Honeybees are in short supply this summer.
Though a final count isn’t out yet, experts assume at least half of Manitoba’s honeybees died over the past nine months.
"The hopelessness is in the air," said Michael Clark, co-manager of Clark Apiaries.
He began the winter with over 3,200 colonies. When the season ended, he’d lost 50 per cent of his regular hives and 30 per cent of his smaller ones, called nucleus hives.
Then spring — or, consistent snow and rain storms — entered the province. Clark said he’s now lost up to 80 per cent of his bees.
"We’re looking at a complete crop failure," he said.
The century-old Wawanesa, Man., farm has never experienced anything like it, Clark added.
But, he’s not alone: across the country, apiarists are facing losses and sometimes complete wipeouts of their bee populations.
"It’s hard talking to the guys at 90 per cent losses because… what do they do? They’ve lost all their bees," said Ian Steppler, chair of the Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association.
Farmers who rely on local apiarists’ bees to pollinate their crops must check in to make sure the insects will be around, according to Paul Gregory, a Keystone Agricultural Producers director.
"It’s the crops like clover, buckwheat, trefoil… no honeybees, no seed, so it’s extremely important," Gregory said.
Steppler estimates Manitoba has lost between 50 and 60 per cent of its honeybee population. Last year, the province had 115,000 hives, he said. The number was over 118,000 in 2020, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada data.
If Steppler is correct, Manitoba will have no more than 69,000 hives this summer.
A number of factors contributed to the collapse, Steppler said. Many beekeepers are still determining the causes.
"It probably started last summer when we had that extreme, hot, dry, smoky weather," Steppler said. "That weather is really hard on the bees… I think it stressed them and put them back a bit."
Then came an "unusual fall" where some apiarists couldn’t treat their bees for varroa mites like they normally would, Steppler said.
The mites are parasitic — they latch on to bees and suck their blood, weakening the pollinators, which can lead to death.
Varroa mites infested some apiarists’ hives, bringing devastation.
‘It’s hard talking to the guys at 90 per cent losses because… what do they do? They’ve lost all their bees.’ – Ian Steppler
Then came an extra-long winter and frigid spring.
"(It) didn’t allow the hives to build up properly," Steppler said. "Every time they got an opportunity to build, (to) bring natural pollen and nectar, we seemed to have a storm that followed."
Steppler’s farm holds 1,600 honeybee hives. It lost 10 per cent in the winter and another 25 per cent in the spring due to the weather, he said.
"If (Manitoba sees) another 50 per cent loss… it’s going to pretty much bankrupt our industry," Steppler said. "We could be in dire straits next year if we have another loss event."
Clark has one eye on the skyrocketing price of honey and another on his empty bee boxes.
"To have this loss at the time when we have the highest price historically is just like a double punch to the gut," he said.
Manitoba produces around 19 million pounds of honey annually, according to Steppler. It was a $48.9 million industry in 2020.
"We’re going to have trouble producing 10 million pounds this year," he said.
Retailers might fill Manitoba honey product gaps with international purchases, and they may not turn back, he said.
Clark has laid off three employees and told another three regulars they won’t be starting work. Neither he nor his neighbours will hire local teenagers for labour this summer, he said.
"The impact on the Wawanesa community at large… is significant," he said.
He’s hoping beekeepers can push back their mortgage payments for the next year. There are government insurance programs like overwinter bee mortality and AgriStability for financial relief.
"It’s not going to help (apiarists) get (their bee) numbers back, get industry capacity back," said Gregory, who’s also a commercial beekeeper.
“It probably started last summer when we had that extreme, hot, dry, smoky weather. That weather is really hard on the bees… I think it stressed them and put them back a bit.” – Ian Steppler
This isn’t the first year Manitoban apiarists have experienced losses. Normally, though, they can get replacement stock from overseas to boost their numbers and prepare for the next year.
However, provinces from Alberta to Quebec are facing honeybee shortages. There aren’t enough foreign replacements to go around.
Clark is looking to Canada’s southern neighbour with frustration. He can’t purchase bee packages from the United States — the Canadian Food Inspection Agency prohibits it to prevent pest spread.
"We could have a profit," Clark said. "It’s extra disheartening when you… can basically see the border and you know right there, they can solve your problems, but you have no access to that market."
He said American bees fly over the border anyway so there’s always a chance Canada will get the pests.
"It’s far too late to ask for (American honeybees) this year," Gregory from KAP said.
He said the mites from south of the border could be more acaricide resistant than those currently in Manitoba because they’ve been exposed to different pesticides.
"Once these mites are into Canada, you can’t go back. The genie’s out of the bottle," he said.
Still, Gregory would like to see a study done on potential honeybee exporters, including the U.S., and whether shipments would bring pests and disease. The land border should be open for honeybees if pests aren’t a threat, he said.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency did not respond to Free Press questions by print deadline.
Kon Paseschnikoff, an apiarist in Oak Bluff, is focused on rising operating costs. Honey production will be down — he lost one-third of his bees — but the cost of queen bees, bee boxes and fuel keep rising.
"At the end of the day, the consumer pays for it," he said, noting a queen bee that used to cost $20 could now be $40 or $50.
He’s beginning to see dandelions. They usually come in the first week of May, Paseschnikoff said.
"If people can hold off on spraying the dandelions and maybe plant some more pollinator flowers in their yards, that would help a lot," he said.
Honeybee activity is about five weeks behind schedule, according to Steppler. But, farmers are late to seed and plants are just beginning to blossom, he added.
Manitoba accounted for nearly a quarter of Canada’s honey production in 2020, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Honeybees’ pollination affects crops from fruit and vegetables to fibre and hay. The insects add millions of dollars’ worth of value to the agriculture sector through pollination of sunflowers, canola, fruit trees and more, Steppler said.
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