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Scientists buzzing over whether blueberry fields pose a health risk to bees




VANCOUVER—Most of the honeybees were still snug in their hives when the pickups rolled quietly past the farmhouse and onto the Delta, B.C. blueberry field.

The sun was hiding just below the horizon and the telltale buzz of the bees was subdued.

Researchers in a study lead by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are trying to understand why honeybees appear to be getting sick after too much time spent pollinating blueberry crops.
Researchers in a study lead by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are trying to understand why honeybees appear to be getting sick after too much time spent pollinating blueberry crops.  (Jesse Winter / StarMetro Vancouver)

Researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of British Columbia had risen well before dawn to catch the bees at home — before they set out for a long day of pollinating the delicate white flowers that dotted each bush.

This relationship, between the bees and the blueberries, is critical for the berry industry, and growers — like beekeepers — are keen to find out what might be ailing the bees.

Each spring growers pay beekeepers thousands of dollars to bring hives into their fields for a few weeks of pollination.

If the bees do their job right, the flowers turn into plump blueberries ripe for the picking.

The future of that arrangement was called into question earlier this year by some B.C. beekeepers who worried that weeks in the blueberry fields were making their honeybees sick.

Some threatened to stop offering pollination services for blueberries altogether. Though, in the end, many beekeepers did take their bees to the fields, in some cases, it cost the growers a premium.

A honeybee is seen on a blueberry flower in a field in Delta, B.C.
A honeybee is seen on a blueberry flower in a field in Delta, B.C.  (Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver)

Honeybee health isn’t just important for beekeepers and blueberry growers. The tiny buzzers are a significant economic contributor for the province. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the bees contribute $538 million to B.C.’s economy through crop pollination alone — not to mention their importance for food security. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 per cent of global crops that produce fruit or seeds for food rely in part on pollinators.

In response to ongoing concern, researchers from Agriculture Canada undertook a new study in partnership with the National Bee Diagnostic Centre, UBC and the British Columbia Honey Producers’ Association this spring and with financial support from the BC Blueberry Council.

They wanted to find out if honeybees really were worse off after blueberry pollination, why that might be, and what beekeepers and growers could do to keep the bees bustling.

Over the course of the spring and early summer, the team studied colonies managed by five beekeepers that pollinated blueberries and, as a control, colonies managed by one of those beekeepers that didn’t pollinate blueberries.

They watched for population shifts, signs of disease and differences in hive-management techniques.

Twice during the study period, the team, which was led by Agriculture Canada research scientist Marta Guarna, visited the bee colonies to collect samples of bees, bee brood or babies, pollen, and honey. A third assessment focused on the brood alone.

In May the researchers gathered population data and samples of bees, larvae, pollen and honey for analysis. Their day started before dawn.
In May the researchers gathered population data and samples of bees, larvae, pollen and honey for analysis. Their day started before dawn.  (Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver)

StarMetro joined the team for their second assessment of Julia Common’s bee colonies in late May. By that point, the honeybees were already weeks into their blueberry pollination work.

Common, Hives for Humanity’s chief beekeeper, was particularly concerned about the risks blueberry pollination posed to her bees after she was forced to kill millions of sickly bee babies last year.

Today, she’s feeling much more optimistic. This year, she said, “the bees came out of the blueberries and they did their typical dive, but I was way ahead of the curve.”

As soon as she moved the beehives from the blueberry fields she gave them extra food and took other steps to help build the colonies back up. She still had losses, but nothing as bad as last year.

“They then went to do very well on pumpkins and make honey,” she said.

Jeff Pettis, a former lead researcher at a U.S. Departure of Agriculture bee lab, collects samples of adult bees in jar from a hive in Delta B.C.
Jeff Pettis, a former lead researcher at a U.S. Departure of Agriculture bee lab, collects samples of adult bees in jar from a hive in Delta B.C.  (Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver)

It’s the dive Common mentioned that the researchers were investigating back in May when they arrived to collect their second set of data.

They kept their voices low as they stepped into their white bee suits, zipped their screened hoods closed, and pulled on purple lab gloves.

Their early morning task, Guarna explained, was to estimate the adult bee population of each colony.

“Once they start flying, we don’t know how many have gone and how many are there,” she said, explaining the early hour.

It was just past five when the team fanned out, each setting up at a different hive.

Not quite in unison, the researchers puffed smoke around the hives to help keep the bees calm and lifted their lids. Then they slid a slim piece of metal between the wooden frames and pulled one free.

Bee expert Marta Guarna examines a frame of honeybees. She is the lead researcher from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada on a new study that seeks to understand why bees appear to be getting sick after pollinating blueberry crops.
Bee expert Marta Guarna examines a frame of honeybees. She is the lead researcher from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada on a new study that seeks to understand why bees appear to be getting sick after pollinating blueberry crops.  (Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver)

The researchers used a divided grid to estimate the adult bee population on each frame. They assess what proportion of the frame is covered in bees and call it out as an eighth to the team member tasked with recording the data.

“Marta, six and seven, frame two,” calls out Guarna. She gives two numbers, one for each side of the frame.

One by one, the researchers follow suit.

“Abbi, three and two, frame three,” said Abbi Chapman, an undergraduate research assistant from UBC.

“Jeff, six and six, frame four,” said Jeff Pettis, the former head of a U.S. Department of Agriculture bee lab, who’s consulting on the project.

By the time the sun rose, brimming the trees in a golden light, there was a chorus of chirping birds and buzzing bees behind each number sounded off.

And, as the bees grew livelier, the research team moved on to task No. 2.

Researchers collect samples of bee bread, layers of pollen collected by bees for protein. The samples will be analyzed for possible chemical contamination.
Researchers collect samples of bee bread, layers of pollen collected by bees for protein. The samples will be analyzed for possible chemical contamination.  (Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver)

Hive-by-hive they collected adult bees by the jar, honey by the tube and used wooden stir sticks to lever layers of pollen, called bee bread, from cells in the comb. Any bee brood that looked unhealthy was taken too.

As Guarna, Higo and their crew wrapped up their field work for the day, the bees were just settling into work, flitting between the flowers.

In the months ahead, the samples will be analyzed for chemical contamination and pathogens. They’ll investigate differences in bee management, and whether the colonies provided with extra protein stayed healthier.

One goal, said Higo, is to find strategies that both beekeepers — who could adjust the way they manage their colonies like Common did this year — and growers can implement to help keep pollinators in good health.

Much more analysis is needed before the team can issue any conclusive results, but they do have some preliminary findings.

Researchers colllect samples of honey from bee hives in Delta, B.C. The honey will be analyzed for chemical contamination.
Researchers colllect samples of honey from bee hives in Delta, B.C. The honey will be analyzed for chemical contamination.  (Jesse Winter/StarMetro Vancouver)

On Saturday, Guarna and her research partners presented these at the British Columbia Honey Producers’ Association annual conference — the same day B.C. Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham announced an additional $50,000 in funding for BeeBC, a program that supports community-based initiatives to protect bee health.

Early results indicate European Foulbrood-like symptoms were found in both colonies that pollinated blueberries and those that didn’t.

However, the researchers found the symptoms, which resemble the common bacterial disease EFB and affect bee babies, appeared more prevalent in the colonies that pollinated blueberries, Guarna told StarMetro in an email.

“This observation indicates that beekeepers’ concerns merit further investigation both by an in-depth analysis of the field data and the samples collected in this study — and by conducting a larger study comparing several sites in and outside blueberries,” she said.

Further scientific results may be a little ways off, but for Common, there’s been a major positive outcome already — the collaboration between beekeepers, scientists and blueberry growers all invested in keeping the honeybees healthy.

“It’s very exciting,” she said.

Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise




Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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