PHOTOS: Breeding a better bee for Vancouver Island

Beekeeper Iain Glass inspects a hive at a Black Creek bee yard. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River MirrorBeekeeper Iain Glass inspects a hive at a Black Creek bee yard. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Iain Glass inspects his hive at a Black Creek bee yard. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River MirrorIain Glass inspects his hive at a Black Creek bee yard. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Bee breeder Iain Glass demonstates the inside of a beehive on a Black Creek-area farm. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River MirrorBee breeder Iain Glass demonstates the inside of a beehive on a Black Creek-area farm. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror

Up in the mountains near Campbell River, beekeeper and geneticist Iain Glass is trying to breed a better bee.

While he is happy to talk about what he is doing, Glass does not want the location of his mountain yard known to the public. The isolation in the mountains, along with the cooler temperatures makes for a perfectly controlled area to breed new queen bees, and to extend the season into the later months of the year. In that way, it’s a lot like Vancouver Island, a place he said is perfect for bee research because of the natural barriers and the hospitable climate.

“We have an undefended border from White Rock to Chilliwack. If you think about it, out there there is commercial pollination with the blueberries, cranberries and raspberries on both sides of the border. There are huge amounts of migratory bees coming through. You’re simply overwhelmed by other genetics,” he explained. “The way I describe Vancouver Island to friends is that there’s water. There are barriers. We don’t have that same movement…so instead of battling huge amounts of bees elsewhere, here is a place with pockets of stuff and apiaries that are local to the area and don’t really move their bees as much.”

He is collaborating with the many beekeepers that call the area between Comox and Campbell River home to breed these new bees, and in turn, make a better bee that will benefit beekeepers across the country. Simply put, his goal is to develop a breed of bees that is resistant to the Varroa mite, produces large amounts of honey and has a good temperament that makes them easy for beekeepers to work with.

The project, a non-profit research and education group called Ensure Hive Future is, through artificial insemination and selective breeding, working to develop a strain of bees that checks all of those boxes and is specifically adapted to the climate and needs of Vancouver Island.

“The collaboration is really building and what we have now is a group of us up in a mountain yard. I’m working with Western Forest Products and I’ve got quite a group of us up there,” he explained. “We’re about to do a bunch of mating…We’ll be doing this each year. People will bring the best bees up to the yard…We’ll continue to select the best of the best, they’ll go home with new queens and more nucs to enhance their yards as well as the educational component of it.”

A nuc, short for nucleus, is a colony of bees that already has a strong queen and eggs. Beekeepers use these to turn into productive hives through their seasons, and can even sell them to other beekeepers to make a bit of extra cash. Glass hopes that through the sale of these nucs and general education to existing and new beekeepers he is able to spread a stronger bee across the island and end beekeepers’ dependence on nucs from other parts of the world.

“There are thousands of colonies that come in from New Zealand every year, I’d like to see that stop. I’d really like to see us get to self-sufficiency on Vancouver Island and B.C. It just makes sense for Vancouver Island to be the bee breeding location for B.C.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taught him some lessons about mother nature and her whims, it has also forced him to look into new ways of helping B.C. beekeepers. Through Ensure Hive Future, Glass has started doing online courses, increased the scope of his research and been able to reach beekeepers that he would not have otherwise.

“I just really want to spend far more time personally on the educational side, the selection, genetic and instrumental insemination side,” he said. “It’s taking people and making them not only good at queen rearing, but understanding the difference between queen rearing and queen breeding, and that there is a difference…That’s the role I want to spend a lot more time on in the future, now that the collaboration has started to grow.”

So far it has been working. He has seen Varroa resistance grow in the bees he’s kept on the Island, and he is seeing the beekeepers he’s working with having more and more successful seasons. He is also working on teaching new queen rearers his techniques to help make that end of the endeavour self-sustaining. This year he has partnered with seven bee owners and two commercial apiaries. He would like to see that number bumped up to 20 to 25 next year.

“When I brought the first genetics over to Van Isle in that first year, the girls overwintered very well and their mite loads are much much lighter than normal,” he said, describing the successes the program has already had. It is not just him that is seeing these successes.

“The people that we’ve worked with have really seen results,” he said. “It’s quite satisfying to see people who have had problems with bee health get to the point where they’ve overwintered and can put them up for sale.”

“This project is not about me, it’s about the bees and beekeepers in B.C. and other provinces,” he added. “The time is really maturing for all of this, and the only component you need is education.”

RELATED: Lack of bees, pollination limiting crop yields across U.S., B.C., study finds

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marc.kitteringham@campbellrivermirror.com

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