Compared to almonds in California, blueberry pollination in British Columbia is small potatoes. But there are some similarities. Commercial beekeepers migrate long distances from cold northern prairies to the mild coast with thousands of colonies. They are paid for pollination and their bees get a boost with early pollen and mild temperatures. But beekeepers come away wondering if the hassle and stress on their bees was worth it.
Here in western Canada, several beekeepers from northern BC and Alberta have decided that the 1,200-kilometre trek to the lower mainland’s berry bushes isn’t worth it. The blueberry area near Vancouver needs at least 45,000 colonies of bees for successful pollination. The beekeepers who are rethinking the southwest migration hold about 4,000 hives. The difference – 10 percent – won’t cause a berry shortage this year. But it represents a growing concern among beekeepers that the monetary gain from hauling bees long distances isn’t compensating for the pressures and expenses involved.
An Alberta beekeeper – Danny Paradis – says in an interview that BC berry growers are using a new fungicide that weakened his bees, resulting in a poor summer for the colonies when they returned to Alberta after spring in BC. But one of the biggest commercial beekeepers in the Vancouver area, John Gibeau of Honeybee Centre, disagrees. He is the country’s top blueberry-pollinator. Gibeau tells reporters that nothing has really changed in 40 years but last year was a bad-weather year, resulting in weaker hives.
I know both of these beekeepers. They are smart professional operators. Neither has an ‘axe to grind’ but they obviously have different perspectives. In the end, beekeepers will decide if the money from spring pollination balances the cost in stress, time, transportation, and effort. Blueberry rental in British Columbia’s lower mainland is relatively new. Berry farms have expanded dramatically in the past two decades. Theoretically, over half a million colonies in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC’s Peace River could make the thousand-kilometre migratory pollination trip. But just two percent of those ‘potential’ bees actually are taken for a ride. To me, this suggests that Canadian migratory pollination isn’t quite worth the effort – something Danny Paradis might contend.
I’m not sure what British Columbia pollination fees are this spring, but in the past beekeepers told me that they were paid as much as $130/hive. That equals about 70 pounds of honey at recent wholesale prices. If colonies return to the prairies weak from pollination, they can easily lose that much honey on the summer crop – and it costs money to haul bees into pollination. (Besides, few commercial prairie beekeepers want to be on the coast and miss the local hockey and curling action. Some things are more important than money.)
Over the past fifty years, pollination fees for California almonds have gone from about $5 to $200 per hive. The colonies rented there are about twice as strong as they were in the early days of pollination, but the rental is still at least 20 times higher, per bee. But that’s still not enough to compensate beekeepers who end up with damaged colonies.
My guess is that more and more beekeepers will opt out of pollination. Meanwhile, some growers will switch to newly engineered self-pollinating crops and others will experiment with wind, mechanical pollinator-drones, or other schemes. But for the next few years, growers will offer more money – there is a huge advantage in doubling or tripling a crop by spending just a couple hundred dollars more per acre for bees. And many beekeepers will accommodate.