Almost half of beehives in Canada could be lost this year to climate change and disease, said beekeepers, who have already been stung by cheap honey imports and are now facing ruin.
The late onset of winter, followed by a cold snap in January, caused havoc with hives and led to "significant bee losses," said Brent Halsall, president of the Ontario Beekeepers' Association.
The tally is ongoing, but several "alarming cases" including the destruction of 90 percent of hives on some farms in eastern Ontario point to likely widespread devastation, he said.
Warm weather prompted bees to produce extra broods, Halsall explained.
"When it got really cold very quickly in January, bees died as they tended to larvae and pupae, distracted and unable to respond to the sudden temperature change," he said.
In some cases, the bees died just a few inches from the honey they needed to survive, Halsall added.
Combined with pressure from cheap imported honey -- from exporters in China, South America and Australia, among others -- thousands of Canadian beekeepers are now on the verge of pulling out of an industry that thrived only a decade ago, Halsall said.
And a collapse of the Canadian industry would not only affect honey lovers.
It could also spell trouble for thousands of Canadian farmers who rely on bees to pollinate their crops, he said.
"Eventually, I anticipate a shortage of pollinators in Canada," Halsall said.
"A quarter of our food depends on bee pollination," he added.
The country counts about 600,000 hives.
A few years ago, Canada was the fifth-largest honey producer in the world, but has now dropped out of the top 10 without reducing local production, due to increased global competition.
Production of honey often costs between C$0.50 (US$0.43) and C$0.56 per kilogram, while some imported honey sells for as little as C$0.23 a kilogram.
Some beekeepers iun eastern Canada have been able somewhat to compete with a glut of imports by packaging and selling their Canadian-branded honey directly to consumers and to retailers, Halsall said.
But honey producers in western Canada must sell in bulk to wholesalers -- sometimes at a loss -- because the area population is too small and spread thinly across vast plains.
Meanwhile, in several parts of the US, a mysterious disorder was also killing bees, with potential for billions of dollars in crop losses that could raise fruit and vegetable prices in the next two years.
The so-called "colony collapse disorder" has been reported in 24 US states, with bee losses of up to 90 percent in some hives, a Pennsylvania State University study showed.
With fewer bees, "you'll see lower pollination, lower yields [and] lower crop production," said Paul Wenger, vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, after testifying on Thursday before a House agriculture subcommittee in Washington, cited in the Ottawa Citizen.
No cases have been reported in Canada.
But Halsall said Canadian beekeepers were concerned the disorder could eventually cross the border.
"I'd like to say it's `colony collapse disorder' that killed our bees but that hasn't been clearly defined" he said.
"All that I really care about is that we're losing hives and we have to find a solution to stop it," he added.
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