It’s been a difficult start to spring for local beekeepers.

Many are opening their hives this year to find they’ve lost a lot of colonies over the winter.

“I was disappointed to find that just about everything has perished over the winter,” said Dennis Schmidt, president of the Wellington County Beekeeping Association. “Out of 22 hives, I only have one surviving colony.”

Schmidt said he’s heard reports of commercial beekeepers – many of whom provide pollination to fruit producers – also experiencing huge losses.

“That’s going to have an impact on pollination in Ontario,” he said.

While many things like weather and pesticides affect bees’ ability to reproduce, experts say a tiny parasite, the varroa mite, has been particularly devastating for bees this year.

The Honeybee Research Centre at the University of Guelph says over the winter their apiary lost about twenty per cent of its colonies.

“We typically would lose 10 to 15 per cent so we’re not that far off that, but we still have more to lose. So it could be up to 25 per cent,” said Paul Kelly, research and apiary manager at the Honeybee Reseach Centre.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this is out highest losses ever.”

Kelly said this spring is the opposite of last year’s, when warm weather in March meant honeybees were able to build up their population early and rapidly.

“This meant that the parasite that affects bees… known as varroa destructor also got an early start to the year,” he explained.

The verroa mite reproduces at an exponential rate and the damage they do to bees is seen the following season.

“It'll take two to three years for them to rebuild from losses like this,” said Kelly.

The mite has plagued Ontario beehives since 1987 and there are pesticides to specifically target it, but beekeepers say the mites grow resistant and other solutions are needed.

“We also are breeding bees that show some level of resistance to the mites,” said Kelly. “So that’s our long term goal – to breed the problem away.”

In the meantime beekeepers encourage people to plant flowers and trees that attract pollinators to help keep bee populations strong and Ontario’s agriculture industry healthy.