A honey of a problem: Manitoba apiaries work to recover from huge winter losses

·6 min read
Bees buzz in their hives at Clark Apiaries on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC - image credit)
Bees buzz in their hives at Clark Apiaries on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC - image credit)

Mike Clark stands amid his nearly empty bee hives, hoping that his apiary, which has been raising honeybees since the First World War, can come back from a brutal winter that has ravaged bee colonies across the country —  and Manitoba hardest of all.

"Other guys are in production right now to extract honey, and I'm not seeing that we will produce any honey this year," Clark said.

"We're hoping that they do make the winter this year. If we do have another heavy loss, it will be the nail in the coffin … that our business won't be here."

In a typical August, Clark Apiary in Wawanesa, Man., about 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg, would be a-buzz with bees creating honey. This year the space is quieter as the farm focuses on rebuilding its devastated bee population.

Chelsea Kemp/CBC
Chelsea Kemp/CBC

Clark says he would like to see the introduction of honeybee imports from the United States to help rebuild dwindling populations. Under current regulations only certified queen bees can be imported from the U.S.

Clark says the apiary is working with the bank to secure a loan, and is hoping government stabilization programs will become available in the form of interest-free loans for commercial beekeepers.

"We're not really asking for a handout because this isn't caused by us — this was environmental — that there should be backups in place — that we would pay back these loans — but then they're available for farmers to take advantage of," Clark said.

Chelsea Kemp/CBC
Chelsea Kemp/CBC

Podolski Honey Farms is running about two weeks behind normal because of the late spring, according to owner Bob Podolski.

The apiary began extracting honey in early August but has found very little in the hives.

"On my best case scenario, we do a million pounds … Normally we do 750-850,000 pounds. This year if we do 200,000 we should be lucky," Podolski said.

Podolski imports bee packages (boxes specially built to ship bees safely and securely that are sold by weight, with roughly 3,000 to 5,000 bees per pound) from New Zealand and Australia, but he would like to see access to American bees.

When the spring arrived, Podolski estimates the farm had lost around 90 per cent of its bees.

"I've seen 80 per cent, I've seen 70 per cent [in the past], but there was this replacement stock that was available. This year there was not a replacement stock available," Podolski said.

"Well, if we don't get replacement stock available from the continental U.S.A. — after 47 years of me milking bees, I don't know if we'll be here next year."

Chelsea Kemp/CBC
Chelsea Kemp/CBC

The apiary has purchased 50 per cent of its current bee population, but is still running at less than a third of its normal count of 3,200 to 3,500 hives.

"I don't see a future for my sons," Podolski said. "If our governments would willingly want to step up to the plate and stop this and help our industry, then there is a chance for them.

"It is a grim situation in our industry right now."

2022 'devastating' year for beekeepers

Supplied by Podolski Honey Farms
Supplied by Podolski Honey Farms

The 2022 season has been "been a pretty devastating year for beekeepers" in Manitoba and across Canada, says Jason Gibbs, associate professor of entomology at the University of Manitoba.

Bee losses are in the 40 per cent range for parts of the country, he says, but Manitoba's figure sits at about 57 per cent.

Bee levels are struggling for several reasons, he says, including the varroa mite, an invasive parasite.

"It's a really large mite in relation to their body size, and left unmanaged it will just decimate, you know, 95 per cent of colonies," Gibbs said. "Beekeepers have to sort of regularly keep on top of those … [to] keep the levels under control. And if they don't, then they're going to get high losses."

Chelsea Kemp/CBC
Chelsea Kemp/CBC

However, Gibbs believes beekeepers should be able to rebuild their hives as long as the elements co-operate. He says most should be able to recover from the losses within a year or two.

Importing bees could be a possible solution for regrowth, but it is not without its challenges, Gibbs says, including restrictions designed to prevent the spread of pathogens and pests arriving from outside Canada.

Honey harvest appears promising

Nevertheless, the 2022 honey harvest is looking promising, says Manitoba Beekeeper's Association chair Ian Steppler.

"I'm quite optimistic. Beekeepers are resilient, [we] know this is our job. We know what we're doing. We've experienced hardship before and, you know, we fight and we bounce back. We're experiencing really good honey prices right now, so that's a positive," he said.

Manitoba boasts 200 commercial beekeepers, producing about $50 million for the provincial economy.

Last year Manitoba beekeepers produced about 19 million pounds of honey, Steppler says.

Supplied by Podolski Honey Farms
Supplied by Podolski Honey Farms

Generally, replacement colonies are created with bee packages from Australia, New Zealand and Chile, but access has been affected by COVID-19 supply chain issues.

Accessing these replacement packages can be challenging at times, and that's  been amplified in Manitoba due to the high number of colony losses, Steppler says.

"A lot of beekeepers will be going short on honeybees within their operations. Some, unfortunately, won't have any. But what beekeepers are asking for in Manitoba, as was asked through our association, was to maybe consider other places where we could access replacement stock to help bridge unfortunate situations like we experienced this year," Steppler said.

One of the places identified includes California, where there is the opportunity to access healthy honeybees as replacement stock.

The association has also approached the Ministry of Agriculture to help beekeepers who have experienced hardship and significant bee losses.

Government discussing import options 

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is working with stakeholders to share any new scientific evidence regarding the state of honeybee health in Canada and the United States . They hope by Sept. 5 to determine whether another risk assessment is warranted when it comes to importing bees, a government spokesperson says.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Food Inspection Agency recently launched an industry-government sustainability working group to explore solutions to key problems, including colony collapse and the impact of varroa mites.

"The health of bee populations, domestic and native, are vital to Canada's economy and environment, given the importance of crop pollination, healthy ecosystems and honey production," a spokesperson said. "Honey bee pollination is a critical input for many key agricultural commodities."