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    Categories: Agriculture

Beekeepers on watch for itty-bitty beetle

A typical adult small hive beetle. Alberta Agriculture quarantined 15 bee farms in Peace River region this summer after about nine of these bugs were found in a hive. The destructive pest has yet to get a foothold in Alberta, but could ruin hives and honey if it does.

Alberta’s top bee scientist wants local beekeepers to keep their eyes open for a beetle that could bedevil their hives.

About 120 people were at the Edmonton Fantasyland Hotel from Nov. 6 to 8 for the annual convention of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, there to learn about the latest trends in bee health and honey marketing.

Giving his annual update on threats to bee health was St. Albert’s Medhat Nasr, Alberta Agriculture’s chief bee scientist.

In addition to the two top risks to bees, nosema and varroa mites, both of which have ravaged hives for almost a decade, Nasr said that this year beekeepers had spotted their first case of small hive beetles in Alberta since 2006.

The small hive beetle is a black or dark brown beetle that’s about half a centimetre long and four millimetres wide and is a regulated pest species in Canada, Nasr said in an interview. It’s shown up in Canada before and is common south of the border, but has yet to get a foothold here. A small population has entrenched itself in southern Ontario and Quebec.

The trouble started this summer when a farmer near Lesser Slave Lake brought in 512 hives from Ontario that had been certified small-hive-beetle-free, Nasr said.

“After our inspection, we found nine beetles in five different apiaries,” he said.

His department quarantined the farm and 15 others within the beetle’s 15 kilometre flight range on July 19 and was now working to exterminate the pests. The quarantine zone includes parts of Northern Sunrise County and portions of the municipal districts of Smoky River and Big Lakes, and prevents beekeepers from selling or moving bees or colonies within it.

Unlike the vampiric varroa mite, the small hive beetle does not intentionally harm bees, said Paul van Westendorp, Nasr’s counterpart in B.C. who spoke on small hive beetles at the conference. Instead, its larvae eat anything they find when they hatch – honey, pollen, wax combs, bee larvae – and poop everywhere, depositing a fungus that ferments the honey.

“You can smell the alcohol,” van Westendorp said, and see the honey bubbling.

Honey contaminated by this fungus becomes a rotten, smelly, orange mess, Nasr said.

These beetles are a subtropical pest and typically aren’t a concern in Canada as the winter is too cold for them to survive, van Westendorp continued. Still, they are capable of ruining honey operations if they get established, and they have become serious problems in some parts of North America.

van Westendorp said B.C. is particularly vigilant for these beetles as it’s close to Washington, where beekeepers often haul up potentially infested hives from down south.

“Some of these colonies are placed literally 10 feet from the Canada-U.S. border.”

Given the sheer number of hives being moved around the U.S., van Westendorp said he expected regular incursions into Canada by these beetles in the near future.

While chemical treatments are available, Nasr said a beekeeper’s best defence against this beetle was healthy bees and proper hygiene. He encouraged beekeepers to clean up around their hives and to chill their equipment at below 5 C for three to four days to sterilize them to stop the beetle’s spread. They should also place oil-filled beetle traps in their hives and watch for the beetles on their combs – they’ll flee the light like cockroaches.

While beekeepers are watching for this pest, the small hive beetle hasn’t had much of an economic impact in Canada as of yet, said Michael deJong, president of the Alberta Beekeepers.

“We’re not really worried about it at all.”

Any questions on the small hive beetle and its management should go to Nasr at medhat.nasr@gov.ab.ca. Under federal law, any suspected findings of it must be reported to him immediately.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.