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Bee sector tale of good and bad

The bee and honey sector is in the midst of a good news / bad news situation. The good news are high prices. The bad news the health of bees and their very future.
Howland Enterprises Inc.
Sasha Howland of Howland Enterprises Inc., right, says there are issues in the bee industry, but good prices as well.

The bee and honey sector is in the midst of a good news / bad news situation.

The good news are high prices.

The bad news the health of bees and their very future.

“Bee health is in the media these days, or at least the problems with bee health are,” said Tim Wendell, with Wendell Honey at Calder.

It was a theme Sasha Howland of Howland Enterprises Inc. picked up on in greater detail.

“Globally, bees and beekeepers are struggling,” she said. “The health of the honey bee and the size of honey bee populations in general is declining. There are a number of factors present in the environment today which challenge the health and immunity of the bee and in such, are contributing to their decline.”

It starts with the impact civilization is having on bees, offered Howland.

“Humans are not helping,” she said. “Monoculture cropping decreases the variance of diet and nutrients available to the honey bee, and just like a human without a good varied diet, decreases its overall health.  

“The heavy use of chemicals on our crops both eliminates all other plant sources surrounding the commercial crop, and can prove deadly when bees and/or colonies are directly hit.”

Howland said efforts are being undertaken to make things better in that regard.

“There is a great program that has been developed over the last couple of years called ‘Drift Watch’ which allows the beekeeper to enter beeyard locations on a google map type system that can be accessed by the Arial Applicators Association and therefore ensures the awareness of beeyard locations and provides contact information for the beekeeper,” she said. “This was created in hopes that direct spraying of beehives could be reduced as well as being able to hold applicators accountable in the event that direct spraying occurs.  

“Unfortunately, even when bees do not come into contact with the actual application of chemicals, there are often secondary issues these chemicals can have on the bees health as they collect the pollen and nectar from these chemically treated plants. I want to emphasize that it isn’t only insecticides that hurt the bees, even fungacides have very negative effects on the bees health when taken in on the pollen and fed to their young.”

Howland said how markets view bees has not helped either.

“Another contributing factor to bee health decline is that honey bees have been treated like a global commodity and are sold and moved all around the world,” she offered. “Although this makes access to bees much easier, it also means the spread of diseases and pests within the global bee population.  

“Pests such as the varroa mite, which happily established a co-existence with its native Asian species of bee, has reeked incredible havoc on bee populations throughout North America as well as Europe. This mite carries all sorts of problems with it as it reproduces through feeding on young bee larvae who often emerge alive but completely non-functional. When the numbers of these wounded non-functional bees rise too high, the colony becomes completely non-functional and highly susceptible to diseases that a healthy colony’s immunity keeps at bay.

“In response to these pests and diseases, beekeepers use many mite treatment methods that can help control the mite populations in the colonies, but unfortunately can also have problematic effects on the bees.  

“There is an incredible amount of research going on in the global beekeeping community to find solutions to these problems. We are in a time of great learning, and there is an amazing amount of knowledge being gained by this research. One very valuable tool in any beekeeping operation is being able to rear your own local replacement stock. By not depending on foreign markets for bees, one can build the strongest bee for their own environment. In this way, a beekeeper can limit their exposure to new threats while always strengthening their bee population and better deal with the threats posed by its own local environment. The Saskatchewan Beekeepers’ Association and its members are well known for their strong border policies, and have many members continually rearing their own local stock for replacement.”

In reaction to the situation, there is growing interest in what might be described as ‘farm lot’ beekeepers.

“Some people want to help by having some bees of their own.

That in itself is not a bad thing,” said Wendell, adding that may create issues of its own. “However, some of us in the industry are concerned that this may pose some issues down the road. Some people get a puppy because they are so cute and a year down the road they find out that they aren’t so cute anymore and have become a lot of work. Then they are abandoned. We hope that doesn’t happen with the bees since that will make that health issue worse rather than helping with it. We suspect that will be an issue in some instances.”

Dean Rugland, manager with Peavey Mart in Yorkton said in selling bees they are trying to ensure people have the knowledge to look after their hives.

To start with anyone wanting to order bees, which come in three-pound packages which include a queen, people must first “be registered with the government to keep bees,” he said.

Rugland said there is also information which is supplied to first time beekeepers.

The bees through Peavey Mart come from Australia, through Ontario, said Rugland adding they are the Italian breed, and are government inspected. Orders, while supplies last, must be made by Apr. 4.

Rugland said this is the first year the company has handled bees, although last season they were selling bee supplies such as the boxes, smokers, and small home extractors. He said getting into supplying the needs of small honey produces dovetails with a core goal of Peavey Mart, “to supply the urban farmer, the small farmer.”

Rugland said as farming gets bigger many suppliers have focused on large scale operations. Peavey Mart saw a niche to help small producers access what they need, including garden supplies, placing orders for poultry, and now bees,

“It’s personal type beekeeping,” he said, adding after a week of advertising they have had four orders, ranging from one to four hives.

Rugland himself is among those to order. It will be his first experience with bees, a single hive.

In Rugland’s case the interest in bees is not for the honey.

“We don’t even use honey. I don’t remember the last time I bought honey,” he said, adding that as he starts producing it, it will be used.

Instead, he wants bees for the same reason as a few laying hens, and a planned sheep purchase, to give his children the experience of raising and caring for animals.

Rugland said he also has berry trees on the acreage which have not done well the past couple of years.

“I don’t think they’re being pollinated as much as I think they should be,” he said, adding he hopes the bees will rectify that situation, pollinating as they collect nectar.

The current prices are also an incentive to hive growth.

“Honey prices are at somewhat of an historical high, but not a lot higher than a year ago,” said Wendell. “In fact, they have softened a bit in the last year. The USD/CND rate has influenced the prices in the recent weeks and we are starting to approach the highs of a year ago. We are not sure what will happen with prices once the Brazilian and Argentine crops hit the market within the next month.”

Howland said while her experience is somewhat limited, prices are definitely good at present.

“I can’t speak to before my time in beekeeping (prior to 2000), but the prices for honey, bees and related by-products are at the highest levels that we have experienced,” she said.

“Unfortunately this rise is not being driven by good things in the industry.  

“The recent public interest in bees and their decline has spurred many to start asking questions. I have found the general interest in bees and their wellbeing to have increased greatly over the past few years. People are concerned, as they are beginning to understand how crucial these pollinating insects are to our environment. I want to note here as well that the decline being seen in bee populations is also being experienced by many other air born pollinators as well.

“The global decrease in bees is causing shortages in their related markets and this is driving the price up. This is also opening the door for cheap honey, and by cheap I mean in every way possible – all shortcuts included, being brought in by some honey packers and being sold on store shelves. This serves only to increase the profit these packers are making, and does nothing to support local producer or the health of the consumer. Cheap honey is produced cheaply, and this means that the standards that Canadian beekeepers are held to in its production; traceability, inspection, testing, certification, etc. are not being held to by the sources from which these packers are getting their cheap honey – China for example.  

“The labelling of honey is very tricky, as is the labelling on so many things. The “#1 Canada White” grade on honey is only a colour grade and not an origin label. You always want to look for ‘Product of Origin’ and understand that quantities/percentage of each are not listed. If the label says a blend of Canadian and Argentinian honey, it is fairly safe to assume it is likely a 99 per cent to one per cent ratio based on cost of the honey that goes into it.  Whenever possible purchase honey with the ‘100 per cent Canadian’ label which includes a red maple leaf on it as this guarantees a product that contains 100 per cent Pure Canadian honey.  

“Even better, if you can purchase from a local producer, this honey will be the least processed, will be derived from one source/apiary and only come from local flowers which is even more beneficial to the consumer. The cost may be higher than many of the honeys that you can find on Walmart or Superstore shelves but I guarantee it will be of a much higher quality. You will also be directly supporting local producers rather than adding to the profits of the packing companies.”

While small operators are looking at the industry, overall growth are existing producers growing their businesses.

“For the most part it is existing operators adding hives,” said Wendell. “Prices are in reality where they need to be. Part of this increase is spurred by the compromised bee health globally. The increase in prices may encourage some younger people to envision a future in the business. The average age of beekeepers is probably around 100.”

Howland agreed producers are expanding.

“Many of the existing beekeepers are trying to increase numbers if their operations can support it as it is certainly profitable to make more honey,” she said. “There are difficulties in raising these numbers though due to the many threats listed above and most beekeepers are simply trying to maintain their numbers which is often a difficult task at best.  

“This does make access to local bees much more difficult as everyone is simply trying to maintain their own numbers. We produce our own replacement stock and in years past  have sold nucleus colonies in the spring when we had extra to sell but we have only been able to meet our own needs for bees these past three years.  

“We hope to be able to offer bees for sale in the future but we are simply playing it year by year for the time being. Packaged bees are available for purchase from source countries whose bee populations have the same or better health levels than ours such as Australia and New Zealand.  

“It is sometimes difficult to access these packages though if one is not buying in large quantities and I believe the service that Peavey Mart is providing is likely to fill this hobby beekeeper need for smaller numbers of packages … Peavey Mart in Yorkton did contact us last year in regards to carrying the beekeeping supplies and kits just to advise us it was doing so and I felt that was very proactive of them. It is important that the import of bees follow inspection and import regulations as it is far too easy to put a local bee population at risk by bringing in new threats.  In my experience, there has certainly been an increase in the number of people interested in keeping bees.”

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