Beekeepers face tough challenges

Canadian beekeepers this year are unable to get the packages of bees they normally buy from New Zealand, Australia and Chile to replace winter bee losses.

In an ordinary year, 40,000 to 60,000 packages of bees would come to Canada from those countries but loss of commercial flights due to curtailed COVID-19 related air travel has halted shipments.

Inability to get new bees is a problem particularly in light of early reports about high winterkill losses in some honey-producing areas. Without imported bees, it will be impossible for many to maintain enough hives for normal honey production.

Jeremy Olthof, president of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, said the few reports that have come in so far indicate fairly average losses of 15 to 20 percent in the south but 40 to 50 percent losses in northern regions.

“We’ve got a lot of people worried right now,” said Olthof. “Right now we have zero options for bees coming in.”

So far there are no problems obtaining enough queen bees for the hives. Those come from Hawaii and California and are being purchased and shipped to Canada as needed. However, there is no national consensus about importing bee packages from the United States so that is not an option now, he said.

Canadian Honey Council executive director Rod Scarlett said he has also heard early reports of high winterkill losses, although he notes the late spring has kept many beekeepers from doing a full assessment at this point. However, only about 10 percent of the usual bee packages have arrived in Canada and that is a concern.

“We’re now getting some reports that the overwintering losses are fairly high, which is going to exacerbate the problem,” said Scarlett.

Beekeepers can split their stronger hives into two and install a new queen in the new hive, but that isn’t possible if winter losses are so high that bee numbers aren’t sufficient. It could mean lower honey production but like so many things, that will depend on Mother Nature and the growing season to come.

“Last year was one of the worst honey years experienced on the Prairies in a long time. Honey production was down just about 20 million tons. I think it was just over 80 million tons, where we’re normally at 92 or 94 million,” Scarlett said.

In theory, bee packages could be delivered by cargo plane but that isn’t ideal, he explained. Only two pallets of bee packages, each pallet carrying 650 packages, can go on a cargo plane because of the temperature control and air circulation the bees require.

As well, there aren’t enough planes flying to meet demand. The costs for charter flights are prohibitive given the distance of the source countries and the lack of a likely backhaul for the plane.

“You’re talking huge dollars,” said Scarlett.

Olthof estimates Alberta alone will have about 50,000 fewer hives this year, or around 250,000 instead of the usual 300,000.

“The guys that rely on packages, they’re definitely going to get hit. They’re just not going to be able to get their numbers back.”

Reasons for high levels of winterkill in some regions aren’t yet known. Varroa mites are the most common culprit but a cold fall that forced bees to bed early, lack of insulating snow in some regions, and a late spring with bees running out of food could all be culpable.

Olthof said he is hoping Alberta technicians can conduct tests to learn more but COVID-19 could restrict their ability to train personnel and to travel.

“A lot of these viruses aren’t easy to test for, so we don’t have the answers yet on why the deaths are happening, but with last year’s horrible year, production wise, a lot of guys were on the edge already.

“Now with this, I think it’s going to push a few guys out of business. There are a lot of stressed out beekeepers right now,” he said.

“This late spring is definitely really hurting guys because this is the time when the hives really start to dwindle. The winter bees are getting close to the end of life and you’re relying on good weather for the new bees to start coming out. I think this late winter is definitely having an effect.”

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