Flight cancellations threaten bee supplies

Eighty percent of the bees honey producers expected this year from New Zealand won’t arrive due to Air Canada changes

Changes to airline flight schedules have jeopardized Canadian honey production and pollination services.

Commercial beekeepers and hobbyists have pre-ordered 50 pallets of bees from New Zealand, enough to supply about 30,000 hives, but Air Canada flight alterations and cancellations could mean only seven or eight pallets arrive in time for use this year. Instead of the previously planned three flights per week, the carrier will fly only one and has scheduled none at all during Easter week.

“The big concerning thing is that 80 percent of the bees that were expected to come from New Zealand are not coming,” said Ron Greidanus, an Alberta beekeeper and director with the Alberta Beekeepers Commission.

“It’s not that they’re not available. They physically cannot get here.”

New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Ukraine are among the few countries where Canadians can source bees. The latter two have few bees available, leaving beekeepers reliant on countries Down Under for hive replenishment after winter losses, plus any planned expansion of hive numbers.

Flight cancellation from those countries limits opportunities for shipping bees. To complicate matters, bees are a delicate cargo and can only be shipped in planes equipped with adequate climate controls.

Bees generate a lot of heat when clustered during shipping so they have to be kept cool. Air Canada’s Boeing 777s have adequate air conditioning but can only carry one or two pallets of bees per flight.

“You cannot put that many pallets of bees in one plane because the plane cannot get rid of the heat that the bees are generating,” said Greidanus. “It just becomes a thermodynamic impossibility.”

Bees are purchased by weight and are generally shipped in one or 1.5-kilogram packages organized into a pallet. One pallet contains 632 packages of bees and weighs 600 to 700 kg.

Earlier this spring, Greidanus said three pallets of bees arrived in Vancouver dead from overheating and the resulting dehydration, representing a $350,000 loss.

The numbers get even bigger when calculating the potential Canada-wide repercussions from insufficient bee imports.

Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council, said his impact assessment shows tens of millions of dollars in losses could result.

Lost honey production and inability to meet pollination contracts are estimated at about $10 million.

“Then the impact on the lack of pollination capacity in those crops that need it, it’s really hard to put an estimate on. All I can say is probably 30,000 of those packages would have been used in pollination purposes and the spin-off there is tremendous,” said Scarlett.

Bees that pollinate canola crops can increase yield by up to 10 percent, he said. Greidanus said companies that produce hybrid canola seed are aggressively seeking pollinators from commercial beekeepers. Last year, he provided 500 hives for that purpose and this year has been asked for 1,000, and he is only one among numerous beekeepers who supply hives to seed companies.

Bees are also in high demand in British Columbia for fruit pollination and in the Maritimes for blueberries.

Scarlett said he has spoken with Air Canada and with Agriculture Canada about increasing the number of flights from Australia and New Zealand.

Time is a factor because hives should be placed no later than mid-April to allow bees enough time to produce honey and pollinate crops at the right time. Arrival after May 1 makes their use questionable and mid-May is definitely too late to expect honey production for this year, Greidanus said.

Adding to the problem is the fact that winter bee losses have been high in Alberta and some other parts of Canada in the previous two years so beekeepers are eager to replenish hives and take advantage of high honey prices, now more than $2 per pound. One hive could potentially yield $400 worth of honey.

The shortage of flights is of course a result of reduced passenger traffic due to the global pandemic.

“The airline business, ravaged by COVID, is hemorrhaging money like the guy in Jurassic Park that met up with the business end of a raptor,” said Greidanus, so it’s no surprise airlines are reluctant to lose more money on low-passenger flights.

That’s why he thinks the federal government should intervene to facilitate more flights.

“The solution is, we need to have airplanes flying.”

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