VANCOUVER—Most of the honeybees were still snug in their hives when the pickups rolled quietly past the farmhouse and onto the Delta, B.C. blueberry field.
The sun was hiding just below the horizon and the telltale buzz of the bees was subdued.
Researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of British Columbia had risen well before dawn to catch the bees at home — before they set out for a long day of pollinating the delicate white flowers that dotted each bush.
This relationship, between the bees and the blueberries, is critical for the berry industry, and growers — like beekeepers — are keen to find out what might be ailing the bees.
Each spring growers pay beekeepers thousands of dollars to bring hives into their fields for a few weeks of pollination.
If the bees do their job right, the flowers turn into plump blueberries ripe for the picking.
The future of that arrangement was called into question earlier this year by some B.C. beekeepers who worried that weeks in the blueberry fields were making their honeybees sick.
Some threatened to stop offering pollination services for blueberries altogether. Though, in the end, many beekeepers did take their bees to the fields, in some cases, it cost the growers a premium.
Honeybee health isn’t just important for beekeepers and blueberry growers. The tiny buzzers are a significant economic contributor for the province. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the bees contribute $538 million to B.C.’s economy through crop pollination alone — not to mention their importance for food security. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 per cent of global crops that produce fruit or seeds for food rely in part on pollinators.
In response to ongoing concern, researchers from Agriculture Canada undertook a new study in partnership with the National Bee Diagnostic Centre, UBC and the British Columbia Honey Producers’ Association this spring and with financial support from the BC Blueberry Council.
They wanted to find out if honeybees really were worse off after blueberry pollination, why that might be, and what beekeepers and growers could do to keep the bees bustling.
Over the course of the spring and early summer, the team studied colonies managed by five beekeepers that pollinated blueberries and, as a control, colonies managed by one of those beekeepers that didn’t pollinate blueberries.
They watched for population shifts, signs of disease and differences in hive-management techniques.
Twice during the study period, the team, which was led by Agriculture Canada research scientist Marta Guarna, visited the bee colonies to collect samples of bees, bee brood or babies, pollen, and honey. A third assessment focused on the brood alone.
StarMetro joined the team for their second assessment of Julia Common’s bee colonies in late May. By that point, the honeybees were already weeks into their blueberry pollination work.
Common, Hives for Humanity’s chief beekeeper, was particularly concerned about the risks blueberry pollination posed to her bees after she was forced to kill millions of sickly bee babies last year.
Today, she’s feeling much more optimistic. This year, she said, “the bees came out of the blueberries and they did their typical dive, but I was way ahead of the curve.”
As soon as she moved the beehives from the blueberry fields she gave them extra food and took other steps to help build the colonies back up. She still had losses, but nothing as bad as last year.
“They then went to do very well on pumpkins and make honey,” she said.
It’s the dive Common mentioned that the researchers were investigating back in May when they arrived to collect their second set of data.
They kept their voices low as they stepped into their white bee suits, zipped their screened hoods closed, and pulled on purple lab gloves.
Their early morning task, Guarna explained, was to estimate the adult bee population of each colony.
“Once they start flying, we don’t know how many have gone and how many are there,” she said, explaining the early hour.
It was just past five when the team fanned out, each setting up at a different hive.
Not quite in unison, the researchers puffed smoke around the hives to help keep the bees calm and lifted their lids. Then they slid a slim piece of metal between the wooden frames and pulled one free.
The researchers used a divided grid to estimate the adult bee population on each frame. They assess what proportion of the frame is covered in bees and call it out as an eighth to the team member tasked with recording the data.
“Marta, six and seven, frame two,” calls out Guarna. She gives two numbers, one for each side of the frame.
One by one, the researchers follow suit.
“Abbi, three and two, frame three,” said Abbi Chapman, an undergraduate research assistant from UBC.
“Jeff, six and six, frame four,” said Jeff Pettis, the former head of a U.S. Department of Agriculture bee lab, who’s consulting on the project.
By the time the sun rose, brimming the trees in a golden light, there was a chorus of chirping birds and buzzing bees behind each number sounded off.
And, as the bees grew livelier, the research team moved on to task No. 2.
Hive-by-hive they collected adult bees by the jar, honey by the tube and used wooden stir sticks to lever layers of pollen, called bee bread, from cells in the comb. Any bee brood that looked unhealthy was taken too.
As Guarna, Higo and their crew wrapped up their field work for the day, the bees were just settling into work, flitting between the flowers.
In the months ahead, the samples will be analyzed for chemical contamination and pathogens. They’ll investigate differences in bee management, and whether the colonies provided with extra protein stayed healthier.
One goal, said Higo, is to find strategies that both beekeepers — who could adjust the way they manage their colonies like Common did this year — and growers can implement to help keep pollinators in good health.
Much more analysis is needed before the team can issue any conclusive results, but they do have some preliminary findings.
On Saturday, Guarna and her research partners presented these at the British Columbia Honey Producers’ Association annual conference — the same day B.C. Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham announced an additional $50,000 in funding for BeeBC, a program that supports community-based initiatives to protect bee health.
Early results indicate European Foulbrood-like symptoms were found in both colonies that pollinated blueberries and those that didn’t.
However, the researchers found the symptoms, which resemble the common bacterial disease EFB and affect bee babies, appeared more prevalent in the colonies that pollinated blueberries, Guarna told StarMetro in an email.
“This observation indicates that beekeepers’ concerns merit further investigation both by an in-depth analysis of the field data and the samples collected in this study — and by conducting a larger study comparing several sites in and outside blueberries,” she said.
Further scientific results may be a little ways off, but for Common, there’s been a major positive outcome already — the collaboration between beekeepers, scientists and blueberry growers all invested in keeping the honeybees healthy.
“It’s very exciting,” she said.
Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank