Alberta beekeepers say import delays hurting hives and could lead to higher honey and canola costs

As it prepares for the spring growing season, the Alberta Beekeepers Commission (ABC) says import delays are significantly reducing hive numbers and could majorly impact the production of honey and canola. 

A typical commercial operation in Alberta loses thousands of bees every year due to cold winters, so the insects are imported from New Zealand and Australia to rebuild local numbers.

But COVID-19 travel restrictions and inspection issues have caused delays and more than 80 per cent of the bees supposed to be imported to Alberta this year are not expected to arrive. 

Hive numbers dropped by 20,000 in Alberta in 2020.

"The next few weeks will determine if we can address the losses that we have incurred over the past two Springs and are experiencing now," said Connie Phillips, ABC's executive director. 

It could lead to higher costs of those goods for consumers, the group says. They're calling on the federal government and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for emergency support and to allow Alberta beekeepers to temporarily import bees from the United States. 

Alberta leads all provinces in honey production, making up about 30 per cent of Canada's supply, but numbers have fallen in each of the last four years. Alberta beekeepers produced more than 40 million pounds of honey in 2017, but output dropped to 29 million pounds in 2020, according to Statistics Canada. 

"I'm really hopeful the players involved in this discussion — every one from the airlines to the CFIA to the beekeepers — can come together to figure out a way to get these bees to Alberta," said Grace Strom, a beekeeper in High River and ABC board member.

Bees are also important in the production and growth of canola in Alberta. A shortage of pollinators now will impact canola growth in 2022, something the Alberta Canola Producers Commission (ACPC) calls "concerning."

"It could have serious impacts on the supply and cost of canola seed next year," said Ward Toma, ACPC's general manager. 

"If there aren't enough bees, those crops won't be properly pollinated and you're going to see a difference on the store shelf — either in pricing or in availability."