Beekeepers are refusing to rent their colonies to B.C. blueberry farms this year, in a decision that could cost the Fraser Valley-based industry millions of dollars.
According to Cloverdale’s John Gibeau, who has more than 50 years of beekeeping experience, it all comes down to a few out-of-province beekeepers.
B.C. imports about 20,000 beehives from Alberta every year for blueberry pollination alone — that’s 800 million bees making their way from one province to the other.
Gibeau said that just three Albertan beekeepers, representing 6,000 colonies, have refused to send their bees to B.C. blueberry farms this year. Commercial blueberry fields typically require one to four hives per acre and without pollination, the blueberry crop will not yield fruit. By Gibeau’s estimate, the loss of 6,000 colonies will cost the blueberry industry anywhere from $12 million to $15 million in lost crops.
The problem comes down to the fact that “we just don’t have enough bees in B.C.,” said Gibeau.
The primary reason for that shortage is the rapid expansion of the blueberry industry, an expansion which is good for B.C., according to Gibeau, but difficult for beekeepers to keep up with.
B.C. has a small number of beekeepers who solely make a living off of just beekeeping — there are around five in the province, and Gibeau, who owns the Honeybee Centre in Cloverdale, is one of them. But, as he noted, he wouldn’t be able to make a living without his centre’s business, which includes the sale of honey and honey products, the renting of bees for pollination, his “Beestro” restaurant, and educational programming.
On top of all that, Gibeau teaches a commercial beekeeping course at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in an effort to produce new, local beekeepers for an agricultural industry desperately in need.
Because of the expected bee shortage in B.C., some beekeepers will raise their prices from $100 to $120 for one colony to work one pollination season, he said, “because growers have nowhere to go.” But to Gibeau, that isn’t good business in an industry based on relationships. He plans to stick to his existing price plan, in which his price per colony rises about $3 per year in order to keep up with inflation.
The Albertan beekeepers who are pulling out of B.C. are “new to the industry” and “looking for money,” according to Gibeau. “They came in on a tough year,” he said, referring to 2017’s cold and wet season in which “nobody did well.”
The B.C. Blueberry Council (BCBC) is in agreement with Gibeau, as they also believe last year’s reduced productivity was down to the weather.
In response to news articles regarding the potential impact a bee shortage would have on the blueberry industry, the BCBC released a statement last Tuesday (April 3), stating that the majority of their members have not expressed concerns that they will not have enough bees to pollinate this year’s crop.
The council, which represents more than 600 blueberry farms, is “well aware of the concerns raised by the BC Honey Producers Association and recently featured in the media” and takes them seriously, it read. But the BCBC does not “believe that our annual blueberry production will be greatly impacted by this issue.”
“Their claim is that blueberry crops (for a variety of reasons) make their bees more susceptible to disease. As well, they have stated that some beekeepers have chosen not to bring their bee colonies into the blueberries this year and that will affect our crops,” said BCBC executive director Anju Gill in the prepared statement.
Some of the “variety of reasons” include concerns that blueberry fungicides or foraging on a single-crop farm negatively impact bee health.
“Other beekeepers and experts feel that the concerns are overblown and suggest that wet springs – like last year – resulted in the reduced productivity,” said Gill.
Gibeau falls into that category, as he believes that bee health is ultimately down to weather and beekeeping practices.
“[The beekeepers] blamed the farmer instead of the weather or themselves, which is not fair,” said Gibeau. “The [farming] practices haven’t changed. The only thing that changed was the weather.”
A study is being launched to investigate whether bees who forage on blueberry farms have different health outcomes than other bees, and if so, what factors may contribute to it, such as nutritional deficiencies or exposure to fungicide. The study partners include the National Bee Diagnostic Centre, the Ministry of Agriculture apiculture program, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the University of British Columbia, and members of the beekeeping industry.
The study will hopefully provide some concrete answers, as UFV Associate Professor of Agriculture Tom Baumann explained that the results are not in yet on whether blueberry fungicides have any negative impact on bees.
“Studies [continue] to be undertaken to take bee health seriously,” he said, explaining that those studies are funded in part by the BCBC.
“Studies done on fungicide use and bees elsewhere have confusing messages. One says fungicides attracts bees, the other says it increased vulnerability to infections, yet another study works with multi-variable setups seems confounded, so I would like to see some clear studies that spell out if you do this, then that happens before making broad statements on this issue,” he said.
In response to concerns that bee health may be impacted by foraging on a single-crop farm, Baumann said one should keep in mind that bees are in blueberries for a limited time, “as flowering is limited.” A full season for a blueberry-bound bee might see foraging in wildflowers before blueberry bloom, and foraging in raspberry or even cranberry after the blueberry season.
Baumann said that he doesn’t believe that the Fraser Valley is approaching a sudden major shortage of bees, but rather that gradual expansion of the berry industry has meant that there has been a “shortage of bees in all crops for quite some time now” as more bees are needed than ever before, “especially in wet years with few breaks in the weather.”