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Beekeepers “desperate” following heavy overwinter losses: producer

Owner of Innisfail-area Nixon Honey Farm says industry wants government to lift ban on U.S. imports
MVT-Nixon Honey Farm
Innisfail-area Nixon Honey Farm beekeepers tend earlier this spring to newly made hives to recover from the operation's overwinter losses. Submitted photo

INNISFAIL — Following a devastating start to the season for beekeepers throughout the country who are scrambling and struggling to re-establish their colonies after suffering substantial overwinter losses, the industry wants the Canadian government to lift the ban on U.S. imports.

“We definitely had higher-than-normal losses,” said Kevin Nixon, co-owner of family-run Nixon Honey Farm, a large, commercial-scale operation east of Innisfail, when asked how they’d be impacted.

But compared to some beekeepers who face a stiff uphill battle to recover after losing anywhere from 40-90 per cent of their colonies, Nixon Honey Farm almost fared well.

While the loss they sustained was of course more than they’d care to see, Nixon told the Albertan, “They weren't on the extreme side.”

Operating about 10,000 hives, Nixon Honey Farm is among nearly 180 commercial beekeeping operations in Alberta.

The range in the scale of those operations varies greatly from smaller producers with 500 colonies to those with as many as about 12,000, said Nixon.

“I think the average if you take all those numbers, it averages out to 2,000 hives per producer,” he said.

And over the past decade or so, those producers have come to factor into their business plans annual losses of anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of their colonies, he said.

But this season’s massive die-off was nothing anyone predicted.

“There’s some desperate situations out there,” said Nixon. “Many beekeepers in Alberta and across the country have been hit with very high winter losses and it's really concerning.”

The majority of Canada’s honey production comes from beekeepers on the Prairie provinces, he said.

“It’s Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Québec – all five provinces were hit really hard,” he said. “It’s definitely going to have an impact on Canada’s honey production.”

Ripple effect

And the huge losses of bees also stands to create a ripple affect on other agricultural producers who depend on nature’s highly effective pollinators.

“In eastern Canada, there’s a very high demand for honeybees for pollinating,” he said, adding producers in Ontario will transport some hives to, for example, Québec or the Maritimes. “Mainly for pollinating the blueberry sector, but also other fruit production as well.”

Further compounding an already difficult situation, he continued, are increased input costs such as replacement queens or packaged bees – if a producer can even find any.

“The bees, you know, simply aren’t there,” he said.

“You could have had a good crop last year and have money in the bank, but you can’t go buy bees. And so you know, a producer is really stuck,” he said, adding the successful recovery of affected producers is a major industry concern.

A helping hand

“As an industry, beekeepers are trying to help out each other,” he said, adding some producers who sustained fewer losses have, in the spirit of solidarity and camaraderie among beekeepers, endeavoured to make some extra splits off of their bees to help out those who are trying to recover from massive losses.

“I know another beekeeper here in Alberta, he’s sending some bees to a beekeeper in Manitoba right away,” he said. “There’s a beekeeper out there that lost 90 per cent.”

But even some help from fellow beekeepers won’t suffice to replenish such substantial losses.

“It’s not going to be enough,” he said.

Bouncing back from modest higher-than-average losses in the range of 40 percent is hard enough to recover from without being able to replenish the hives with fresh bees, he said.

“So, when you start losing 60, 70, 80, 90 percent of your livestock and you can’t go buy any, you know. What does a guy do? And what does an industry that requires pollination services do,” he asked.  

“That’s the struggle that we as an industry are facing.”

Livelihoods at stake

Commercial-scale beekeepers aren’t just in the industry as a fun pastime or side hustle, he said.

“This is our livelihood,” he said. “It’s not hobby beekeeping.”

Running a large operation is a time-consuming commitment that during difficult times can impact a person’s mental health, he said.

“It’s really hard on producers mentally, and to know how they’re going to support their families moving forward and be able to carry on,” he said.

When a producer is hit with this type of situation, it takes years to get back on their feet, and that’s provided they’re able to access stock, he said.

Industry wants ban on U.S. imports lifted

Meanwhile, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) continues a decades-old ban on U.S. bee imports. The agency has previously concluded that importing bees from the United States is too risky because a high probability of introducing diseases and pests into Canada remains.

So, Canadian beekeepers must look elsewhere on the international marketplace to countries like Australia, New Zealand and Chile, where the available supply of bees isn’t exactly abundant; quite the opposite.  

“The problem is that to source these from those countries, you have to have your order in in like December for the following spring,” said Nixon. “They’re very expensive, and they’re very limited supply. And so, you know, coming into spring this year, people didn’t have those bees on order because they were never expecting these losses.”

And the limited supply those countries were able to make available, sold out, he said, adding that even if a producer finds stock, the price tag might be prohibitive.  

“Costs are going through the roof, as with many things in life,” he said.

But just to the south of the Canadian border, our next door neighbours have plenty of beekeepers.

“Many people within the industry are advocating for access to honeybees from the U.S.,” said Nixon. “That border has been closed since the ’80s for the industry.”

Yet much has changed since then, he said.

“We really believe that things have changed in the U.S. and things have also changed in Canada, which brings us more in line with our phytosanitary status regarding bees,” he said, adding industry advocates “believe that through protocols, there are producers in the U.S. that would be able to supply bees to Canadian beekeepers.”

Nixon also expressed dismay that the industry can import bees from faraway international trade partners while the CFIA conducts risk assessments for bees from Cuba and Italy, which “don’t have the capacity to supply significant numbers. None of them do.”

So he struggles to understand why the agency is investing resources into those risk assessments “when we have bees right next door to us that are healthy, yet we cannot seem to find a solution to access those bees. There’s a lot of frustration within the industry because of this,” he said.

The agency has engaged with the industry in conversations about the situation, he conceded.

“But we really need CFIA and the government of Canada to find ways to support the industry, because otherwise it’s going to dwindle.”

Existing rules “kind of crazy”

Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the federal agency’s regulations is an allowance to import queens from the U.S., he said.

“It’s kind of crazy because we currently import queens from mainland U.S.A. from producers that are able to meet protocols to ensure the health of our own bees here,” he said.

What the industry is in a nutshell asking for, he said, is to simply gain access to packaged bees from the U.S.

“It would basically be the daughters of the queens that we are already buying,” he said. “We’re importing these queens already from producers down there that are raising the bees. So, the bees are coming from the same genetic lines of what we’re already buying.”  

Nixon wants to see more of a “solutions-based mindset” kept front-and-centre of mind during any conversations between industry and government.

“Industry and government needs to work together to find solutions so the industry can recover and thrive. That’s the bottom line,” he said.  

“It should be the duty of our government and our government agencies to find ways for their domestic industries to prosper.”

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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