COVID-19 cuts off access to imported bees, but creates opportunity for Manitoba beekeepers
Manitoba bee sales were 'perhaps stronger than normal' this year, says provincial apiarist
COVID-19 has brought disruptions for virtually every industry, and beekeeping in Manitoba is no exception.
The global pandemic has left local producers without imported bee stock or labour to sustain honey farms — but it's also created an opportunity for some.
Transportation restrictions mean beekeepers haven't been able to import bees from countries like Australia, Chile and New Zealand — which they would normally do to replenish stock that has died during the winter.
"The impact was quite significant because there are a lot of beekeepers that count on purchasing packaged bees every year, and they were not able to do so," said Rhéal Lafrenière, provincial apiarist with Manitoba Agriculture.
Lafrenière said there are approximately 115,000 bee colonies in Manitoba, around 4,000 of which rely on imported bees.
Manitoba is one of the largest producers of honey in Canada, following Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Lafrenière said honey sales are worth an average of $32 million per year.
Local keepers selling more bees
Local beekeepers in Manitoba produce and sell nuclear colonies, also known as "nucs." Because of the province's long, cold winters, these colonies aren't available until mid-May and if honey producers rely solely on them, they risk losing bee stock.
But normally, imported "packaged bees" are available to honey farmers by April, giving them a head start on the season.
Packaged bees are sets of worker bees and a queen bee, which Lafrenière said typically contain around 8,000 bees.
To fill the gap COVID-19 has created in the availability of imported bees, commercial honey makers are now turning to local beekeepers for stock, or are buying from Saskatchewan, Alberta or B.C.
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"I think it's a positive thing to have local bee supply increasing. We also anticipate that in the future, a lot of beekeepers who have purchased local bees will purchase local bees again," Lafrenière said.
"I would say this year [local] bee sales were quite strong, perhaps stronger than normal."
Ian Steppler is among the Manitoba farmers selling bee stock this year. He's the president of Steppler Farms Ltd. in Miami, Man., which sells honey across Canada through Bee Maid.
"Our farm … had a decent winter. We got our hives through spring in pretty good shape, so we're able to sell quite a few hives. It worked out that way," he said.
Because of COVID-19, the price for a case of bees has increased, Steppler said. He's selling cases this year for $250 that would typically sell for $210.
"There's a lot of producers I know that weren't running as many hives as they typically do" because of the lack of imported bees, said Steppler. "It was a big concern in the spring."
Labour disruptions, concerns for production
On top of bee stock shortage, honey producers are also facing a shortage of labour, said Lafrenière.
He said commercial honey farms rely on temporary foreign workers from countries like Nicaragua, who develop beekeeping skills by returning to the same operation year after year.
With COVID-19, many workers weren't able to come to Canada and as a result, farms had to hire students and locals instead.
"Given the fact that the students and local labourers might not be very skilled in beekeeping, they're still able to fill those low-skilled positions," said Lafrenière.
He said the province was able to bring some foreign workers in, but not to the extent farmers usually need.
Steppler said he doesn't rely on temporary foreign workers. He hires one full-time beekeeper and five students in the summer for his honey operation.
He also says he saw more demand for honey than usual during the months of March and April, with his local sales increasing by 50 per cent over the same period last year.
"I think everybody started to do a little more baking at home … and they're using pure honey," which is called for in some recipes, he said.
"Honey is always kind of thought of being kind of this luxury food, but … maybe it might be more of a staple than I think it is."