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Beekeeper Phil Laflamme. Photo: Lucy Martin
Beekeeper Phil Laflamme. Photo: Lucy Martin

Beekeeper Phil Laflamme on current challenges

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Bees and the problems they face have been newsworthy for some time now. Efforts to understand that issue have included a well-attended seminar in Perth, Ontario on ways to bring pollinator populations back.

One of the speakers at that event was Phil Laflamme, who's been raising bees and queens for nearly 40 years. While it's something he loves, he's less sure beekeeping is right for just everyone. Laflamme spoke with Lucy Martin at the farm-tour segment of the seminar in mid-September.

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Phil Laflamme: “My name is Phil Laflamme, I was invited to be on the panel as sort of a representative for commercial beekeepers in the area.”

Lucy Martin: “You know, everyone's heard of colony collapse disorder, but I don't think a lot of people are aware that the opinion is that that's not happening in Canada. Is that your impression?”

PL: “That's the opinion of scientists, apiculture scientists, who have looked at that, yeah. We haven't experienced anything similar to colony collapse disorder here, most of the problems with the bees have been due to Varroa mites.

LM: “The statistics were just splashed around the news, about the death rates for 2013, and it wasn't good. So bee health is an issue.”

PL:“Yeah, bee health is an issue. They're not normal fluctuations. They used to be about a 15% winter loss was fairly normal – and 2012 was much lower than that. But other years they've been quite a bit higher.”

LM: “It's mostly mites and erratic weather, would you say? Or...?”

PL: “In our case, yeah, it's been mites and the weather can contribute to the high population of mites. If you have really good spring weather, like we did in 2012 – and you probably had that at Canton too – everything was a month early. The bees produced a lot of brood last year early in the year and then the mites reproduce in the brood. So we had high mite populations going into the fall – it was obvious that there would be problems during the winter. So we kind of expected an higher-than-normal winter loss, last year.”

LM: “Because great conditions for the bees are also great conditions for the parasites, aren't they?”

PL: “Right. There are management methods you can practice that will cut the brood cycle of the mites, but you have to work it into your beekeeping, and some people depend on in-hive use of miteicides in order to control the mites too.

LM: “Now, you have a business that focuses on raising disease-resistant queens and – what do you call it? Hives or stock? I don't know.”

PL: “Yeah, I mean our breeding program is selecting various characteristics. But it's been obvious, the past few years, that if we don't try to control Varroa mites through breeding, that none of the other – it doesn't matter if we have bees that produce a lot of honey, or that are gentle, or that winter well, because the mites will kill the colony. And none of those other good characteristics will ever be expressed. So we're looking now to, sort of, controlling the mite levels has come to the top of the breeding program.”

LM: “We're at a seminar called 'Bringing back the bees' – a day-long seminar – and I imagine you must have fielded a dozen queries from people who are saying 'Oh, I wouldn't mind keeping bees, how do I start?' ”

PL: “Yup, at least a dozen!”

LM: “What's the answer to that?”

PL: “Oooh. It's a hard one. And I'm kind of torn by this. Because, I mean, I like bee keeping, and we sell bees. But, there's also a high attrition rate among new beekeepers. And they're enthusiastic about bees, but they have a tendency not to go into their hives often enough, and they're not aware of what they have to do for Varroa mites. I'm..ha! I'm not sure what to say!”

LM: “Yeah. Because, on the one hand, it's a good interest to encourage. But, on the other hand, there's probably more to it than people realize?”

PL: “Yeah. There's quite a bit more. I mean I've been doing it for close to 40 years and I learn a lot every year. Every year, ever season, is different. And the situation has changed a lot, in the past few years. It's much harder to keep a bee hive alive than it was, when I first started.”

LM: “So you give them, perhaps, cautious encouragement?”

PL: “Yes. That's it. Cautious encouragement.”

LM: “And recommend a lot of education before you jump in, maybe?”

PL: “Yeah. Know the New York State, I'm sure there's good bee associations, and there's a New York State beekeeper's association too. I suggest they join a local club before getting bees, and get as much information as they can. Possibly find a mentor that they can work with, even before they purchase their own bees. And just try to be prepared.”

LM: “Another little boomlet is back-yard chickens. And one of the downsides of that is people eventually figure out that they stop laying eggs – or they make noise, or they just get tried of feeding them – and then what do you do with the chickens nobody wants anymore? What happens when people fade away from bee keeping? Are there abandoned hives, or...?”

PL: “Yeah. If people don't look after the hives what happens is, they'll swarm. And then the swarms usually cause problems for the neighbors, especially if they are in a city, they go into places they're not supposed to be, and then it gives beekeeping a bad name. So, swarm control is really important, if you're going to be in an urban area, with honeybees.”

LM: “If you have a hive and you've decided to give it up, you should maybe call a beekeeper and ask them to come help you out, or...?”

PL: “Well, no. If you have a hive, you want to give it up, you have to call a bee inspector, either a state or provincial bee inspector. And they'll come and verify that it's disease-free and they can give you a permit to sell. They don't want to see beehives sold that have a bacterial disease called American foulbrood, and the best place to stop it is at the sale.”

LM: 'OK. So there's a process, and it's there for a good reason.”

PL: “Yes.”

LM: “Is there something else you find the public most wanting to know, or that you wish to share with the public about beekeeping?”

PL: “I'd encourage them not to kill dandelions. Dandelions are a really good source for honeybees and other native pollinators in the springtime. So, don't dig 'em up, or spray 'em, or cut 'em. Leave them for the bees.”

LM: (pause) “Can they cut 'em before they go to seed?”

PL: “Ha! Yeah, but just before they go to seed!”

(both laugh)

LM: “Some people don't want to hear what you just said!”

PL: “Well, you wanted my opinion! I like dandelions! And so do the bees!”

LM: “Are you optimistic, or pessimistic, or just wait and see, for how this is going to go, for beekeeping?”

PL: “It's hard to say. For a few years there, every time we went to a beekeeper meeting, we were told about a new pest, a new disease. And it was becoming quite discouraging. Because it's hard enough keeping bees and the season is fairly short up here. There's more and more work loaded on us every year, to control the new problems. Sometimes, well, with Varroa mite I consider it a challenge. That's the only way I can look at it. Otherwise it gets too discouraging.”

LM: “The challenge continues.”

PL: “The challenge continues. Yes.”

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