Alberta beekeepers buzzing about whether imports will arrive in time

Alberta beekeepers are concerned about honey production as imports are either delayed or not coming at all.

2020 was a bad year for many but especially for beekeepers who were unable to import any bees from out of country due to eliminated commercial flights. Unfortunate, 2021 isn’t off to flying, flowery start either. 

Connie Phillips, Executive Director Alberta Beekeepers Commission (ABC) says despite their best efforts to plan ahead after a bad 2020, getting import bees has proven to be a challenge this year. Phillips explains in a phone interview that last year there were no flights at all, so no that eliminated importing bees working for this season. In 2021, the honey and beekeeping industry was trying to get ahead of and anticipate where there might be challenges especially when the federal government changed the rules about entering and exiting the country. The airline industry has been in a state of turmoil so they have tried working with the government on this. Unfortunately disaster struck in early March as while some bees came, the supply was limited. 

“The Canadian Honey Council has a stock replacement committee; they have been working very hard to ensure that flights come in and so there were commitments from (one of the national airlines) to bringing in bees from Australia and News Zealand,” explains Phillips. “One of the early flights, there were a number of pallets and a pallet of bees is about 630 packages (she says a package weighs 1-2 kg each). There were three pallets which arrived and when the bees arrived, due to the temperature in the (holding area), they were all dead when they arrived. So, of course that is a huge cost to the airline, this created a whole bunch of concerns and so at this point … the airline is now saying ‘we are concerned and we certainly don’t want to ship and have bees dying while they are being shipped, so we are going to to reduce the number pallets that we are carrying’. Then at the same time, they started reducing the number of flights (in general) as well.

“One of our major importers in Alberta who is in Scandia (Scandia Farms, owned by Reece and Echo Chandler), prior to that point when the bees had died, he received five or six pallets already and that point he was still expecting 14 more pallets. And now, he may only get two between now and the first part of May — that is a huge decrease. There’s another importer up north, he had also received some pallets of bees prior to this issue of bees dying, but he thought he may only receive one more pallet.

I just heard this (April 7) the company in Scandia, instead of the bees flying into Vancouver which is typical, now they flew into Toronto, he

has to drive to Toronto and pick up the bees and bring them back.” 

The reason it is so important to import bees is that beekeepers and those which have flowering crops need to maximize pollination time within Canada’s limited growing season. Domestic/overwintered bees take a while to get going, if they make it past the winter. 

“Because of our cold winters in Canada, our beekeepers typically experience significant rates of overwintering loss,” explains Ron Greidanus, Stettler, beekeeper and ABC Board member in a prepared statement. “The Alberta beekeeping industry needs options to import bees if it wants to rebuild and be sustainable. All the options need to be on the table, including California, because it’s so difficult logistically to import from Australia and New Zealand right now.”

It has been a struggle for Phillips and the entire industry as they have done what they could to be prepared but the uncertainty and volatility with the pandemic has made the supply chain sporadic at best.

“Everybody at the first part of March, everyone was hopeful, the bees here in the commercial hives, for the most part are looking good. Additional bees were coming in and I believe between being very prepared with the bees that we have here in the province or getting them ready for to go into winter and we had a mild winter,” explains Phillips. “There was a lot of factors that everyone was super encouraged that this would be a great year, that it needs to be a rebuilding year because the prior two years were quite devastating for the industry and coming into this season and into the early fall when we collect registrations on numbers of hives from beekeepers, due to a range of factors, including Covid last spring, the hive numbers dropped 20,000 hives. So we typically sit around 300,000 for commercial hives and we are down 20,000 due to the out of control factors. 

“It was quite cold the last winter (2020), we had a late spring, a lot of rain, workers arriving late, so we there were a lot of bee deaths. So the loss rate was about 40 per cent. We had a lot of support from the province which was fantastic to help rebuild and I think with these kind of assurances, it was looking really positive that beekeepers were focused at rebuilding for this year coming and getting back to our members’ 300,000 hives. The other good thing is the price of honey is up. It is not good why there is less honey because there was less bees and less production.” 

It is oversimplifying the situation by thinking it is only honey. According to ABC, bees also provide pollination for growing hybrid canola seed in southern Alberta. The seed crop itself is worth $1 billion annually. Farmers then plant that seed to grow a commercial canola crop that makes Canada’s $30 billion canola industry possible. 

Canola seed grown this year will be planted in 2022. As package bee import numbers have fallen short in recent weeks, canola producers have taken notice. 

The hybrid seed industry and the blueberry industry (with $250 million annually) are looking for more bees. They are planning on ramping up as their export markets are growing so if the bees aren’t there that hits those industries. 

“Beekeepers are out now, it is warm enough, and by May 1 we want to be ready… by May 15 is the drop dead date and then after that you have to wait for domestic stock to be ready and there is domestic stock around as we found last year, but not enough,” explains Phillips. “Then you begin to lose in that window when you want your bees to start producing and when the domestic stock is ready, you begin to lose honey production in that window. 

She says if they can get the bees here and guessing they will get one or two pallets more (of imports) but is not optimistic, they will wait for the domestics to be ready to go. 

According to ABC, canola seed grown this year will be planted in 2022. The package bee import numbers have fallen short in recent weeks, it has canola producers worried as a good start helps canola production. 

“It is concerning,” says Ward Toma, General Manager of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission. “With an early arrival to spring this year, anything that delays the deployment of pollinators is very concerning to canola producers, as it could have serious impacts on the supply and cost of canola seed next year.” 

According to the Commission, Alberta is the top honey producer in Canada, producing 40 million pounds of honey in a good year. The economic risk of low honeybee hive numbers, however, impacts much more than the province’s 169 commercial beekeepers. Low hive numbers create a costly ripple effect. 

Phillips is hopeful whether they can get some help from the federal government to get bees brought in from California.

“That is the million dollar question. In December we met with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the livestock importation guys and requested that they put in an emergency exemption in place so that if anything like this ever happened again, that happened last year, we could bring bees in form Northern California from that same area where queens are imported now and at that time they said no,” she explains. “It is completely out of out control and we thought it was a completely reasonable request and quite doable so we’re not asking them to change the law, we just want an exemption in place in case of an emergency.”

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