Canada’s beekeeping industry is vulnerable to border closures and we need a sustainable, domestic supply

This article also appeared in the Alberta Bee News Magazine

If you were a cattle rancher, and every winter a quarter of your animals perished, you would have a problem. Now, say your replacement livestock depended on annual cargo shipments from the other side of the planet, and you might decide that approach to farming just wasn’t viable.

Welcome to beekeeping. According to the annual colony loss survey conducted by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA), 20-30% of Canada’s honey bee colonies perish each winter. And beekeepers normally replace those colonies with packages originating from New Zealand, Australia, and Chile. The Canadian beekeeping industry depends on this international honey bee distribution system to survive, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, its weaknesses are in full view.

In the spring of 2020, with cargo flights grounded and COVID-19 sweeping the country, only one third of the package bee orders placed by Canadian beekeepers were fulfilled. Beekeepers’ umbilical supply of new livestock was snipped, leaving us scrambling to find the colonies we needed to fill pollination contracts. In 2021, even fewer packages were imported than in 2020 – about one fifth as many as in 2019.

In some cases, exporters were unable to produce the orders, owing to their own travel restrictions and labour shortages. Commercial flights were also cancelled or delayed, providing fewer options for getting the packages that were produced where they needed to go. In 2021, rerouted airline networks and permitting delays meant that there was a scarcity of packaged bees yet again. According to a survey of over 200 beekeepers, disruptions associated with the pandemic have seriously impacted beekeepers’ abilities to make ends meet.

This pandemic has made woefully clear that the Canadian beekeeping industry is vulnerable and unsustainable in its current form. Even without transportation disruptions, shipping is risky – occasionally, and devastatingly, entire pallets of bees with over 600 packages, about 5 million bees, have died due to cargo mishandling. This spring, a shipment to Vancouver was cancelled because the importers deemed the risk of bee death to be too high.

“We should be able to have a sustainable, domestic supply of honey bee stock,” says Dr. Mark Winston, professor and senior fellow at Simon Fraser University. “We demonstrated years ago that nucleus and package bee production in BC is economically feasible,” he explains, pointing to work he and his colleagues published as far back as 1985 suggesting that BC could fulfill a substantial fraction of Canada’s livestock demand. Now, that time may have come.

Apiculture is not a siloed activity – it also supports a much bigger agricultural sector, and a shortage of honey bees could lead to a pollination deficit for crops. Blueberries, for example, are Canada’s top fruit export, and with a farmgate value at ~$250 million annually, they are BC’s biggest crop. However, they are also one of beekeepers’ first major pollination contracts, making blueberries among the crops most at risk of a shortage of early spring bees.

Later, in the prairies, honey bees are employed in canola hybrid seed production – seed which supports the nation’s multibillion dollar canola industry. The list goes on. A pollination deficit has the potential to ripple across commodities, affecting not only beekeepers, but farmers and consumers, too.

This is not the first time that Canadian beekeepers experienced a sudden severance of livestock supply, and it won’t be the last. Fifty years ago, many beekeepers routinely euthanized their colonies in order to skirt the challenge of overwintering bees in Canada’s harsh prairie climate. About half of our colonies that had been killed each fall were replaced in the spring with packages imported from the U.S. That practice halted, though, when another pandemic struck.

That pandemic was one affecting honey bees, not humans. The parasitic mite, Varroa destructor (varroa)which originated in southeast Asia, arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, and Canada’s border quickly closed to package bee importations over fears of bringing in the parasite. Though this slowed its spread, varroa eventually made its way to Canada, and is now found ubiquitously across the continent, except for Newfoundland. The Canadian border remains closed to U.S. packages to keep out miticide-resistant varroa, new pests, and Africanized bees.

After that sudden border closure, the industry adapted, and it can adapt again. In the 1980s, beekeepers stopped the practice of fall euthanasia as prices of package bees and uncertainty over supply climbed. By switching to overwintering their bees, they conserved their stock and could better plan for the next season. Today, overwintering losses are unsustainably high, which means that beekeepers still rely on imports for supplementation. But there might be another way.

Last year’s import shortage was reflected by a drop in Canada’s honey bee colony numbers, but it was not as bad as expected. According to Stats Canada, the total population of honey bee colonies in 2020 dropped by 5.6% to a five-year low (just shy of 750,000 colonies). Honey production, correspondingly, was down 4.3% compared to the previous year.

But when imports failed to arrive, beekeepers turned to each other for help. Some beekeepers weathered the winter better than expected, and could supply nucs domestically. Which raises the question: Could the industry ditch the imports and instead rely on domestic production as standard practice?

Winston is on board with this idea. He explains that if beekeepers planned to compensate for winter losses by producing extra, late-summer nucs for indoor wintering, demand for imported packages may ease. Coupled with beekeepers in BC gearing up for early nuc and package production, this just might lead to a sustainable system.

“We have to get better at planning ahead and change our thinking about what is and isn’t possible. Just because something has always been done one way doesn’t mean we need to continue with a system that isn’t working so well any more,” he says.

A paradigm shift like this would not be easy. It would require planning, expanded indoor wintering facilities, or perhaps more interprovincial movement to winter colonies in locations with milder climates. Beekeepers would need to go into winter with more colonies or nucs in order to have enough in the spring, which may require extra equipment, medication, and supplemental feeding. But with cost savings from importing fewer packages, which run at up to $250 – $325 each, and money to be made from selling stock in the spring, there is room to incorporate the practice into a business model.

Overwintering more nucs, instead of full-sized colonies, also means overwintering more local queens. Although Margriet Dogterom (formerly Wyborn), Phil LaFlamme and Winston successfully demonstrated that queens can be overwintered in a bank, the less risky option is to house each queen in her own nuc. “We complain about the poor quality of imported queens,” says Winston, “and we complain about packages being unreliable or not building up fast enough in the spring. It’s time that we did something about it.”

Critics might say that relying on domestic stock would be too much work or too unreliable to be feasible, owing to the uncertainty of overwintering survival from year to year. But with practice and experience, the method could become sufficiently robust. A pilot indoor wintering program running in Alberta, is promising: In 2020, indoor wintering losses ranged from 2-12%, depending on the operation, when typical losses in the region are as high as 30%. And survival rates like that, which come with an obvious economic advantage, justify the extra work.

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