N.S. beekeeper says big company's feeding practices are contaminating his honey

·3 min read
A bee collects nectar from a daisy near Bill McKee's hives in Belleisle, Annapolis County. (Brian MacKay/CBC - image credit)
A bee collects nectar from a daisy near Bill McKee's hives in Belleisle, Annapolis County. (Brian MacKay/CBC - image credit)

At the end of Bill McKee's driveway in Belleisle, N.S., a wooden bear statue nicknamed Elmer — after the elm tree that once stood there — stands watch and entices passersby to stop in.

McKee's roadside stand is lined with jars of dark golden honey produced right in his backyard.

This is a busy time for McKee's bees. They're out gathering as much nectar as they can to make honey, usually flying up to three kilometres away to collect nectar from clover, daisies, wild roses and any other flowers they can find.

But McKee says he and other small-scale honey producers in the province are facing a threat from the beekeeping operations of Bragg Lumber, a division of Oxford Frozen Foods.

The company uses thousands of hives to pollinate its blueberry fields. When the pollination season is over, Bragg disperses some of the hives to various areas of the province.

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

Since Bragg has such a large quantity of bees, it can't rely on wildflower nectar to feed them all.

McKee said Bragg is open-feeding its bees sugar water using barrels that any bees — including his — can access. The sugar water contaminates the honey, changing its taste and colour.

"I have an acquaintance who did not realize that Oxford's bees were so close and he had water-white honey … because it was basically sugar water. There was very little honey in it," McKee said. "It would have little taste — eating a boiled sweet."

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

Bees prefer to consume nectar from flowers, but if the sugar water is more readily available, they'll eat that instead.

"They'll say it's not steak, it's hamburger, but it's OK," said McKee. "And that hive will then stop going out looking for other stuff and go to the sugar barrel because it's easy food."

There's a simple alternative to open-feeding sugar solution, McKee said. An inverted pail with sugar water can be placed directly on top of a hive, so only the bees from that hive can access the water.

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

But when McKee's wife, Helen Sheldon, spoke with the company about the couple's concerns, the company did not seem sympathetic, he said.

"They didn't want to talk to us. They said, no, sorry, this is what we're doing."

The CBC has contacted Bragg Lumber and Oxford Frozen Foods, but has not received a response.

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

A spokesperson for the provincial Agriculture Department said sugar syrup can lighten the natural colours of honey and dilute its taste, resulting in "adulterated" or "impure" honey.

Sarah Levy MacLeod said for large-scale beekeepers, alternatives to open feeding can be costly.

"It would be a substantial investment for large-scale beekeepers to purchase individual hive feeders for hundreds or thousands of hives," she said in an emailed statement. "The labour and travel requirements to install, fill and re-fill individual hive feeders compared to open feeding are significant."

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

McKee said most honey producers feed sugar water to their bees starting in late August or September, when fewer nectar sources are in bloom, but open-feeding sugar water so early is a concern.

"There's no laws that says they can do this or can't do that. It's very open and it all depends on everybody shaking hands and following a reasonable expectation, and Bragg is stepping outside that."

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