INNISFAIL — An Innisfail-area beekeeper hopes a provincial government aid program will be allocated to operators most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kevin Nixon, a co-owner of the family-operated Nixon Honey Farm, which is a commercial scale operation located east of Innisfail in Red Deer County, offered his thoughts recently during a phone interview.
“It’s great that government recognizes the industry and that there’s a need,” said Nixon, with the sound of bees intermittently buzzing around in the background.
In a press release dated June 5, Agriculture and Forestry announced its intent to introduce a new Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program that will include up to $1 million to help beekeepers offset the costs of increased colony replacements due to the pandemic.
The program, whose details are still being finalized, is expected to be available later this summer and will be retroactive to mid-March to cover issues faced in the spring.
“Until there are some details around it, I have no idea if it’s really going to help, or not,” said Nixon.
“You know, $1 million spread around the industry does not equal a whole lot. But maybe there’s going to be some ways that it’s put to good use,” he said.
“I hope it gets into the hands of those that actually need it.”
While Nixon said numerous beekeepers across the province suffered a bad winter loss this season, their family operation was fortunate enough to escape significant losses.
“We were able to get our numbers back,” he said, later adding their bee colonies are overall, doing well.
Although they typically do not use what’s known in the industry as imported package bees, Nixon said they do import queens.
“Luckily, we were able to get them,” he said.
He said things have been working out, despite the season being delayed by the long winter and border shutdowns that prevented them from having their specialized workers in place.
Connie Phillips, Alberta Beekeeper Commission executive director, said last week no new details about the program’s full scope were known.
“It’s not open yet,” said Phillips, adding what's known is the intention is to provide assistance to help beekeepers recover some costs incurred in replacing and repopulating their hives, a process that this year was hampered by the pandemic.
“In some parts of the province, there were higher-than-normal, very high, overwintering losses,” she said.
“Some beekeepers are seeing significant economic impact from those losses.”
While there are beekeepers that purchase domestically prepared nucleus hives — which are essentially starter hives with two or three frames that are not available until later in the season — others also rely on packages of bees shipped early in the season from places like New Zealand, Australia or Chile. But those packages did not arrive because flights were shut down, she said.
Losses for some producers were further magnified due to the delay in seasonal workers arriving, she said.
“Workers come in from a number of different countries, and we need them, they’re highly skilled in beekeeping and understanding bees,” she said, adding as an example that chartering a flight for one worker from Nicaragua costs about $2,000 per ticket. That doesn’t even factor in the additional costs of upgrading accommodations to comply with COVID-19 guidelines, she added.
“There’s a lot of moving parts that factor into this.”
An alternate option for beekeepers unable to obtain either imported packages of bees or domestically raised nucleus hives, is to split a healthy hive into two, which still requires a new queen and also reduces honey production, she said.
Much like other industry groups, the commission has been talking on and off with the government.
“As much as they could help out, they pulled money from the CAP Alberta risk mitigation program, and are setting up this fund for beekeepers to apply to recover some of their costs in replacing their bees.”
Asked for her thoughts on the program, Phillips said, “They did a lot of work and went through a lot of effort to see what was possible. Out of everything that happened, for them to offer this, where all the other doors was closed, I think was a nice thing for them to do,” she said.
“I don’t know that any industry would ever say, ‘That’s perfect, that’s enough!’ But there’s limitations, and we very much appreciate what they’ve done on our behalf.”
Although they're hit hard by the long winter and the pandemic, Phillips said Alberta beekeepers are regrouping.
“They’re focused on getting their bees as strong and healthy as possible going into fall and winter” as well as harvesting honey, she said.
“The industry on the whole is very resilient.”
However, this year’s losses were substantial, and poised to push the number of hives in the province back to pre-2010 levels. There are about 170 beekeepers registered with the commission, collectively amounting to more than 300,000 hives accounted for as of last fall, she said.
“We think there’s going to be losses as high as somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 (hives),” she said.
“There’s going to be a huge economic impact, and we haven’t seen the full scope of that.”
But if there’s a silver lining, perhaps it’s that a condition called colony collapse disorder, which has haunted producers in other parts of the world, has not impacted producers in the province.
“What’s interesting is the colony collapse disorder was never an issue in Alberta,” she said, adding biologists she’s spoken with are not certain why.
Yet that does not mean bees don’t face other potential threats. Like any kind of livestock, the insects can be susceptible to diseases and parasites, including a virus-carrying mite called varroa, she said.
“An equivalent analogy might be like a tick on a dog. They act as a vector for viruses and make colonies more susceptible.”
More than a year ago, the commission applied for funding to hire an expert with experience improving hive management practices to reduce the potential of such threats, a process that Nixon was involved in, she said.
“Up until, I’m going to say last year, the industry’s been growing pretty steadily,” she said, calling Alberta the largest producer of honey in Canada, and the third largest in North America.
“Ninety per cent of the honey in Canada is produced on the Prairies.”