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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

What’s the buzz? Alberta is the powerhouse of Canada’s honeybee industry

Richard Ozero operates a forklift in his warehouse, loading drums full of honey into a semi-trailer. His son uses a dolly to transport and organize the drums deeper into the trailer.

This wasn’t Ozero’s initial entrepreneurship plan, but he’s happy with how things are going since he jumped head-first into beekeeping.

Alberta is Canada’s honey powerhouse; Ozero and his family are among hundreds of beekeepers helping the province’s honey industry buzz.

“Looking back, I don’t know how we did it,” he said. “I don’t know if I could do it again, but it feels good.”

Ozero grew up on a farm near Bonnyville, Alta., before building a career in television news in Edmonton. He worried about the internet’s growth and how it would affect the industry and his own future.

In 2006, he and his wife Amber, who also worked in TV news, bought a farm in Parkland County, west of Edmonton. Ozero thought they needed livestock, then remembered a commercial beekeeper who had colonies on his parents’ property.

Three glass jars filled with honey sit in a line on a shelf.
Good Morning Honey products have shipped throughout North America and even overseas, said co-owner Richard Ozero. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

He invited the beekeeper to put colonies on his new farm. He helped the man tend to his bees, learning along the way. The plan was to maybe — eventually — buy one or two of the colonies.

In 2011, the Ozeros bought 920 colonies.

“That’s like being from the city and buying 500 cows, knowing nothing about cows. It’s a pretty big risk,” Ozero said, adding that creating a family business is what attracted him to the opportunity.

The risk paid off: the family’s Good Morning Honey has since grown to 4,000 colonies since the initial purchase and its product has shipped throughout Canada and even internationally.

According to Statistics Canada, 40 per cent of all honey produced in Canada last year came from Alberta — and it had never been worth more.

The value of Alberta honey was nearly $105.6 million in 2023 — a new record, in part driven by higher prices. Manitoba was the second-biggest producer, reporting nearly $48.2 million in honey sales.

Alberta housed nearly 303,000 honeybee colonies last year — the most of any province, and almost 40 per cent of the country’s entire stock.

Interest in beekeeping is on the upswing in the province, increasing more than threefold since 2008 — from 620 beekeepers to 1,950 in 2023.

The vast majority of bees are owned by commercial beekeepers: about 170 beekeepers own more than 290,000 colonies in Alberta, said Connie Phillips, executive director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, an industry organization.

Honey, of course, is a far less lucrative farm commodity than wheat or beef. In 2022, Alberta farmers earned more than $22 billion from crops, livestock and direct social payments, farm cash receipt data shows. That year, honey sales accounted for $94.1 million, or about 0.4 per cent of the total.

But the federal government estimates honeybees contribute billions to the agriculture sector through pollination.

Beekeepers and industry stakeholders are working to ensure Alberta’s bee population stays healthy.

The rise of apiculture in Alberta

European settlers first imported honeybees to North America during the 16th century. 

Apiculture in the region now known as Alberta dates back to the mid-1880s. Commercial beekeeping didn’t start until the early 1920s.

In 1924, Alberta recorded 160 beekeepers who produced nearly 25,000 kilograms of honey, StatsCan data shows.

At the time, only Prince Edward Island had fewer beekeepers and made less honey than Alberta. Ontario was the giant, boasting 10,000 beekeepers and producing more than 4.9 million kilograms of honey. The dataset excludes Newfoundland and Labrador, N.W.T., Nunavut and Yukon. 

Apiculture soon blossomed in Alberta, with the number of beekeepers peaking at 11,000 in 1946.

Alberta’s takeover of the country’s honey industry started in the mid-1960s, when it first produced the most honey in Canada.

By the early 1970s, Alberta had more bee colonies than Ontario, but fewer beekeepers. Around the same time, the value of honey produced in Alberta started rising above that of other provinces.

There were a lot of beekeeping operations in the East who were finding themselves a little crowded, geographically, and realized that there was a lot of territory out in the Prairies that was actually good beekeeping territory,” said Shelley Hoover, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Lethbridge.

An abundance of farmland and different crops, such as clover — “a great honey producer” — helped attract apiculturists to Alberta, Hoover said.

Alberta, particularly the south, also has hybrid seed canola, she added. Farmers who plant that crop need bees to pollinate their fields, so some beekeepers rent out colonies for pollination.

“That’s a really stable form of income for beekeepers,” Hoover said, adding that those operators could rely less on the weather for their revenue.

Today, beekeeping occurs throughout Alberta. A 2022 industry report from the Alberta government says most of the province’s honey comes from the northwest and Peace regions, which includes the town of Falher — dubbed the honey capital of Canada.

Most Alberta beekeepers focus on making honey, the report says, but there are a few whose businesses are focused on pollination — a service that helps the agricultural sector as a whole.

A honeybee pollinates a purple flower.
The federal agriculture ministry estimates that honeybees contribute billions to the sector through pollinating crops. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada conducts annual statistical overviews of the country’s honey and bee industry.

In 2021, the ministry estimated honeybee pollination contributed nearly $3.2 billion to the agricultural sector in added harvest value. The contribution rose to $7 billion per year when factoring in pollinating hybrid canola seed.

“That connection is huge,” said Phillips, of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission.

Some crops, such as blueberries, depend on honeybees, Phillips said. Some Alberta beekeepers send bees to B.C. to pollinate blueberries there.

Replenishing stock

On a mild, sunny day in late January, Richard Ozero checks on a few of his bee colonies located in one section of his Parkland County farm.

Remains of bees that left their hives to die litter the fresh snow on the ground outside large insulated boxes. Closer to the boxes, bees who survived a recent record cold snap bumble around.

A white man with dark hair and a beard is fully clothed. He is outside on a clear sunny day, standing in the snow. Behind him are a line of boxes with black tarp tied around them.
Ozero, shown here beside several his colonies, tries not to inspect his bees during the wintertime, he said. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

“This just put a smile on my face, to see the bees flying around,” says Ozero, who tries not to check on his bees often during the wintertime.

He prefers to be “blissfully ignorant” for a couple of months, rather than worrying about how many fewer bees he’ll have come March — although it’s tough to suppress the urge to inspect his insects.

Ozero approaches another hive box. No bees are flying around it. He blows through a tube — the hive entrance — to see if the bees inside will react. Nothing.

“Now, I’m not so happy,” he says.

Beekeepers are consistently thinking about keeping their bees healthy — and how to replenish their colonies when bees die. Bees die every winter, and pests — particularly varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that feeds on honey bees — can decimate colonies.

A bee corpse is burrowed in a small cell of snow.
Bees die every winter from natural causes, pests or disease. Protecting the health of bee colonies, especially from the parasitic varroa mite, is one of the major discussions among beekeepers. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

Splitting a colony to create two smaller new hives is one method of rebuilding. Importing bees from other countries is another.

The provincial government’s industry report suggests, in 2022, Alberta accounted for about half of Canada’s queen bee imports and about 40 per cent of the country’s imported nucleus colonies — essentially smaller hives.

Canada authorizes bee imports from certain countries, but there is a partial ban on imports from the United States.

In the 1980s, Canada closed its borders entirely to U.S. bees, fearing they would bring pests and viruses. Restrictions eased in 2004 to allow queen bee imports, but importing package bees — worker bees and a mated queen — is still prohibited.

Hoover, from the University of Lethbridge, described the ban as “one of the biggest political issues” for the industry.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is conducting a risk assessment on bee packages from the U.S., which is expected to be completed in April, a spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada told CBC News.

Packages carry a higher risk of introducing disease because they are shipped with contents of their hives and can’t be individually inspected, the spokesperson said. If no import conditions can protect the Canadian bee population from flagged risks, CFIA won’t issue import permits.

As a consequence, some Alberta beekeepers rely on package bees from the Southern Hemisphere that have already finished their production cycle, making the hives less efficient. Importing package bees from the U.S. would be more cost effective and timely, said Phillips, of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission.

“Our season, especially [in Alberta], is incredibly short,” she said.

“Having packages available in February, March, early April is critical to the beekeepers being able to build up, produce honey, have enough bees for pollination, strengthen weaker colonies — all of those things.”

Barbara Sorenson, who runs True North Apiary with her son in Calmar, about 50 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, avoids imports altogether.

For the better part of a decade, they have grafted queen bees — a common technique that allows beekeepers to produce more queens — to make their colonies self-sustainable.

“We taught ourselves how to do that and we both discovered we were quite good at it, so we just went with it,” Sorenson said. “We’ve never bought another package since then.”

Education is key

Hoover, from the University of Lethbridge, urges aspiring beekeepers to educate themselves thoroughly — and ensure they understand the nuances of caring for bees in Alberta.

“They really need to find local mentors and understand that honeybees are an introduced species,” Hoover said.

A beekeeper holds up a slab from one of their honeybee hives to inspect the insects.
Aspiring beekeepers ought to find local mentors, who can teach them how to care for bees in Alberta, said Shelley Hoover, an apiculturist and associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Lethbridge. (Submitted by Amber Ozero)

Tracey Smith, a beekeeper in Strathcona County, just outside of Edmonton, is among the Alberta apiculturists paying it forward.

In 2013, Smith started teaching the honey marketing portions of workshops hosted by the provincial government. In the late 2010s, she taught beekeeping workshops — and during the COVID-19 pandemic, she offered online courses.

Organizing workshops — taking registrations, setting up venues and caterers and developing content — is a lot of work, Smith said, but she enjoys teaching.

“It’s important to learn from beekeepers in the area, who have been doing it, because they’re the ones who know … the timing of the seasons, how to build the populations,” she said.

“Everything is so dependent on the local environmental conditions, so if you’re trying to learn beekeeping from a YouTube video from someone in Florida, they’re not going to help you very much.”

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