This summer’s cool weather didn’t just have a negative impact on grain crops — it meant honeybees weren’t flying.
And that has some commercial beekeepers in the province facing a dire economic situation.
Most producers have substantially lower honey yields this year, said Connie Phillips, executive director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission.
That was borne out by a recent survey by the commission, which has 178 members whose 312,000 hives collectively produce about two-fifths of Canada’s honey.
“Every single one of the producers who responded is below the average of their three-year production of honey,” said Phillips. “The bulk of the people who responded are 50 per cent or more below. It’s a huge concern for everybody — their livelihood depends on being able to sell the honey.”
Conditions were poor in both spring and summer. May had a period of smoky weather, and July and August were cool and wet. Bees did not die off, but only produced enough honey to sustain themselves.
“Generally, the hives look good,” said Phillips. “They’re just not making honey in the kind of quantity they normally would.
“They need the sun to be warm and generate body heat. They don’t like to fly when it’s raining.”
But it isn’t just the poor crop that is hurting beekeepers.
The companies that purchase honey have set a really low price for honey this year.
At Apimondia, the world’s largest bee conference (which was held in Montreal last month), Phillips heard that companies were lowballing Canadian honey producers because they could purchase honey from other countries for a lower cost.
“The price is low this year, so all the packers follow suit,” she said. “The big concern this year is half the amount of honey, which means half your income. I’m not sure some of the producers are going to be able to recover from that.”
Jeremy Olthof, president of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, operates Tees Bees near Lacombe.
“We’re doing a little better than most guys in the province, but we were well below average,” he said.
“Early on in the summer, it was looking pretty bad and we ended up getting a little bit of a surprise and we ended up getting some late honey, which doesn’t always happen. I’m still counting up my numbers, but I will probably beat what I expected. (However) it’s still going to be 150,000 pounds less than normal.”
Olthof takes a quarter of his bees down to the south for pollination, so that will help his cash flow.
“With the price right now, it’s not the best,” he said. “There’s talk it might go up a little bit with companies that buy strictly Canadian honey. It might be tough for them to find honey, so that might drive the price up a bit.
“(But) with the price and the crop the way it is, guys won’t be able to pay their bills right now. It is a tough one.”
The northern area of the province fared the worst, but the south didn’t do great either because of dry conditions.
“Down there, it’s a crappy year, but it’s not a wreck,” said Olthof.
Many beekeepers in the south also do hybrid canola pollination, which is another source of income. However, some southern Alberta beekeepers have started feeding their bees early for the winter because dry conditions this year reduced the supply of forage to feed on.
Up north, Ryan Hicks of Hicks Honey Farm has heard some sad tales from his neighbours.
“The summer that we had was not conducive to a lot of flight,” said Hicks, who raises bees at McLennan. “The highest number that I’ve heard is 80 per cent loss of a normal crop. More typical is 50 per cent loss.”
In the Peace Country, it was generally around 15 C or 16 C most days, which was not hot enough for bees to want to leave their hives. While daylight hours may be longer, the bees still didn’t get out and forage because it was too cold for them.
“We had bees out on clover fields. Typically, that’s where you might expect a bigger crop,” said Hicks. “Our operation ended up with 60 per cent of a normal (honey) crop.”
In some parts of the Peace, beekeepers encountered European foulbrood, a bacterial infection infamous for its damage to hives and persistence of its spores. It is normally found during damp conditions.
“Lots of our neighbours go to B.C. and to the Fraser Valley, where it rains every day,” said Hicks. “They will have it in their operation, but as soon as they get back to the Prairies, it should clear up. This year, it dragged out longer than normal. Guys were fighting European foulbrood throughout the spring and their bees weren’t building up as well as they should have.”
Another complication for the beekeepers’ economic situation is that Agricultural Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) programs don’t work well for them.
A lot of beekeepers have stopped using the insurance programs because they are expensive and the thresholds for loss are so high that a beekeeper might as well be out of business, said Phillips.
“When we did the survey a few years ago, about 70 per cent of the people who participated did use the safety programs, but now only 20 per cent do,” she said.
Olthof bought AgriStability coverage for many years, and only got a payout once.
“It’s just not worth it,” he said. “Guys aren’t paid anything on these bad years. The programs are up for review and we want to be at the table to make it a little more effective for beekeepers.”
The commission officials will be meeting with Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen this month and asking for a review of AFSC’s programs for beekeepers.
They’re also hoping for some sort of federal assistance.
“Usually when you are in a situation like this where there are industry-wide losses, you can get something arranged,” said Phillips. “I don’t quite know what that would look like. We’d be looking for some compensation for beekeepers.”
“My bigger worry is for next winter,” added Olthof. “If guys can’t pay their bills and they’re not investing for winter, and we have a bad winter, that’s a bigger worry.
“If guys have a wreck over the winter, and they can’t pay their bills and they have high losses, we’re going to see our hive numbers drop significantly.”