By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Last year Alberta beekeepers led the country with an astonishing level of honey production. Of the 93.5 million pounds of honey produced in Canada in 2015, Alberta can lay claim to producing 42.8 million of them.
Grant Hicks, president of the Beekeepers Commission of Alberta, attributes the fantastic production level to great weather in central Alberta and bee colonies coming out of the winter months in good health.
“It all comes down to weather,” states Hicks. “We had an extremely mild winter and the bees got through the winter really well and very strong. The spring was very nice, and with some of the guys in central Alberta there is usually a dandelion flow for a week or ten days and then there is a couple weeks before canola and clover hit. The guys in central Alberta were telling me this past year that they actually had to add boxes to their hives because they were making so much dandelion honey that the honey flow never stopped all through the season.”
But Hicks also credits the province’s beekeepers for really knowing their business and their bees.
“Long term Saskatchewan actually has higher production per hive than Alberta, but Alberta has a more versatile industry. Many of our hives, for example, pollinate blueberries on the west coast in the spring. Some of our hives pollinate fruit crops in the valleys of BC. So we have a spring pollination season, and than up to 80,000 hives pollinate hybrid canola in southern Alberta. No other province has as much access to this other side business that we in Alberta do. It firms up our beekeepers’ cash flow and reduces your risk.”
According to Hicks it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the industry right now, despite great crops the past two seasons. That’s why diversifying operations to include pollination and honey is so important.
“Last year was the second of two very nice years, but right now the world economy is more or less in shambles. And so is the honey market. Honey is not moving normally this winter; it’s been slow to move. But still, it’s a good quandary to be in because it will store and it will move. And I have never heard of anybody having more than a year or twos honey on the plate.”
Hicks also acknowledges that competition from foreign honey is also a little bit of a dark cloud over the Alberta honey industry.
“The North American issue is we are held to the gold medal standards in regards to labour, environmental, transportation; you name it,” says Hicks. “Our major competition is coming from the lands where kids build shoes for a dollar a day. We’re going to always be at the top of the price range because our expenses are atrocious compared to what our competition has. So it’s that game all the time.”
However, Hicks believes there is definitely an upside, in terms of marketing, with Alberta having such high standards in the honey market.
“We feel with Canadian honey, because of all the standards and the hoops we have to jump through, that we’re the best in the world. And Asia, for example, is respecting that more and more. I don’t know how many millionaire Chinese there are, but I suspect there is as many affluent Chinese people as there are Canadians in total. And they are beginning to come to Canada to buy honey. They trust our product and know what they are getting.”
The biggest headwind facing the Alberta beekeepers, more than cost of production, or even tangibles like weather and Varroa mites, comes from health trends, says Hicks.
“If we have an Achilles heel, it’s on the health side of things,” acknowledges Hicks. “Canadians eat 160 pounds of sugar a year, and that can lead to many problems. But Canadians only eat one pound of that in honey. And it’s a sugar which works better with their liver and kidneys. Honey also has other health benefits, and we need to get that word out to Canadians about that.”