What is tinnitus? Alberta is the powerhouse of Canada’s honey bee industry

Richard Ozero operates a forklift in his warehouse, loading drums full of honey into a semi-trailer. His son uses a dolly to move and organize drums deep into the trailer.

This wasn’t Oziro’s initial entrepreneurial plan, but he’s happy with how things have turned out since he jumped head first into beekeeping.

Alberta is the home of honey in Canada. Oziro and his family are among hundreds of beekeepers who help make honey in the province.

“Looking back, I don’t know how we did it,” he said. “I don’t know if I could do it again, but it feels good.”

Ozero grew up on a farm near Bonnyville, Alta., before starting his career in television news in Edmonton. He was concerned about the growth of the Internet and how it would affect the industry and his future.

In 2006, he and his wife, Amber, who also worked in television news, bought a farm in Parkland County, west of Edmonton. Oziro thought they needed livestock, then remembered a commercial beekeeper who had colonies on his parents’ property.

Three glass jars filled with honey are arranged in a row on a shelf.
Good Morning Honey products have been shipped all over North America and even abroad, said co-owner Richard Ozero. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

He called on the beekeeper to place colonies on his new farm. He helped the man take care of his bees, learning along the way. The plan was perhaps, eventually, to purchase one or two of the colonies.

In 2011, the Osiris family purchased 920 Colonies.

“It’s like you’re from the city and you’re buying 500 cows, and you don’t know anything about the cows. It’s a very big risk,” Oziro said, adding that starting a family business was what attracted him to the opportunity.

The risk has paid off: the family’s Good Morning Honey has grown to 4,000 colonies since the initial purchase and has had its product shipped across Canada and even internationally.

according to Statistics Canada40 per cent of all honey produced in Canada last year came from Alberta — and its value has never been more.

Alberta honey was worth nearly $105.6 million in 2023 — a new record, driven in part by rising prices. Manitoba was the second largest producer, reporting honey sales worth about $48.2 million.

Alberta had nearly 303,000 honey bee colonies last year, the most honey bee colonies of any province, and nearly 40 per cent of the country’s total stock.

Interest in beekeeping in the province is growing, having more than tripled since 2008 – from 620 beekeepers to 1,950 in 2023.

The vast majority of bees are owned by commercial beekeepers, with about 170 beekeepers owning more than 290,000 colonies in Alberta, said Connie Phillips, executive director of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, an industry organization.

Honey, of course, is a much less profitable agricultural commodity than wheat or beef. In 2022, Alberta farmers received more than $22 billion in crop, livestock and direct social payments. Agricultural cash receipt data Offers. That year, honey sales were $94.1 million, or about 0.4 percent of the total.

But the federal government estimates that honeybees contribute billions to the agriculture sector through pollination.

Beekeepers and industry stakeholders are working to ensure Alberta’s bees stay healthy.

The rise of beekeeping in Alberta

European settlers first imported honey bees to North America during the 16th century.

The history of beekeeping in the area now known as Alberta dates back to the mid-1880s. Commercial beekeeping did not begin until the early 1920s.

In 1924, Alberta recorded 160 beekeepers who produced nearly 25,000 kilograms of honey, StatsCan data shows.

At the time, only Prince Edward Island had fewer beekeepers and produced less honey than Alberta. Ontario was the giant, with 10,000 beekeepers and producing more than 4.9 million kilograms of honey. The data set excludes Newfoundland and Labrador, northwest Texas, Nunavut, and Yukon.

Beekeeping quickly boomed in Alberta, with the number of beekeepers peaking at 11,000 in 1946.

Alberta’s dominance of the country’s honey industry began in the mid-1960s, when it first produced the largest amount of honey in Canada.

By the early 1970s, Alberta had more bee colonies than Ontario, but fewer beekeepers. Around the same time, the value of honey produced in Alberta began to rise compared to other provinces.

“There were a lot of beekeeping operations in the East, and they were finding themselves a little crowded, geographically, and they realized there was a lot of land in the prairies that was actually a good area for beekeeping,” said Shelley Hoover, assistant professor of biology. Science at the University of Lethbridge.

The abundance of farmland and various crops, such as alfalfa — “a great honey producer” — helped attract beekeepers to Alberta, Hoover said.

Alberta, especially the south, also has hybrid canola, she added. Farmers who grow this crop need bees to pollinate their fields, so some beekeepers rent pollinating colonies.

“This is a really stable form of income for beekeepers,” Hoover said, adding that these operators can rely less on the weather for their revenue.

Today, beekeeping is done throughout Alberta. The Alberta government’s 2022 industry report says most of the province’s honey comes from the northwest and Peace regions, which includes the town of Valhair — dubbed the honey capital of Canada.

The report says most Alberta beekeepers focus on honey production, but there are a few whose businesses focus on pollination — a service that helps the agricultural sector as a whole.

A honey bee pollinates a purple flower.
The Federal Department of Agriculture estimates that honey bees contribute billions to the sector by pollinating crops. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Agriculture and agri-food are conducted in Canada Annual statistical overviews Honey and bee industry in the country.

In 2021, the ministry estimated that honey bee pollination contributed about $3.2 billion to the agricultural sector in terms of value added to the crop. The contribution rose to $7 billion annually when taking into account the pollination of hybrid canola seeds.

“This connection is huge,” said Phillips, of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission.

Some crops, such as blueberries, depend on honey bees, Phillips said. Some Alberta beekeepers send bees to British Columbia to pollinate blueberries there.

Replenish stock

On a mild, sunny day in late January, Richard Ozero examined a few bee colonies on one section of his farm in Parkland County.

The remains of bees that left their hives to die litter fresh snow on the ground outside large insulated boxes. Near the boxes wander bees that survived a recent record cold snap.

A white man with dark hair and a beard, fully dressed.  He's outside on a clear, sunny day, standing in the snow.  Behind him is a row of boxes with black cloth tied around them.
Ozero, shown here alongside several of his colonies, tries not to inspect his bees during the winter, he said. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

“It put a smile on my face when I saw the bees flying around,” says Ozero, who tries not to check on his bees too much during the winter.

He’d rather be “blissfully ignorant” for a few months, rather than worry about how many bees there will be in March – although it’s hard to suppress the urge to check his insects.

Ozero approaches another cell box. There are no bees flying around. He blows through a tube – the entrance to the hive – to see if the bees inside react. nothing.

“Right now, I’m not very happy,” he says.

Beekeepers are constantly thinking about keeping their bees healthy, and how to replenish their colonies when bees die. Bees die every winter, and pests — especially Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that feeds on honeybees — can decimate colonies.

A bee carcass carved into a small cell of snow.
Bees die every winter from natural causes, pests or diseases. Protecting the health of bee colonies, especially from the parasitic Varroa mite, is one of the major debates among beekeepers. (Nicholas Frew/CBC)

Splitting the colony to create two new, smaller cells is one way to rebuild. Importing bees from other countries is another thing.

An industry report released by the provincial government indicates that in 2022, Alberta accounted for about half of Canada’s queen bee imports and about 40 per cent of the country’s imported nucleus colonies — mainly smaller hives.

Canada allows the import of bees from some countries, but there is a partial ban on imports from the United States.

In the 1980s, Canada closed its borders entirely to American bees, fearing they would bring pests and viruses. Restrictions were eased in 2004 to allow the import of queen bees, but the import of finished bees – worker bees and a mated queen – remains prohibited.

Hoover, of the University of Lethbridge, called the ban “one of the biggest political issues” for the industry.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is conducting a risk assessment on bee packaging coming from the United States, which is expected to be completed in April, a spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada told CBC News.

The spokesperson said packages carry a higher risk of contracting the disease because they are shipped with the contents of the beehives and cannot be individually inspected. If there are no import conditions capable of protecting Canadian bees from the reported risks, the CFIA will not issue import permits.

As a result, some Alberta beekeepers rely on bees collected from the Southern Hemisphere that have already finished their production cycle, making their hives less efficient. Phillips, of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, said importing bees from the United States would be more cost-effective and timely.

“Our season, especially (in Alberta), is incredibly short,” she said.

“Having parcels available in February, March and early April is critical for beekeepers to be able to build, produce honey, get enough bees to pollinate, strengthen the weaker colonies — all of those things.”

Barbara Sorenson, who runs True North Apiary with her son in Kalmar, about 50 kilometers southwest of Edmonton, avoids importing altogether.

For the better part of a decade, they have been grafting queen bees — a popular technique that allows beekeepers to produce more queens — to make their colonies self-sustaining.

“We taught ourselves how to do it and discovered we were pretty good at it, so we pursued it,” Sorenson said. “We haven’t bought another package since.”

Education is key

Hoover, of the University of Lethbridge, urges aspiring beekeepers to fully educate themselves and make sure they understand the nuances of bee care in Alberta.

“They really need to find local guides and understand that honeybees are an introduced species,” Hoover said.

A beekeeper holds a board from one of his honey bee hives to examine insects.
Aspiring beekeepers should find local mentors who can teach them how to care for bees in Alberta, said Shelley Hoover, a beekeeping expert and associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Lethbridge. (Submitted by Amber Oziro)

Tracy Smith, a beekeeper in Strathcona County, just outside Edmonton, is among Alberta beekeepers who pay that amount.

In 2013, Smith began teaching portions of honey marketing workshops hosted by the provincial government. In late 2010, she taught beekeeping workshops, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, she offered online courses.

Smith said organizing the workshops — such as registration, setting up venues and caterers, and developing content — takes a lot of work, but she enjoys teaching.

“It’s important to learn from the beekeepers in the area, who are doing this, because they are the ones who know…the timing of the seasons, and how to build the bees,” she said.

“Everything is very dependent on local environmental conditions, so if you’re trying to learn beekeeping from a YouTube video from someone in Florida, that’s not going to help you much.”

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