Beekeepers see solid demand for honey

Several Alberta honey producers have posted notices that they’ve already sold out of the 2020 crop. | File photo

The pandemic complicates plans to import bees from overseas, while a new strain of foulbrood keeps producers on edge

The basics of supply and demand are at work in the Canadian honey business. Demand is up, along with the price, and supply is low.

“Nationally, there’s very little honey available that I’m aware of and the price is very solid,” said Canadian Honey Council executive director Rod Scarlett. “There’s a really strong demand and the demand is not just domestic, it’s international. There’s just not much to be had.”

Several Alberta honey producers have posted notices that they’ve already sold out of the 2020 crop. High winterkill losses last year combined with difficulty importing bee packages to replenish hives led to lower production overall.

As well, honey produced per hive was below average by about 30 pounds per hive, said Alberta Beekeepers Commission president Jeremy Olthof, who operates near Tees, Alta.

Favourable weather and good crops in southern Alberta resulted in good production there but weather problems in central and northern Alberta resulted in lower honey yields, he said.

Compared to last year, however, 2020 has been kind.

“Overall, I think we definitely came out ahead of last year. Last year pretty much the entire province had almost a wreck,” said Olthof. “The price has really jumped up, so it’s been a big help for guys this year.

“It’s good to see that domestic demand is up and driving the price, so we’re optimistic on that. And this fall has been really good for the bees. We had pollen coming in really late and we’re seeing lots of pollen in the hives right now, so I’m pretty optimistic going into winter.”

Scarlett said the council is working to ensure bee packages can be imported next year from Australia and New Zealand, the source of most new bees. This spring the pandemic-related cancellation of flights resulted in only one shipment arriving before flights largely stopped.

The council is working with airlines to determine the number of commercial flights that might be available and the types of planes because bees need certain temperature conditions to be shipped safely.

COVID-19 protocols in Australia and New Zealand currently limit the amount of traffic, the types of cargo and offloading.

“We’re already hearing that, just because of the cargo flight paths coming out of Australia, it’s not looking promising to get anything out of Australia,” said Olthof.

Both he and Scarlett said there are differences of opinion among beekeepers about the source of bee imports from other countries or sources.

“It’s been an issue for some time,” said Scarlett. “I think the trend, however, is that we are looking at more domestic production and internal growth from domestic stock. And that’s been occurring all the time. Last year became kind of the outlier year for packages.”

Importing bees from the United States is controversial due to risks of getting Africanized bee genetics, small hive beetle infection and varroa mites that are resistant to common treatments, said Olthof.

In addition, an outbreak of a different type of foulbrood, a fatal bacterial disease, has some beekeepers worried about infection.

“There was a lot of guys that lost production because they didn’t want to bring in hives from another beekeeper. They wanted to keep it in house and they were sort of being left high and dry.”

Cases of European foulbrood are common in spring but typically disappear when honey starts to flow, said Olthof. This new strain doesn’t dissipate in summer and more frequent treatment is necessary but costly.

An extension of the government’s stock replacement program may help cover costs to replenish hives, said Olthof.

It provides funds to help beekeepers offset the increased costs of colony replacements due to COVID-19 and was recently amended to retroactively assist in queen purchases made between April 1 and Sept. 30. The government will pay 30 percent of the cost to a maximum of $15 per queen.

The honey council is also planning to ensure temporary foreign workers that Canadian beekeepers rely upon can return next year. There were pandemic-related delays and concerns this year but Scarlett said getting workers home again proved difficult as well.

Just last week the council chartered what Scarlett hoped would be the last flight to return Nicaraguan workers to their home country. Nicaragua has strict COVID-related protocols that require travellers to have a test within 72 hours of the flight and a negative result within 24 hours of departure, said Scarlett.

Some provinces were unable to guarantee that 24-hour test result, so many workers have been in Canada for months longer than anticipated.

“They were considered essential workers coming in. It was very different trying to get them out.”

As for next year, Scarlett said the council will likely schedule charter flights for workers if there aren’t enough commercial flights, and “if they have labour coming in from areas where there are no commercial flights, we’ll step in and arrange charters.”

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