeybees, including varroa mites, small hive beetles and American foulbrood. Researchers are also worried about what they call “Africanized honeybee genetics” and what the media sometimes calls “killer bees” — a hybridized honeybee found in the Southern U.S., but not Canada, that aggressively defends its territory and poses a threat to human health.
Research also suggests that some of these problems are spilling over into wild, native bee populations, a threat to Canada’s wider ecological health.
When replacing or expanding their colonies, beekeepers have two main options. One is to purchase queens, a small box with a single queen bee and a few attendants. Another is to buy a full bee “package,” a box the size of a toaster oven filled with two or three pounds of bees.
In the 1980s, fearing American bees would bring pests and pathogens over the border, the government prohibited imports of bees from the U.S. in any form. In 2004, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) began allowing imports of queens, but continued to prohibit U.S. bee packages.
The class-action lawsuit, which was initiated almost a decade ago, revolves around a question of administrative law. The plaintiffs’ statement of claim alleges that after the last order banning U.S. bee package imports expired at the end of 2006, officials simply communicated to the beekeeping industry that no import permits would be granted, so they shouldn’t apply — a move the plaintiffs describe as having no lawful authority.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said the department would not comment on a matter before the courts. A statement of defence filed on behalf of the CFIA and the minister of agriculture and agri-Food denies all the plaintiffs’ claims, and states that the defendants have both a lawful authority and a public duty to restrict honeybee importation because they are satisfied doing so would prevent the introduction and spread of pests and diseases.
Gibeau, whose family operates Honeybee Enterprises in Surrey, B.C., and who is one of three lead plaintiffs in the case, says that because of the ban on U.S. bee packages, he is forced to buy them from countries such as New Zealand, where packages are more expensive and of worse quality because of the long travel. If not for the ban, he says, could get them from California for a fraction of the price.
“It’s a crazy situation,” said Gibeau.
Gibeau says the prohibition has driven thousands of beekeepers out of business, and believes the government’s concerns about importing U.S. packages should be allayed by the fact that imports of queens are still allowed, but none of these have introduced Africanized genetics.
“There’s always a risk. There’s a risk walking across the street. But the risk is not outweighed by the benefits, not even a fraction.”
Others disagree with Gibeau’s assessment. Ian Grant of the Ontario Beekeepers Association says the rules and regulations exist to protect the industry.
“What I may do may affect not only my neighbours, but their neighbours, and maybe the whole industry,” he said.
In 2017, the board of directors of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association passed a resolution strongly urging beekeepers who would otherwise qualify for the class action to opt out.
“Let’s look at the science, looks at the facts,” said Grant. “If it leads in a certain direction, that’s what we want to follow.”
Some pests and diseases that already exist in Canada are far more widespread in the U.S., said Amro Zayed, a professor in the department of biology at York University who studies bees and is contributing research to a new CFIA risk assessment of the import ban.
Zayed says throwing open the borders will significantly raise the risk of importing new problems such as Africanized genetics, which currently aren’t found in Canada, and increasing the spread of existing ones. Individual queens can be tested for Africanized genetics before import, he says, whereas bees packages are often made of 8,000 or more bees combined from different hives. Recently, he says, a queen from California tested positive for Africanized genetics before it was set to be imported to Canada — a close call.
“Canadian honey bees already have a plethora of problems. And as a researcher … I don’t think it’s wise to compound our problems with some additional problems that we don’t currently have or make some of the threats that we already face bigger.”
To some extent, it seems the differing opinions on whether Canada’s borders should be opened to U.S. bee packages are divided along longitudinal lines. There’s a reason for that, said Rod Scarlett of the Canadian Honey Council. Commercial beekeeping in the Prairies, he says, operates on a much larger scale than it does in the eastern provinces and in B.C.
In Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, a typical operation might consist of about 2,000 colonies. By contrast, in Eastern Canada and B.C., commercial operations tend to average about 600 colonies.
“Another big factor is that in the three Prairie provinces, it’s honey production specific, mostly, and that honey production is mostly for export,” Scarlett said.
For the Prairie beekeepers, the lower return of exporting honey in bulk, combined with their harsher winters and shorter production seasons, mean keeping costs low and production high — ostensibly by having access to a less expensive supply of honeybees to replenish stock lost over the winter — is vital.
But the rush in those provinces to replace bees lost through winter attrition has to be tempered by the potential risks to beekeepers across the country, said Scarlett. And the 2013 risk assessment — another is in the works by CFIA and scheduled to be complete in 2024 — says those threats to the country’s bee population are too high.
The CFIA, in 2013, had this to say:
“(T)here is still a high probability of introducing diseases and pests into Canada due to importation of honey bees from the continental United States. The risk assessment does not provide new scientific evidence to remove or decrease the current import control measures in place, thus allowing only the importation of honeybee queens from the United States.”
But there are those who believe that that risk assessment leaves plenty to be desired. The Alberta Beekeepers Commission sent the CFIA assessment to independent reviewers after it was released in 2013, said executive director Connie Phillips.
“The comments from the reviewers suggest that the risk assessment was not well done,” she said, adding that, “it seemed as if there wasn’t a sufficient level of due diligence done on the risk assessment.”
The Alberta Beekeepers Commission holds that there are “safe” regions in the U.S. — particularly in Northern California — from which bees are inspected regularly and from which CFIA already allows the importation of queen bees. It believes CFIA should consider allowing the importation of bee packages from those areas.
And while the substance of the class action courts controversy, the way in which it’s being carried out has ruffled some wings within the apiary community as well.
The class action automatically includes all beekeepers in Canada who have kept more than 50 colonies for commercial purposes since the end of 2006 and as a result were affected by the ban — unless they opt out. Approximately 1,400 beekeepers across Canada would qualify as part of the class; about 300 have opted out so far.
Beekeeping associations across the country say communication about the class action has been spotty. Of the country’s 10 provincial beekeepers’ associations, five — in Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I., Nova Scotia and Quebec and B.C. — said they weren’t given any direct notice about the class-action suit.
Of those, Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec say they want no part of the lawsuit; P.E.I. and Nova Scotia are still gathering information on it. B.C.’s association took no position on it. And even among beekeepers in the Prairie provinces, support for the lawsuit is divided.
In Saskatchewan, Nathan Wendell, president of Saskatchewan Beekeepers Development Commission (SBDC) said the organization also does not support the lawsuit. His understanding is that the Saskatchewan beekeepers — including his own farm — had a relatively high opt-out rate in comparison to other provinces.
“I am certain that there are still those within Saskatchewan (and other provinces) that are included in the lawsuit even though they have not chosen to or may not even be aware that they are included.”
It’s his opinion, he said, that the automatic inclusion in the class action of all commercial beekeepers in the country by the plaintiffs presented “an inaccurate picture of the degree of support that they had within the Canadian beekeeping community for their frivolous claims.”
Source: Toronto Star