Beekeepers are some of the lesser-known victims of inclement weather that affects so many similar commodities.
Nichol Honey Farm MacGregor Manitoba owner Marc Nichol says his personal experience this year says it's all over the map.
"The winter losses this year seemed to have exceeded the normal pretty much right across the country, but there seems to be a few rays of hope," says Nichol. "I guess, we're lucky to be one of them who wasn't at the average where the losses were quite substantial."
Nichol is referring to the loss of honeybees.
He says their honey production this year comes down to whether or not the farmers can get their crops in on time, keeping their bees healthy and making up for the losses that we have because losses still were above normal levels.
"We've always found that anytime we could have an earlier year, it is beneficial for the bees to have a longer foraging time, whereas when it gets started late like it is this year, we always find that everything kind of runs in the all at once in late July and all of August. It sometimes gets tough for us to get everything done on time," adds Nichol. "A concern for beekeepers this year is, first of all, getting their hives set up to start by running into that timeline where we may not have the time to get them prepared for winter properly again. That puts things at a little bit of jeopardy for how they'll look for next season."
Nichol says this year's situation is a combination of an early start last year, and longer, hotter-than-normal summer. and then an unusual fall where canola and crops, that wouldn't normally bloom late, start to bloom then.
"I think it kind of set the bees up for a bit of stress throughout the year, and I think that stress just added up to what we saw normalize, especially across the prairies," continues Nichol. "I'm also hearing Quebec and Ontario have had larger losses, so it just seems to be pretty wide."
When Nichol refers to these losses, he is speaking about the deaths of bees.
"I think the provincial average amount of winter mortality is about 30 to 35 per cent," adds Nichol. "So, every beekeeper plans on having 30 to 35 per cent of his bees, they call, winter mortality. By the time we put them in in November, carry them through until this year, was almost maybe because of the snow we had, but normally it's April. You count on losing that many. And you hope that the spring is kind to you, while this spring definitely wasn't. April and May were horrific on all fronts for everybody. That's just put everybody even farther behind than what they already were."
He says it's somewhat of a numbers game, and that's especially so for larger producers of honey.
"You try to stay ahead of the curve, but this year, the curve came back and kind of got a lot of guys," notes Nichol. "Your average hives, or your weaker ones, go backwards to where they're not viable anymore. Now you have to make up your losses that you've lost from last November with your good hives. But they're also in trouble, too, because the weather wasn't good for them to forage. So, all in all, the weather hasn't been cooperating. We're looking at almost a full 12 months where it's been starting early, either too hot and dry, or now we've got into too much moisture and not good forage conditions for the bees. So, it all added up to a lot of things that weren't favourable for a beekeeper in Manitoba."
Nichol says they try to increase the bee population on their own.
"We're actually going to be looking at some stock replacement options," continues Nichol. "One that was available to us many years ago, back when my dad was in the business, was stock packages bees from California. They're looking at possibilities of that. There are concerns of disease-spread, although I think we're finding that the disease levels in the areas down there, where we would get them from, are very similar to here. We're always finding that it's tough to keep up with the timeline that we have and the timeframe that we have to raise enough stock to keep our numbers up. And a year like this is a glaring example of how we need stock replacement from somewhere else."
He adds they've been faced with COVID shutting down the airline industry to such an extent that they aren't getting a lot of availability of flights for packages out of, for example, Chile, New Zealand or similar countries.
"They were available to us up until COVID put a wrench into that, where the planes just weren't available to handle the stock," says Nichol. "Now that's why there's a consideration to do something that would be on the continent that we can haul by truck."
He explains they check their bee boxes to see if they can avoid obtaining stock from out of province, noting it's been four years since they last had to do that.
"It seems like about every, six to seven years, we always see things catch up to us to where we just don't get enough of our hives raised," says Nichol. "The weather catches us, or in a season like this where everything will be compacted into a shorter time for forage, it just seems like we need other options. We just never know when it might be our turn that we need them."
Nichol says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is their umbrella and determines if they are able to bring in stock from other countries.
"We've had queen bees come in from Northern California now for close to 20 years," continues Nichol. "There was a concern over disease-spread. Basically, what they're looking for is just saying, 'OK, they've done it for 20 years. Now, let's just put bees with those queens and continue on our way.' But if I don't have the bees here to split because I've had a poor season, the queens don't really help me. Now I need the bees and a queen to start a new fresh colony. It's ideal for us because Northern California is two months ahead of us on average, and temperature. And very similar weather patterns is what we have, so they can literally get things started in February, March and then -- bang -- here we go."
He notes that sort of opportunity has not risen for the last 35 years.