Covid: How we got our bees

Some really unusual things have been going on in the bee world since the advent of Covid-19. These include a big setback for beekeepers in my community and the rescue of stranded Canadians in Central America – a rescue performed because of commercial beekeepers. I’ll get to these in a moment.

First, let’s talk about beekeeping in the time of Covid. Hobby beekeeping is pretty much the same as it was last year. We wonder and worry about the rains, the temperatures, the flowers, the mites. Commercial Covid-beekeeping is a bit harder. The government of Alberta even issued a Covid-19 Beekeeping Guidelines bulletin.  It is mostly for the 200 commercial beekeepers in our province, but if you are a hobbyist and haven’t learned how to wash your hands by now, that’s included.

As I said, hobby beekeepers have it easier. We can go out to our backyard bees without a mask and take bee communion. (So far, there’s no evidence that our bees will pick up this respiratory virus.) Unfortunately, hobby beekeepers who need mentors will find that a bit awkward. Social distancing and sharing bee inspection techniques are almost mutually exclusive. Also, bee clubs are generally not clubbing, so the newbee looking for help may be turning to the misinformation-depository known as YouTube. But perhaps you are lucky enough to have a bee club with a strong on-line presence sharing questions and answers. Next blog post, I’ll write a bit more about this.

I used to be a commercial beekeeper, but now I putter around with two backyard honey bee colonies and use a few other hives for research. My research required some new colonies, so I set up a nuc purchase. Buying nucs was a new experience for me. Over the years, I’ve made thousands of nucs, but not bought any. A couple years ago, I acquired packages through our bee club, just for the experience of growing a couple hives from scratch on all new hive equipment.

This year, needing a few new colonies, I decided to try the nuc experience instead of packages. (There’s nothing wrong with packages – they do very well and you enjoy the thrill and tension of watching a colony dwindle to a tiny cluster during that three-week period when older sisters die and young ones haven’t yet emerged. Then, Ka-Boom, the little colony explodes into a powerful hive and you know that you have picked an interesting hobby.)

This spring, I bought several 5-frame nucs. I made arrangements in early March for May delivery from coastal British Columbia (Canada’s Florida, but with fewer palms and covids). A friend drove his truck and trailer down to the coast, helped the seller prep the nucs, then drove about a hundred of them up the Fraser Valley, across the continental divide, and into Alberta’s land of honey.

I was lucky to have these extra colonies. (Here’s one, right, being transferred from the white box into a full 10-frame box.) I had nucs, but most Alberta beekeepers had ordered packages. Packages didn’t arrive this year. They were supposed to reach Alberta in late April, coming from New Zealand. Because of C-19, flights (even those carrying bees) were cancelled. Some commercial beekeepers purchase thousands of packages to replace winter losses or expand their outfits. These folks couldn’t get the bees they needed and are running fewer colonies this summer. Unfortunately, this past winter was one of our worst ever for winter losses, with about 40% of the province’s honey bees dying. With high winter-kill and no way of using packages to build up their apiaries, they would have wanted nucs, but Canada retails fewer than 5000 nucs, while in a normal spring, 70,000 packages are brought into the country.

The scarcity of replacement bees means that Alberta’s hive count is down. This made some home gardeners nervous about their backyard gardens. There is no reason to be overly-concerned – honey bees focus on big fields (and forests) of uniform flowers for nectar and pollen; backyard gardens are mostly pollinated by bumble bees and other native species. It’s mostly those minor bees that take care of gardens, not honey bees.

The local TV news heard about the plight of farmers and gardeners so they phoned. I suggested that they would learn more from farmers and beekeepers and sent them off to interview some of those folks. They did, but then they came back to me to get the city-side of the story. I’ve linked the news piece here.  You can watch the video interview of a bee-man, farmer, and me here:

Now, a completely different corona beekeeping story.

Commercial beekeeping in Alberta depends on Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs). These folks are experienced beekeepers who live in Nicaragua, the Philippines, eastern Europe, South America, and other places four months of the year, then show up in Canada to help the big outfits – bee farms with thousands of colonies. The workers come back year after year, usually working at the same bee businesses. Without them, commercial beekeeping wouldn’t survive in the manner it is conducted today.

Most of the TFWs fly into Canada in April or May. This spring, Covid-19 stopped most air traffic. Canadian commercial beekeepers chartered a plane to carry about 100 beekeepers north from Central America. Then they discovered that Canadian tourists and business folks were stranded in Central America and also needed a trip north. Here’s an excerpt from Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail:

A chartered plane carrying an unlikely combination of travellers is scheduled to depart Nicaragua for Canada on Monday: temporary foreign workers bound for commercial bee operations, and Canadians who had been stranded in Central America amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flights out of the capital of Managua have been suspended as international travel slows to a near standstill, complicating efforts to bring workers into Canada to help manage the spring hive-building season – a vital time when bees reproduce and burgeon into healthy colonies. Led by a queen that lays up to 2,000 eggs each day, honey bees are good for more than their name implies; they are critical to the cross-pollination of fruits, vegetables and canola.

To stave off a labour shortage that could impact the food supply chain and hurt the beekeeping industry, the Canadian Honey Council took matters into its own hands. At a cost of roughly $200,000, the council chartered a plane to fly 80 skilled workers from Nicaragua to Canada, touching down first in Calgary, and then continuing east to Saskatoon, Brandon and Toronto.

 

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Ron has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with the blog at badbeekeepingblog.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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3 Responses to Covid: How we got our bees

  1. Catherine Dempsey says:

    Thank you! I really enjoy your blog and comparing it to beekeeping procedures in Newfoundland and Labrador. I was interested in your comment about 5000 nucs produced in all of Canada? Newfoundland is only working with nucs produced within the province, producing about 200 nucs a year so far. It is far behind the demand. And we want to encourage nuc production.

    Just in the last stretch of a 3 day 70 cm rainfall period – not best for foraging….

    Have a great day! Catherine Dempsey

    On Fri, 17 Jul 2020 at 03:44, Bad Beekeeping Blog wrote:

    > Ron Miksha posted: ” Some really unusual things have been going on in the > bee world since the advent of Covid-19. These include a big setback for > beekeepers in my community and the rescue of stranded Canadians in Central > America – a rescue performed because of commercial be” >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks for your comments and the Newfoundland update. The nucs I got are doing well, better than packages. I’m glad that I was able to get Canadian bees and support a Canadian producer. But it’s hard to make nucs in the numbers we need.

      Like

  2. Wow, thanks for the article.

    Seems like bees and beekeepers just can’t catch a break these days!

    Liked by 1 person

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