My favourite line from one of my favourite movies was spoken by Peter Fonda, playing Ulee Jackson in a film about a Florida beekeeper. When Ulee visits his son, who is in prison for robbery, the son asks about the bees. Ulee answers, ‘Mites are choking them, pesticides are killing them, the drought’s starving them… they’re fine.’ That line contributed to Fonda’s Oscar nomination for best actor in 1997, which he narrowly lost to his friend Jack Nicholson.
The bees are fine. Honey bees, long rumoured to be dropping like flies towards extinction, are doing as well as cows, sheep, and other livestock. To maintain livestock in their current numbers, humans manage animal diseases and pests, supply food in times of famine, and control the beasts’ reproduction. For bee farmers, that means a lot of expense. Dead colonies are replaced by raising new queens and dividing strong colonies into multiple offspring. This allows bee losses to be replaced and total colony counts to increase, as it has been doing worldwide for years.
Although managed honey bee colonies die off at a higher rate than we were accustomed to a generation ago, today’s one-third annual loss is still better than the survival rate of untended wild colonies, which have a first-year death rate of 77%, and a second-year of 16% (Seeley, 2017). Feral colonies don’t survive well, but we expect much more from our boxed ones.
As if to confirm the striking success of managed honey bee colonies, Statistics Canada has just released its annual summary of Canadian honey crop production and honey bee populations. First, according to official counts, Canadians have never kept this many honey bee colonies. We are now at 810,000 colonies, managed by 13,000 beekeepers – up 40,000 colonies from 2020.
The value of honey produced (over one-quarter of a billion dollars) has also never been higher. If you do the mental math, you’ll see that the “average” honey income per beekeeper is a bit over $20,000. You may wonder how beekeepers buy all those trucks and supers – and feed and clothe their flock of young’ns – on $20,000. Well, most beekeepers (95%) are hobbyists who crank their extractor a few times and sling out five hundred dollars in honey money. A small minority of Canada’s beekeepers are commercial and in the business like a bad marriage – it’s all they know and it’s too expensive to get out. That small minority grosses an average of $400,000 in honey sales. It still doesn’t leave much to live on after trucks, supers, equipment, buildings, feed, medicines, and trips to Vegas are factored in. But that’s a story for another day.
Meanwhile, here’s a chart I made from the StatsCanada data. This graph looks back to 1924, when Canadians owned fewer than 300,000 honey bee colonies. Since then, we’ve almost tripled that number.