When most people find a swarm of bees, the desire to want to leave that location immediately seems to be a realistic reaction. But when Bennett MacDonald's kids found a swarm near their New Glasgow, P.E.I. home this year, the result was pure excitement.
"I'm thinking, 'OK, it's probably not bees. It's probably like a thing of hornets,'" said MacDonald.
"Sure enough, we went down to the stream by our house and on the ground was this swarm of bees."
The timing was serendipitous; MacDonald had just finished painting his swarm traps the night before. He had spent the past three years trying to locate honey bees but had never actually caught a swarm.
What's more? He didn't even own one of those classic white bee suits.
"I thought, 'Oh great. Now it's on. There's a swarm and that's my goal and it's sitting right there. All I gotta do is get it in this box that I just finished.'"
Facing several pointy stingers and thinking, "this is perfect but I have nothing protective to put on," MacDonald said he grabbed what he had.
"I built up the nerve and I picked up this swarm of bees," he said. "My first time ever handling bees."
3,200 out-of-province hives imported
Prince Edward Island is currently home to about 12 commercial beekeepers and a couple of dozen hobbyists — which according to the province is not nearly enough.
Due to the large wild blueberry sector on the Island, bees have to be temporarily imported from out of the province to help with pollination. This past season, about 3,200 hives were brought in from Ontario and Nova Scotia.
"We can supply locally about half of the pollination capacity that the wild blueberry industry and other food crop industries like apply and cranberries require," said Cameron Menzies, the provincial apiarist with the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and Land.
"Ideally, we would like a few more thousand hives."
"It's just like something you get into and can't get out of," said Mickael Jauneau, who has 290 hives in Canoe Cove. "You just, you know, you love it so much.
"It's just so pleasant to work with bees; they're so calm. It's relaxing too."
Jauneau has been beekeeping with his wife on P.E.I. since 2018. Before that, he was a beekeeper in France and New Zealand for six years.
"It's way colder here, so it's way harder, way harder."
"This year we lost only 8 per cent of our hives — that was good because the year before we lost 20 per cent," he said. "It's better than last year."
Jauneau completed his last honey extraction for 2020 this past week. While he's not certain how much honey his bees produced, he estimates it will be about 1,600 pounds. Maybe more.
Dry second half of season
But Menzies said he's worried this season's dry conditions will impact honey production.
"The first part of the summer was quite good. We had pretty good weather in the pollination season. In the latter half of the summer, things really started to dry up, so we're a little concerned overall our honey yield is going to be a little lower than we would like.
"I'm hoping the early season honey flow was good enough to make up for this dry spell."
Second-year beekeeper Tory Fraser said he is happy with the amount of honey he got from his bees, though.
"Close to 1,000 pounds — a lot more than I expected, to be honest."
Fraser, from Mermaid, said he will be heading into winter with more than triple the amount of hives he had this time last year.
"It's a big expansion. Needless to say, I got quite a bit of honey off this first crop."
'It cost a lot of money'
Funding is available through the P.E.I. Pollination Expansion Project to assist some beekeepers who provide colonies for Island pollination.
While Jauneau and Fraser agree keeping bees is an enjoyable undertaking, the president of the P.E.I. Beekeepers Association said it's not always a profitable industry.
"It's basically pretty hard for a beekeeper on P.E.I. to become a beekeeper and be able to sleep at night knowing that you're going to make a living," said Roger O'Neill.
"I'm not sure why anybody would want to get into beekeeping commercially on P.E.I."
O'Neill said he used to have close to 2,000 hives, but after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep those bees alive, they weren't rented for pollination that season. "It cost a lot of money."
Now, he said he has only around 200 hives.
'I want to do it again'
But for those willing to give it whirl, Menzies said he is there to help.
"Give me a call. There are a few rules and regulations around importing bees from out of the province," he said.
"I can put you in touch with some local beekeepers who may have some bees for sale and I can tell you where to buy the equipment you need and everything, and just give you a few pointers to get started."
As for MacDonald, who managed to capture — as opposed to purchase — his first set of bees this season, he said his hive died a couple of weeks ago.
So although preparing those bees for the cold is off the table, MacDonald is going into this winter with his eyes set on next year.
"It's not as daunting as you may think. Other people should try it," he said.
"It was fun. I want to do it again."
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