When the Red River Apiarists’ Association held its inaugural meeting in 1963, beehives were as likely to be found coiffed onto members’ heads as they were to be found in farmyards.
But over the last 50 years, more has changed for the association than hairstyles. New regulations, changes to pesticide use and concerns over declining honeybee populations have been bittersweet for the organization, which has supported hobbyists in their beekeeping aspirations for more than five decades.
“The people have changed, but we’re still the same,” said Jim Campbell, beekeeper and past association president. “We still have really passionate beekeepers… and the younger set is picking up the torch now.”
While celebrating their milestone achievement at the annual honey show this September at The Forks Market in Winnipeg, Campbell said that in recent years membership has increased to 85.
Although a far cry from the 250 members the organization boasted in the early 1980s, Campbell is optimistic about the future of beekeeping as a hobby, noting providing education and encouragement is one of the group’s key objectives.
“Every meeting you learn something from other people, there are great discussions… you can get educated, learn about this situation, or that situation,” said Charles Polcyn, president of the Red River Apiarists. “You hear different ideas, hear how other people solved the same problems you have.”
Although these days, he is doing more sharing and less learning.
Polcyn joined the association 41 years ago, and had been keeping bees ever since. Today he has 40 hives in the Whitemouth area, at his Scott’s Hill Apiary.
“(The association) might have gone down in terms of size, but the combination of young people and old people is nice, and it’s surprising… we try to mentor, to work on practical applications,” Polcyn said.
Many younger beekeepers are drawn to the hobby because they are concerned about declines in honeybee populations.
Campbell said this has also led the association to push for cities and municipalities in Manitoba, particularly in Winnipeg, to allow urban beekeeping.
“This is where we feel the optimism,” he said. “As more and more individuals get concerned about the food chain, and the source of our food, and also about how we produce food, I think that they’ll be putting more pressure to allow urban beekeeping, so that they can try and maintain the bee population.”
Although it may not seem like a few hives here and there in urban spaces can save honeybees from decline, Campbell said it adds diversity and provides another source of bees for commercial producers.
When hives grow, they can be split as many as four or six times, he said. Urban bees also promote urban fruits, vegetables and flowers.
“The benefit of having bees in an urban area, is that there are fewer pesticides being used and they’re being used in a fairly isolated way… so therefore the chance of the bees picking up pesticides from a flower garden in an urban area is very small, as opposed to when bees are flying in a rural setting,” he said.
Arguments that urban bees will harass people in their yards, or stymie mosquito fogging may generate good buzz, but they don’t hold up when the facts are presented, he said.
Eventually, the association believes urban beekeeping will become a reality in Manitoba, generating greater interest in the organization, and helping to balance changes in the commercial honey industry.
“In the hobby group, there is more interest, more people are wanting to have one, two or three hives, whereas in the commercial side, it’s like any other kind of farming, beekeepers are becoming larger and there are a number of smaller beekeepers dropping off,” Campbell said.