A Woodstock-area farmer is finding success in growing his bee population without using chemicals or importing bees from other provinces or countries.

New Brunswick’s bee industry has been facing tough times in recent years and in 2013 beekeepers in the province saw, on average, a 25 per cent die-off over the winter.

The troubling times have meant some New Brunswick beekeepers are resorting to importing whole colonies from other countries, such as New Zealand, Australia or Chile and spraying their hives to protect them from mites.

But Stephen Livingstone is raising his natural honeybees, free of chemical intervention at the Jolly Farmer’s Northampton property and finding success.

He keeps the bees in addition to his full-time job as a traffic manager at the farm, even though his bee operation takes hundreds of hours each year.

"I spend time not only on hives but also on helping to plant food for the bees, which is a long-term type of project. It is more difficult," Livingstone said.

"[The natural approach] is more difficult, but you have to keep at it. The first year when we started I could tell you stories ... three out of our five hives swarmed." 

As the bees grew in number, so did Livingstone's knowledge of beekeeping.

Just five years ago, there was only one hive at The Jolly Farmer and the farm's 120 commercial beehives had dwindled to one.

That is, until Calvin Livingstone, who was 14 years old at the time, begged his father to help save the bees on the farm.

Livingstone went to the president of the organization and asked if he could buy the hive.

"She said well, actually, you can take care of all the hives," Livingstone said.

"She said. ‘I think there's only one left. And the man who is taking care of them right now would be happy to do that.’ Those who had been taking care of them were too discouraged. They just kept dying."

The Livingstones took over the bees and added to the population. They now oversee 15 hives.

Different techniques

Several new colonies are harvested from the biggest hives each year and then they are placed around the farm to help pollinate crops.

The Livingstones even introduced bee-friendly plants to prop up the bee population.

There are die-offs, as in most operations, but it's how they're handled that makes this population different.

'If the bees don't pollinate the flowers on any trees, raspberries, apple trees then they won't produce fruit. So it's very important that we have bees.'— Calvin Livingstone

Livingstone harvests from the bees that are left and make new, stronger hives from the survivors.

"By doing that, we are propagating strong bees, not propping up weak bees with treatments," he said.

"So we are propagating the survivors so we're hoping that eventually we will have some really strong stock."

Four years after his request to his father, Livingstone’s son said he knows the bees' importance to the local ecology.

"If the bees don't pollinate the flowers on any trees, raspberries, apple trees then they won't produce fruit. So it's very important that we have bees," Calvin said.

The venture has been a success so far for the Livingstones and the farm. Their honey and honeycomb products sell out every year at the Jolly Farmer.

Livingstone said he knows of only one other beekeeper in New Brunswick who runs a completely chemical-free operation like his.

But said he hopes to have 50 hives in two years' time and once he has 50 hives, the operation turns commercial.

In 2011-12, the Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries registered 209 beekeepers in the province and 5,808 colonies.

The agriculture department also issued 27 permits to allow 11,054 honey bee colonies to be imported from Ontario and Quebec for the pollination of the wild blueberry crop.

The government estimates in 2012 that pollination from honey bees contributed upwards of 11.3 million kilograms of blueberries, which were valued at $17.5 million.