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Local honey operators hear the buzz about COVID's bee backlash

Local beekeepers watch COVID-based bee shortage

LAC LA BICHE - The buzz about the effects of ongoing COVID-19 measures on beekeeping operations and the availability of queen bee supplies around the globe is something local honey-makers are aware of, but say they haven't been stung by too badly — yet.

Rob and Joanne Wicker run Christy Creek Honey from their rural Lac La Biche apiary. Rob says he follows the news, and sees the troubling stories of queen bee shortages, bee shipment troubles and reduced honey production. So far, he says, the widespread effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry he currently enjoys as a part-time hobby, haven't adversely affected his supplies, but he can see that coming. A more immediate concern relating to the pandemic, beyond the possibility of higher costs and reduced stock, is the reduction of tourism and promotion opportunities.

Tour-ism challenges

An educator in the community for decades and also part of a growing agri-tourism industry, Rob has enjoyed hosting tours of the operation, welcoming students, locals and visitors to suit up and get very hands-on with the hives and  honey operation. He and Joanne like to see visitors get the knowledge of a very unique industry ... and hopefully a few jars of Christy Creek Honey and other honey-based products from the local small business.

"We started doing these tours, and it amazes me. We had quite a few families from Edmonton who just drove up — two and a half hours to see this for a while and then drive back, happy they got to do it," Rob said, with Joanne explaining that changing COVID-19 provincial regulations means challenges for their customers and family small business.

With COVID-19 measures now in place, tour bookings can be affected if cohort and social distancing restrictions are expanded. New health measures also mean more work for the Wickers, cleaning the hooded bee suits after each wear and making sure all touch points are properly cleaned.

"It has made more work for us," says Joanne.

Going into their third full season of the honey-production business, the Wickers have seen the ups and downs of the industry. Being in northern Alberta, the bee season is short, the winters are long — and the losses of their six-legged workers can be staggering. Despite insulated hive coverings, sheltered locations — and the ability by the bees themselves to generate heat by vigorously vibrating their abdominal thorax muscles — Christy Creek Honey lost seven of their 17 hives over the 2020 winter.

Looking for the Queen

The losses mean they will likely be on the lookout for new queen bees going into this season, joining hundreds of other beekeepers looking for new insect workforces during the pandemic. Across Canada, industry statistics show that 25,000 hives were lost at Canadian apiaries in the 2020 winter, leading to anticipated pressures to replenish bee colonies during a global health crisis that has affected commerce and travel.

The Wickers would like to replace the seven hives they lost and add some new ones, getting up to about 20, says Rob.

He thinks replacing a full hive might be problematic this year. Even finding single queen bees to purchase in order to split existing hives has been getting a little more tricky.

"I can't get packaged bees. If I was planning on getting more hives, all the new bees in Canada come from New Zealand, but because of restrictions, they weren't able to bring any new bees in," Rob said, explaining that the imported bees cost about $300 and  come in a tube that contain about two pounds of worker bees and one queen. There is an option of buying single queen bees from retail 'bee stores' in the Edmonton area — but those purchases will also likely have some COVID effects this year.

"I think I can still get queens because they are a little easier to ship, a little smaller ...  although it was a little bit harder to get queens last year," he considered.

The queen bees are the common link between the Wicker's small family-run home business and the country's large-scale honey producers; without the queens, there are no hives.

It is expected that up to 80 per cent of the queen bee shipments from global suppliers will be affected by travel restrictions and heightened inspection issues this year. For  shipments that can be made, higher costs are expected, hurting an already challenged industry.

While the worldwide queen bee issues are important, the Wickers say their smaller operation allows them to pay attention to each of their hives on a very regular basis, catching potential issues before they get stung by global market factors.

Busy bees

The Wickers also point out that finding new queens, however, isn't only up to the beekeeper and global shipping arrangements.

Bees are intricate insects and can sense when a queen is not performing her royal duties, he said. To save the hive, worker bees can decide to feed and grow another fertilized egg with a special royal jelly they secrete. The added super food and constant attention eventually leads to a new queen being hatched. The old queen is ousted and the new queen will take on the duties to lay the eggs in the hive and uses distinct pheromones to motivate and coordinate the worker bees. Queen bees can live for about four years and deposit more than 2,000 eggs per day, some fertilized, other not. Fertilized eggs grow into female worker bees and unfertilized eggs create the male drones whose only job is to eventually mate with a queen. Without queen bees, the hives fall into disarray, the bees can get "very grumpy,"  food isn't processed, honey isn't made and bees die off. It's a delicate balance made more challenging by pandemic restrictions.

According to Statistics Canada, Alberta beekeepers in 2017 produced 40 million pounds of honey. In 2020 the output was only 29 million pounds. An estimated 20,000 hives were lost across the province in 2020. Alberta makes up approximately one-third of the country's overall honey production.

With less than 20 hives operating at the peak of the season, Christy Creek Honey still extracts about 1,000 pounds of honey in a season, harnessing the power of about 1,000,000 bees that will be part of the local apiary at the height of the summer.