British Columbia

Wildfire smoke affecting Okanagan grapes and honey

Fears of smoke taint as wine grapes change colour; lethargic bees lead to drop in honey volume

August 22, 2018

Smoke from wildfires has been affecting vineyards in recent years, like this one in the south Okanagan, shown in 2017. (Getty Images)
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The smoke from B.C.'s wildfires is having an impact on some important Okanagan produce, with honey volumes down and fears over the flavour of wine grapes.

Matt Noestheden, a PhD chemistry student at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, is working on tests to help winemakers assess the quality of smoke-shrouded grapes.

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He says it's too early to predict how smoke in 2018 will affect B.C. wines, but the longer it lingers the greater the possibility of an unpleasant outcome.

Potential smoke taint

Red wine grapes change colour from green to red in a process known as veraison, and Noestheden says his research shows grapes are most susceptible to smoke taint during this colour change.

He says that process is underway right now, especially in the north Okanagan, and the only way winemakers can tell for sure if their grapes contain a smoky taint is to produce a small batch of wine immediately after harvest.

Noestheden is working with Okanagan-based Supra Research and Development to identify chemical markers for smoke taint and he says wineries from B.C. to California are waiting for the outcome.

Smoke from the Snowy Mountain wildfire fills the sky near Cawston and Keremeos, B.C. (Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen Emergency Management Program/Twitter)

Honey harvest lower

The smoky conditions aren't just having a negative effect on vineyards. An Okanagan beekeeper says his bees aren't producing as much honey as previous years.

Bob Chisholm estimates his operation will produce 40 per cent less honey this year because of the extremely smoky conditions in Kelowna.

The smoke makes the bees lethargic — which doesn't mean they're not doing anything, they're just getting slower, Chisholm says.

The W.R. Bennett Bridge was barely visible from West Kelowna because of smoke from wildfires earlier this week. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

He also figures the dry conditions are making for less nectar in flowers, contributing to a drop in honey produced.

Though the conditions are the worst Chisholm has seen in his 20 years of beekeeping, it's not enough for him to make changes to his operation.

"At the end of the day, we're farmers. Farmers are used to having crops up and down. We work our way through it," he said.

While he knows fires will happen every year, he's just hoping for less smoke and a better harvest in 2019.

With files from Megan Batchelor

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