Honeybee farmers facing 'desperate situation' as bee imports slow

Canadian beekeepers buy thousands of queen bees and packages of bees every year to replace hives that died over the winter, but this year those bees aren't getting into the country.

Lower crop yields expected if Canadian farmers can't get bees into country

Some of Scandia's bees. The company specializes in pollination, honey production and importing bee packages. (Submitted by Echo Chandler)

Canadian beekeepers buy thousands of packages of bees every year to replace hives that died over the winter, but this year those bees aren't getting into the country.

And it could have ramifications for honeybee farmers, the agriculture industry and consumers.

Kelly O'Day, president of Kona Queen Hawaii, typically sends tens of thousands of bees to Canada. His bees are used to help farmers after their colonies die over the winter.

This year, he hasn't been able to send any, as the COVID-19 pandemic has grounded commercial flights that typically fly in the stock. 

"We're at the mercy of the airlines who are cancelling flights daily," O'Day said. "So even if we get booked on a flight, our confidence is dropping of those flights actually happening." 

Honeybees need to be flown in on commercial flights, because they need regulated temperature. 

Queen bees need to be kept between 9 C and 32 C, or they could die or become sterilized. 

O'Day said farmers need the queens soon, because they're just finding out how many colonies died over the winter and must work quickly to replenish their stock. 

"If they don't have the queen, not only can they not get their numbers back, but those hives that do survive will swarm and they will lose those," O'Day said.

Scandia's hives. The company has about 15,000 hives in Alberta. (Submitted by Echo Chandler)

"If these queens do not get to Canada this year ... they're going to probably lose half to three-quarters of their population and it'll take three to five years to rebuild." 

O'Day said the company is still trying to work with airlines.

"This is a desperate situation." 

Pollination problems

Ron Greidanus, Canadian Honey Council representative for the Alberta Beekeepers Commission and owner of Greidanus HoneyBee Farms, said it's critical to get the queens into Canada now.

The repercussions could damage the agriculture industry, because honeybees are used across the country to pollinate crops. 

If there's a shortage in hives, there will be a loss in yield for canola, canola seed, blueberry production and orchard production.

"You're going to go to the grocery store, you're going to look for blueberries, you're paying 10 bucks for a pint of blueberries ... because we can't make them in Canada anymore." 

A shortage in hives could cause problems for crops across Canada, including Nova Scotia's blueberries. (Wild Blueberry Producers Association of Nova Scotia)

Right now there's a demand for 10,000 packages of bees in Manitoba and 35,000 for Ontario, Greidanus said.

"They're going to be well short of that number."

Packages contain bees, a queen and some feed to help start a colony.

Right now there are 300,000 hives in Alberta, and if packages don't start coming in, Greidanus said he can see that number shrinking to about 250,000.

The Scandia Honey Company pollinates crops, produces honey and imports packaged bees from New Zealand. 

Echo Chandler, Scandia's director and owner, said the operation typically loses between 20 and 30 per cent of its 15,000 hives over the winter, which are replaced with packaged bees. 

The company also sells packages to farmers and hobbyists. Scandia brings in about 20,000 packages a year, but right now they can't be flown out of New Zealand because the airlines are switching to cargo planes without temperature regulation.

"We can't put the bees on there because they won't survive."

Echo Chandler says she's hoping bees will be able to get into Canada, but she understands that airlines are hurting and may not be able to make the flights. (Submitted by Echo Chandler)

Chandler said they were able to get a few pallets of bees in March for B.C., but the orders for Alberta and Saskatchewan haven't come in. 

"It's going to be hard. It's going to be a lot of work, but we can tough it out this year and we can get it back for next year."

Chandler said it would be nice if they could get the bees in, but she understands that the airlines can't just send an airplane for the bees. 

"Those airlines are bleeding right now."

Greidanus is encouraging people to reach out to their local representatives to have honeybee transportation deemed an essential service.

The federal department of agriculture and agri-food said in an email statement that the department is "very aware of the importance of pollinators."

The statement said the department has been "working with industry, as well as with other government departments and logistical partners, to resolve this issue as quickly as possible."

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry doesn't deal with the import of honeybees.

However, spokesperson Justin Laurence said in an email the ministry has several supports for apiculturists, including AgriStability, bee overwintering insurance and honey insurance. There is also $153 million of emergency disaster funding to support "hard-hit producers during the COVID-19 pandemic," Laurence said.