Beekeepers got knocked down but they got up again

Curtis Miedema

Despite many tribulations, beekeepers are optimistic about getting a good honey crop this year

After two terrible, no-good, very bad years, Alberta’s beekeepers are feeling a little more optimistic.

Poor weather severely reduced production in 2019, then came high overwintering losses, then the pandemic brought a maelstrom of troubles, and then more bad weather.

“Last year was a poor year, I would say overall, for beekeepers,” said Curtis Miedema, who raises bees near Barr­head. “It was just too wet and rainy throughout the year. So far this year, things are looking more promising.”

The closed border produced a lot of uncertainty around temporary foreign workers, who make up about two-thirds of the labour force in the bee sector.

“In the end, about two-thirds of the expected workers were able to get here,” said Connie Phillips, executive director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission. “It started the season late and with the new rules of workers having to quarantine when they got here, it just pushed everything back quite a bit.”

“It set our whole year back when we didn’t have the help we needed to start,” added Miedema, the commission’s vice-chair. “Even when they did arrive, they all had to go through the quarantine process. It held us up.”

And the window for catching up is narrow.

“You can’t finish that late because once the flowers are done and the bees are done foraging, you’re sort of finished your harvest,” he said. “It made everything more of a time crunch.”

A late spring added to last year’s woes, as did a wet and cool July in many areas as bees don’t forage as extensively under those conditions.

On top of all that was the frustration of trying to get replacement bees.

“With the high overwintering losses, both the commercial beekeepers and some of the hobby beekeepers rely on replacement bees, which get flown in from Australia and New Zealand generally,” said Phillips. “None of those bees came in because no planes were flying last spring.”

Some beekeepers suffered extreme losses (one lost upwards of 90 per cent of his hives) and about 25,000 colonies were lost from 2020 to 2021. (The commission’s 175 producers normally have about 25 million bees in nearly 300,000 colonies.)

About all everyone could do was soldier on.

“With the bad weather, no replacement bees and production going to fall off, some people put their time and energy into getting the production that they could, and ensuring their bees were going into fall as healthy as possible,” she said.

Better but not great

Although not back to normal, things are definitely looking up.

The two years of poor production drove up honey prices, which are about 20 per cent higher than they were two years ago.

Getting foreign workers was chaotic as the rules both here and in their home countries kept changing but it did happen.

“I was hearing from my beekeepers that at times, there were five or six federal ministries that might be contacting them at any different point in time, with different instructions,” said Phillips. Not everyone was on the same page.

“The effort to get workers here was incredible, but most did arrive.”

They were also able to bypass the three-day hotel quarantine thanks to a concerted effort by the province and industry.

“One of the companies that arranged flights from Mexico just turned itself inside out and went to the mat for all Prairie beekeepers,” said Phillips. “It was able to shift flights landing in Toronto to landing in Calgary. Then the other Prairie provinces were sending buses to pick them up.”

The followup COVID-19 testing was another hurdle to clear (the contractor underestimated the complexity of getting out to rural areas).

And replacement bees have started coming to Alberta — albeit only 20 per cent of what was ordered this year. The beekeepers’ commission is asking the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for an emergency exemption to try to bring bees in from northern California.

“We buy queens from there, so it is relatively safe. So far, it is saying no, but we’re still pushing,” said Phillips.

The commission is also pushing for a new business risk management program and while the Prairie provinces are on board, other provinces haven’t agreed yet, she said.

But weather- and honey production-wise, things are looking much better. It was a milder winter and the improved weather has continued into spring and early summer.

“I think people are more hopeful,” said Phillips. “It’s more optimistic not just in Alberta, but across the Prairies. Honey prices are still up, and the beekeepers are hoping the weather stays good.”

“We’ve had some really good weather and the bees have been building up well on the dandelion flow,” added Miedema. “Dandelions can be pretty hit or miss, but because we had the moisture and the time, the bees did really well on them.”

Alberta is the largest producer of honey in the country and the province’s beekeepers are a resilient lot, he said.

“They realize we have good years and bad years. When farms are just starting out, bad years are hard to take. But I definitely feel there’s a lot of optimism in the industry.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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