Photo: Marta Guarna
Thousands of honey bee colonies arrive in the Fraser Valley’s blueberry fields every spring, but beekeepers are worried this crop may be harming their bees.

My alarm only managed to announce one jolting ring before I slapped it off. The clock read 3:45 am, and there was no time to waste.  Bleary-eyed, I threw together a thermos of coffee for the road and grabbed the day bag I had packed the night before, complete with sunglasses, 2 bottles of water, granola bars, and a pillow for the long car ride ahead. My colleague, Bradford Vinson, arrived to pick me up at 4:00 am on the dot. I jumped in his pick-up truck and we headed out to the Valley.

Bradford and I were bound for the blueberry fields in Agassiz, a small town in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, two hours east of Vancouver. There, forty honey bee colonies were waiting for us – all New Zealand packages established earlier in the year – which had just been placed in the blueberry plots to fulfill pollination contracts.

Blueberries are Canada’s biggest fruit export, generating about $400 million in revenue annually. Most of those berries are grown in BC and rely on honey bee pollination for reliable fruit set. But over the last few years, beekeepers have voiced growing concerns over the health of their blueberry-pollinating colonies; in particular, an unusually high incidence of European foulbrood (EFB) disease and a yet-unidentified “snotbrood disease,” which looks similar to EFB but comes back as negative in diagnostic lab tests. Some beekeepers have even indicated that they will decline to participate in blueberry pollination in the future at a scale that could create a major pollination deficit. Too many commercial beekeepers have reported similar concerns to ignore, and it’s time for the issue to be investigated with scientific rigor. We are even willing to get up at 3:45 am to do it.

Heather Higo and Marta Guarna, the project managers, met us in the field to help with the long day of work ahead. We were about to interrogate these colonies for the five most prominent indicators of colony health we could think of: pollen quality, honey quality, amount of brood, presence of diseases, and the size of the adult population. The previous day, we had sampled and measured the same things in forty colonies which were established from the same package source but spared of any agricultural pollination duties. As more Fraser Valley beekeepers got the call to move their colonies into the fast-approaching blueberry bloom, we evaluated a further 120 hives with various genetic origins at four other field sites, creating one of the biggest experiments on bee health in blueberries to ever be conducted.

This isn’t the first time that beekeepers have questioned the impact that blueberry pollination has on their colonies. In the 1980s, Gordon Wardell devoted an entire PhD thesis to the topic of European foulbrood’s association with blueberry pollination in Michigan. He found that there might be a link between the acidity of the pollen and EFB susceptibility . . .

Read the full article in the July 2018 issue of American Bee Journal.

Related articles:

Vancouver Sun (“Beekeepers refuse to put thousands of colonies in Fraser Valley blueberry fields“)

Star Metro (“BC beekeepers worry blueberries are making their bees sick“)