A honey of a problem: Manitoba apiaries working to recover from huge winter losses

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Mike Clark stands amid his nearly empty bee hives, hoping his apiary, which has been raising bees since World War I, can return from a brutal winter that ravaged bee colonies across the country – and the toughest Manitoba of all.

“Other guys are in production right now extracting honey, and I don’t see if we’ll be producing honey this year,” Clark said.

“We hope they will make it through the winter this year. If we suffer another heavy loss, it will be the nail in the coffin…that our business will no longer be there.”

In a typical August, the Clark Apiary in Wawanesa, Manitoba, about 200 kilometers west of Winnipeg, was abuzz with bees producing honey. This year, the space is calmer as the farm focuses on rebuilding its devastated bee population.

Mike Clark stands amid nearly empty beehives at Clark Apiaries in Wawanesa, Man. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Clark says he would like to see the introduction of bee imports from the United States to help rebuild declining populations. Under current regulations, only certified queen bees can be imported from the United States.

Clark says the apiary is working with the bank to secure a loan and hopes government stabilization programs will be available in the form of interest-free loans to commercial beekeepers.

“We’re not really asking for help because it’s not caused by us – it was environmental – that there should be safeguards in place – that we would repay those loans – but then they’re available for the farmers benefit from it,” Clark said.

Person leaning over a beehive, more beehives in the background.
Mike Clark says his apiary, which has been producing honey since World War I, may not survive another long winter. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

According to owner Bob Podolski, Podolski Honey Farms is about two weeks behind normal due to late spring.

The apiary started extracting honey in early August but found very little in the hives.

“Best-case scenario we make a million pounds… Normally we make 750-850,000 pounds. This year, if we make 200,000, we should be lucky,” Podolski said.

Podolski imports packages of bees (specially constructed boxes to safely ship bees sold by weight, with around 3,000-5,000 bees per pound) from New Zealand and Australia, but would like to see access to US bees.

When spring arrived, Podolski estimates that the farm had lost about 90% of its bees.

“I saw 80%, I saw 70% [in the past], but there was this replacement stock that was available. This year there was no replacement stock available,” Podolski said.

“Well, if we don’t get replacement stock available in the continental United States – after 47 years of bee milking, I don’t know if we’ll be there next year.”

Machine in the foreground, with a person behind it.
Mike Clark stands in the idle Clark Apiaries production room. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The apiary has purchased 50% of its current bee population, but is still operating at less than a third of its normal 3,200-3,500 hive count.

“I don’t see a future for my sons,” Podolski said. “If our governments would voluntarily step in and stop this and help our industry, then there is a chance for them.

“It’s a grim situation in our industry right now.”

2022 “devastating” year for beekeepers

People in white beekeeper suits move beehives past a loaded tractor-trailer.
Podolski Honey Farms beekeepers unload 760 hives purchased in British Columbia this spring. (Provided by Podolski Honey Farms)

The 2022 season has been “a pretty devastating year for beekeepers” in Manitoba and across Canada, says Jason Gibbs, associate professor of entomology at the University of Manitoba.

Bee losses are on the order of 40% in some parts of the country, he says, but Manitoba’s figure is around 57%.

Bee levels are in trouble for several reasons, he says, including varroa mites, an invasive pest.

“It’s a very large mite relative to its body size, and if left unmanaged it will just decimate, you know, 95% of the colonies,” Gibbs said. “Beekeepers need to somehow keep themselves regularly updated on these… [to] keep levels under control. And if they don’t, they will suffer heavy losses.”

Close up of four bees on a honeycomb pattern.
Varroa mites can kill off large swaths of bee populations, and beekeepers often turn to imported bees to make up for their losses. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

However, Gibbs thinks beekeepers should be able to rebuild their hives as long as the elements cooperate. He says most should be able to recover from the losses within a year or two.

Importing bees could be a possible solution for regrowth, but it’s not without challenges, says Gibbs, including restrictions designed to prevent the spread of pathogens and pests from outside Canada. .

The honey harvest looks promising

Still, the 2022 honey harvest looks promising, says Ian Steppler, president of the Manitoba Beekeeper’s Association.

“I’m pretty optimistic. Beekeepers are resilient, [we] know that it is our job. We know what we are doing. We’ve struggled before and, you know, we fight and bounce back. We are experiencing very good honey prices at the moment, so that is positive,” he said.

Manitoba has 200 commercial beekeepers, generating approximately $50 million for the provincial economy.

Last year, beekeepers in Manitoba produced about 19 million pounds of honey, Steppler says.

Workers moving beehive frames on a production line in a warehouse.
Podolski Honey Farms workers extract honey from beehive frames. (Provided by Podolski Honey Farms)

Typically, replacement colonies are created with bee wrappers from Australia, New Zealand and Chile, but access has been impacted by supply chain issues related to COVID-19.

Accessing these replacement packages can sometimes be difficult, and this has been amplified in Manitoba due to the high number of colony losses, Steppler says.

“Many beekeepers will run out of bees on their farms. Some, unfortunately, will not. But what Manitoba beekeepers are asking for, as has been requested through our association, is perhaps to consider other places where we can access replacement stock to help overcome situations unfortunate like the ones we’ve had this year,” Steppler said.

One of the locations identified includes California, where healthy bees can be accessed as replacement stock.

The association has also approached the Ministry of Agriculture to help beekeepers who have experienced difficulties and significant losses of bees.

Government discusses import options

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is working with stakeholders to share any new scientific evidence regarding the health status of honey bees in Canada and the United States. They hope by September 5 to determine whether another risk assessment is warranted in relation to the importation of bees, a government spokesperson said.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Food Inspection Agency recently launched an industry-government sustainability working group to explore solutions to key issues, including colony collapse and the impact of varroa mites.

“The health of bee populations, both managed and native, is vital to Canada’s economy and environment, given the importance of crop pollination, healthy ecosystems and honey production,” said a spokesperson. “Bee pollination is an essential input for many key agricultural products.”

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