‘Catastrophic’ Alberta bee population losses blamed on cold winter, pandemic

Bee industry insiders warned it might be a rough year for the honeybee population, and now local beekeepers are confirming — there were devastating losses in the Alberta bee population over the winter.

“We’re anticipating we’ll lose somewhere between 50,000 to 60,000 hives,” said Connie Phillips, executive director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission.

“That’s huge. So the industry is kind of bracing themselves for some rebuilding. And then when you lose that many hives, of course you’re also losing honey production.”

Some of it was a carry-over from last year’s colder-than-usual weather.

“Bees going into winter were not quite in as good a shape as they could have been or should have been to survive the winter well,” she said. 

Another factor was the global pandemic, which affected imports of essential supplies.

Beekeepers import foreign bees every spring to build up their colonies. That wasn’t possible for many this year, leaving colonies weak. But the industry also relies on bringing in skilled workers from abroad to help restore and nurture weakened colonies every spring — and the pandemic affected those plans, too.

“I had one beekeeper who told me, as an example, he checked on his bees in February and they were great, he went back a month later and 80 per cent of them were dead,” Phillips said. “Another beekeeper said his bees came out of winter OK, but because his workers didn’t get here in time … some of them just starved to death. So there’s a number of factors.”

A government funded program to help Alberta commercial beekeepers offset some of the costs related to the impact of COVID-19 began accepting applications Tuesday.

The Alberta Beekeeper Stock replacement program includes $1 million to support about 170 commercial beekeepers and 13,000 replacement colonies.

Connie Phillips, executive director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, estimates losses of approximately 50,000 hives in Alberta this year. (Getty Images)

Grace Strom, a commercial beekeeper based in High River and a commission board member, says her operation is doing well so far this year, but she confirms many beekeepers face serious challenges.

“Last year, we had a record-low honey crop in the province, and you can survive that every once in a while and I think most farmers will recognize that. But when you’ve got one poor crop, no hope of a crop this year because half your bees died, and you’ve got all the added expense of trying to get your operation back up and running … it’s almost depressing.”

Strom thinks the government support could make the difference for many in the industry.

“I think what you’re going to see is we’re going to try to get some of our numbers back, but it will take a few more years and maybe continued support from the government,” she said.

The province says Alberta is the largest honey producer in Canada, contributing $67 million to the economy each year.

Losing 50,000 hives or more is going to hurt.

Phillips said she’s already heard from beekeepers who have gone out of business.

“This year, we have approximately 170 registered with us, so that would be any beekeeper who had 100 hives or more,” Phillips said. “We’re not counting the urban or hobby beekeepers in those stats. I’m sure there’s there’s significant losses there as well.”

Industry is vulnerable

Phillips said her board has lobbied the government for support in finding solutions.

“So 90 per cent of the honey that’s produced in Canada is produced on the Prairies,” she said. “If you lose more than half of your bees, that’s a big deal. It’s catastrophic and there’s high losses all the way across the Prairies.”

Phillips said solutions could include opening the U.S.-Canada border to packaged bees from Northern California, rather than overseas. Another option is finding a way to supply queen bees in Alberta by overwintering them on the Prairies.

“I think this whole situation made us realize how vulnerable the industry is.”

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