Astonishing innovations in Alta. beekeeping industry

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


Philpott’s Honey near Brooks, Alberta has been in the honey business for nearly a century. It started out as a small scale operation held between close members of the Philpott family, and to this day that core management structure remains as brothers Allan Philpott, Glen Philpott and their brother-in-law Colin McCaig oversee a 30 person seasonal workforce and nearly 11,000 hives.

While honey remains a huge component of the family business with product extracted, processed and packaged on site, the majority of their bee business now centres around seasonal pollination under contract to canola seed companies throughout Newell County. As Glen Philpott explains, it’s a transition that began to happen for many larger scale beekeepers about 25 years ago.

“Before the canola pollination we were exclusively a honey operation, but as the canola acres started growing we have grown with them,” says Glen. “And that’s where we are today. In the south here there are three main beekeepers. And over those three we have almost 40,000 hives. And that’s just here in the south country.”

Allan Philpott says some beekeepers in Alberta do not have any honey aspect to their businesses anymore and use exclusively Leaf-cutter bees, but most, like their family’s company, tend to have resources dedicated to both honey and pollination, allowing them to diversify their operations.

“Some beekeepers do have only Leaf-cutter bees for pollination, but, for us, honey bees are stronger fliers in wind and they will fly in a little cooler weather; whereas the Leaf-cutter bees like it hot and calm. In that way those bees will stay in the field more when they do fly, but honey bees will fly on a more regular basis. So I think it’s a good mix of the two types of workloads these bees can do,” says Allan.

Colin McCaig says most people do not understand the magnitude of what Alberta has been able to achieve in both honey and pollination over past few decades.

“Alberta has the biggest concentration of beekeepers in Canada. There are over 300,000 hives in this province. We are the third or fourth largest beekeeping area in North America,” states Colin.

“It’s a very diverse business,” adds Allan. “It’s a way of life business. We are still a farm background, but specialized in different equipment than what you would say a grain farmer or cattle farmer is. The concept is still there: It’s hard work and its seasonal. With this business you either love it or hate it. You get the sh*t stung out of ya some days. It’s a hundred degrees out there and your sticky. And it’s all hours of the day during pollination season.”

According to Allan, beekeepers also have a long history of cooperative action in the province, and, in recent years, fantastic government support for the overall industry.

“We’ve got a really good Alberta beekeepers association that’s really gotten together and worked together over the years, and it makes for a real strong team that way. It’s got some funding for some programs and some really great people that are on the government side of things that are understanding what is needed for the Alberta bee industry. And these (seed) companies we work with, they are great companies. We all have the same intent: To do better and have a better product.”

The business is not without its challenges and there is definite need to get with the times, states Colin. In decades past Philpott’s Honey, like most long-standing family honey operations in Alberta, used to kill off its hives each fall and bring in new bees and queens every year. And they used to use a lot of antibiotics to hold back major contagions like American foulbrood. Now Philpott’s is completely antibiotic free and over-winters nearly 10,000 hives. It’s takes a lot more effort on the part of staff each year, but the company believes it makes for stronger colonies and more healthy bees at the end of the day.

“This year we wintered just under 10,000—9,968 hives,” explains Colin. “Come the spring time, because we do such a good job culling out weak hives, our losses are less. If we find a hive that has American foulbrood (bacteria), for example, we now just bring it home and burn it. And then you don’t worry about it going from hive to hive to hive. Because at certain times of year when the honey flow has stopped, and you have a weak hive here that’s full of honey, the strong hive will smell that honey and go and rob it out. Then you are faced with a situation where you have a weak hive contaminated with American foulbrood, and that goes over to the strong hive. So if you have a sick hive you’ve got to get it away from the other hives and destroy it.”

“All it takes is that one (bacterial) spore to get out and cause havoc,” agrees Glen. “Some guys try to isolate the hive and treat it. But we close it up, bring it home and get rid of it. When you have 10,000 hives, one hive here and there isn’t going to be a big difference in your operation.”

That preventative culling of sick or weak hives is key to overall bee heath, confirms Allan, but they also frequently replace old comb with new comb. Philpott’s believes this comb replacement goes a long way toward preventing major catastrophes like Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

“We have found, generally, it’s older comb to blame for those kinds of problems,” says Allan. “So we have learned to cut back on the antibiotics to nothing and to rotate our equipment and keep young comb in the hive all the time. We do live in a generation now which uses lots of chemicals out there in the field. Those bees are being born anywhere between every 16 to 20 days. On such a rapid cycle, this is truly where we believe the Colony Collapse Disorder is coming from. Those little buggers brains are growing so quick, but they have residue chemical that’s built up in the wax of the old comb. Kind of a little like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; it’s the same sort of thing that way. In reality that comb structure should have been thrown out years and years ago.”

Colin also credits growing public awareness about the problems facing bee populations with keeping Alberta’s beekeeping industry strong and its bees healthy.

“It’s only been in the last six years where the farmers are starting to ask us to bring hives to put on their fields because they are starting to understand the importance with the CCD stuff getting out there, and what happens if we lose our bees,” says Colin. “They want to help the bees. People are also calling in when they get swarms in the summer time. They don’t just want to kill it; just the mentality towards honey bees in general has shifted.”

Allan says the next step that is needed on the honey side of things, among Alberta and Canadian consumers, is to increase awareness of the importance of supporting locally produced honey and educating the public on the health benefits of a high quality honey product.

“We just want to promote good, Canadian honey. Not your, ‘may contain products of China, Brazil or Argentina,’ which you see in the fine print with a magnifying glass more and more on store shelves these days. I think honey is still an untapped secret to most people out there. People are understanding that it’s good for you, but there is still huge potential on that side of things. Our honey is a real good product in Alberta here,” states Allan.