Honey market riding high, despite pandemic pitfalls

Pandemic pressures have helped drive local honey prices up over the last year

Steppler Farms gets hives going for the 2021 season.

Manitoba’s beekeepers might be in for a really good year — assuming pandemic-driven logistical issues, labour shortages and the province’s still-dry conditions don’t keep them from cashing in.

Why it matters: Financial signals are good for the honey industry, although producers still have plenty of hurdles to clear.

In March, all signals initially pointed to good hive survival after a mild winter and early start to spring, although industry experts say smaller hives have since suffered from recent cold.

Manitoba’s “false spring” came to a crashing halt in mid-April, with regions seeing widespread snowfall and a return to below freezing or single-digit daily highs for much of the latter part of the month.

“Spring kind of stuttered on us twice and, once hives get growing and developing, they need to maintain their growth to be able to hold their momentum,” Ian Steppler, chair of the Manitoba Beekeeper’s Association, said.

Hives were generally in good condition going into the winter last fall, Steppler added.

Provincial apiarist Rhéal Lafrenière classified survivability this year as average, although he added that reports so far are anecdotal and more defined numbers will come from a survivability survey, set to go out in the near future.

Like Steppler, however, Lafrenière noted recent losses in small hives.

The larger issue may be replacing that stock, both Steppler and Lafrenière said.

“Either you make up the losses with your own stock or you buy in packaged bees from overseas, and that’s caused a little bit of trouble,” Steppler said.

Short supply

Beekeepers will have a hard time sourcing imported replacements, thanks to COVID-19. The pandemic has led to transport restrictions from normally major sources such as Australia and New Zealand. Last year, similar import issues frustrated producers and led to an increase in both price and demand for local nucleus colonies.

Air Canada shipments from New Zealand this spring have been reduced from 100 pallets to 20, Steppler said. Of that limited supply, much is going to Alberta, he added.

According to the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, Alberta hive numbers dropped by 20,000 in 2020 after producers were unable to replace stock. The province had posted the highest winter losses of any province that year, coming in at 40.5 per cent, according to the Canadian Honey Council.

Hives come out of storage at Steppler Farms this spring. photo: Ian Steppler

Efforts to rebuild the population this year have run into the same replacement issues. Regional reports made to the Canadian Honey Council in spring 2021 reported mixed survivability in Alberta while, on April 6, the Alberta Beekeepers Commission reported that 86 per cent of orders for packaged bees were not expected to arrive.

“They’re pretty much drawing all of those replacement stocks into Alberta and any of the excess stock from Manitoba is going to Alberta to replace their losses,” Steppler said. “It’s kind of put a little bit of pressure on replacement stock within Manitoba.”

The price of local bees has stayed accordingly high, although Steppler noted the scope of that increase will be hard to peg down until after the spring rush.

Lafrenière, meanwhile, says he is still being contacted by producers wanting to put bees up for auction at the annual bee sale, to be held online May 26 this year.

“There seems to be a lot of interest in selling bees locally,” he said. “So there seems to be a supply that’s there right now. Again, whether that’s going to be able to meet the demand? I don’t know yet.”

Some producers have told him they are sold out of bee stock, he added, but said he was hopeful there will be enough local bees, “for our losses in Manitoba, which are probably not going to be that much further than normal.”

Looking for labour

Labour is also set to be an issue this year, similar to last year’s obstacles for farms hoping to bring in temporary foreign workers.

“Last year, because of COVID(-19), a lot of guys in the province were short just because we weren’t able to get guys in from the Philippines or Nicaragua,” Steppler said.

The industry has been working to avoid a similar issue this year, he noted.

Western Canada’s honey industry as a whole is expecting to see about half its normal labour from that stream, Steppler said, although the impact is expected to be less in Manitoba.

The first charter of temporary foreign workers arrived several weeks ago, he noted, with another expected in early May.

“That’s helped satisfy most of the labour requirements this year for Manitoba,” he said.

Farms still short on labour are either looking for local workers or cutting back on staff positions, he added.

Markets high

Honey prices, meanwhile, have given producers much to celebrate.

Domestic honey demand rose significantly last year thanks to the COVID-19-driven surge in home baking.

Supply, meanwhile, also saw pressure thanks to shortfalls in the 2020 domestic harvest and shipment issues in imported honey, also driven by COVID-19.

Manitoba’s honey crop hovered around 170 pounds per hive last year, according to Lafrenière. The provincial apiarist pegged a normal range between 160-180 pounds a hive.

Other provinces, however, reported short honey volumes, Steppler noted. Alberta, Canada’s largest honey-producing province, reported a 30 per cent drop in volumes in 2020, according to the same April 6 release from the Alberta Beekeepers Commission.

At the same time, Steppler noted, recent years have seen more vigilance against imported honey fraud, which has also bolstered domestic demand.

In 2018-19, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency launched a honey authenticity monitoring program, eventually taking 12,800 kilograms of adulterated honey out of the marketplace. The following year, the same program found 83,500 kilograms of fraudulent honey. The program found the large majority of those adulterated samples in imported products.

While industry experts argue those volumes are a drop in the bucket and honey fraud remains a significant problem, Steppler also said that increased scrutiny has made brokers less willing to take the risk.

“The price has gone up over the last year,” Lafrenière said. “I don’t know if it’s going to go up much higher than what it was towards the end of the 2020 year, but estimates were in that $2 (per pound) range.”

In comparison, he said, average prices at the beginning of 2020 would have been closer to $1.65 a pound.

Steppler’s estimates, meanwhile, are even higher. Honey has been selling for $2.25-$2.35 a pound, he said, adding that he has heard some sales up to $2.85 a pound.

Drought worries

Like other livestock producers, Manitoba’s beekeepers are also watching the province’s lack of moisture with concern.

Previous dry years have seen shorter bloom periods for bees to tap into, Lafrenière said, although he noted it is rare for the province not to get a honey crop.

Most of southwestern and central Manitoba has seen less than 30 per cent of normal precipitation since November, according to the province’s ag weather network.

“We’re a little bit concerned about the amount of moisture just because we need crops to flourish in order to produce an abundance of nectar,” Steppler said, although he noted that temperature and wild nectar sources are more immediately critical to beekeepers.

Farmers in general have noted the need for timely rains this season.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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