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Bee Populations Seem To Be Bouncing Back In Canada, But Not in the US

44 percent of all US bee colonies died last year. Yikes.

Bees are dying off and nobody has an easy answer as to why, or how to fix it. What we do know is the dramatic effect that bee deaths will have on our daily life—a lot of the food we eat comes thanks to pollinators like honey bees. The situation was thought to be improving in North America, thanks to increased awareness and action from citizens, farmers and government officials. But a new study conducted in part by the US Department of Agriculture shows a reversal of some of those gains, at least south of the border.

The report says that the US lost just over 44 per cent of its bee colonies between April 2015 and March 2016. That's a lot more than the 34 per cent loss recorded two years ago, and shows a return to the troublesome 45 per cent loss recorded in 2012-13.

So, that must mean Canada is in store for a similarly dramatic loss in its bee population, right? Not necessarily, says Mark Winston, a professor in apiculture and social insects at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC.

The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists conducts its own annual study of how many bees die through the winter. While their report on 2015-16 is still forthcoming, the results of 2014-15 study showed a wintering loss of 16.4 per cent, which is an improvement over numbers we've seen in the past. (This is compared to the 28.1 per cent loss seen throughout the 2015-16 winter in the US, according to the new study there.)

Winston told me that wintering losses in Canada used to be as much as one-third in a single winter, and that that persisted for many years. But he expects this year's study to reflect the improvements seen last year.

"The situation in the US has degenerated significantly in the last few years, while in Canada it's actually improved," he told Motherboard.

Winston says it's not clear why there is such a significant difference between the two closely tied countries, but he has a few ideas. "A couple of likely reasons include less migratory beekeeping in Canada," he told us, "and perhaps our more severe winter, which may reduce pest numbers and related diseases that afflict honeybees."

In comparison, as many as 1.8 million bee colonies are moved annually in the US for pollination, said Winston. This accounts for anywhere from 70 to 100 percent to all colonies there, which might be moved multiple times to pollinate different crops (creating a whole new kind of hazard to motorists, when bees spill out onto the highway).

Canadians have seen a lot of campaigning on behalf of bees: everything from environmental groups advocating the planting of bee-friendly gardens, to Toronto striving for the designation of Canada's "Bee City".

But our approach isn't perfect. Just last week, Vancouver saw landscapers promoting neonicotinoid pesticides to combat a regional beetle infestation, according to a CBC report, which notes that despite safer alternatives, neonicotinoids (a classic bee killer, which are deemed to be extremely toxic) are permitted in this case by a bylaw.

"Industrial agriculture is the main culprit, due to heavy pesticide use and reduction of bee-friendly forage," Winston told me. "Stricter regulations around pesticides, government subsidies that favour sustainable agriculture and mixed cropping, and increased attention to planting forage for bees in and around farms—[such as] irrigation ditches, roadways, rights of way, empty spaces—would all assist the survival of honeybees and wild bees."

While these new numbers are a buzzkill for our southern neighbours, the current state of Canada's bee population remains to be seen. Whatever difference exists between the two countries could provide vital information in how to reverse the bee-pocalypse.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously used a photo of a bumblebee, instead of a honey bee. The story has been updated accordingly.