Peace Country beekeepers hit hard by impact of COVID-19

Busy bees making honey. Photo courtesy of Denis Simoneau, owner of Simoneau Honey Buzziness in Peace River.

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

Border closures and reduced flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been making the crucial spring season more stressful than usual for Peace Country beekeepers.

Apiarists in the Peace need packages of bees from warmer countries to replace bees which died over the winter, and the temporary foreign workers many beekeepers rely on have also become very hard to get into the country.

Of Alberta’s 311,000 honey bee colonies, 69,000 are located in the Peace, and while I’’s too early to fully assess the local percentage of winter bee kills the long winter hasn’t helped.

“A longer winter is worse than having a shorter winter,” says Stephen Pernal, of the Beaverlodge Research Farm.

“It’s just a longer period for bees to be in confinement, there’s risks of starvation when the winter is long, so we’re hoping things are no worse than normal but there is always a risk of higher losses if there is late winter or a poor, wet cold spring,” he adds.

The potential harm to the industry comes after last year, which Pernal says “wasn’t great economically for a lot of producers” because honey yields were so low.

“I think if anything beekeepers are probably looking for a better crop this year to make up what they lost last year. We may be setting up for a little bit of a perfect storm of bad conditions.”

Pernal says approximately 10 per cent of bee packages have come into Canada so far this year, some of which came into eastern Canada from Chile.

“The way things are right now, it’s quite doubtful we’ll get any more in,” he says.

Airlines have been shutting down flights globally. While some cargo flights may still be able to come in from New Zealand with bee packages, he says they are prohibitively expensive for beekeepers because there is very little cargo that could be flown back.

Discussions are also underway to see if western bee producers may be able to sell Nucs, or nucleus colonies, to eastern Canada. Nucs are small honey bee colonies created by splitting up larger colonies. The plan could help western beekeepers bring in some revenue.

Ginette Paradis of Paradis Valley Honey in Watino, which she runs with her husband Danny, says their operation has had significant losses again this winter due to mites, an early start to winter, a lack of foraging due to low temperatures, and smoky air.

Paradis says they are currently “seeding” their hives as part of their busy spring season.

“We are feeding and assessing our colonies along with preparing them for growth so we can make splits to recover our winter losses,” she says.

Paradis Valley Honey has managed to import 540 packages of bees from Chile to bolster their operation after winter losses.

“We were fortunate to have received our packages before the border closures so we are thankful but we know that it is not the case for all beekeepers,” Paradis says.

Denis Simoneau, of Simoneau Honey Buzziness in Peace River, which he runs with his wife Tracy, was not so fortunate. He says they already lost most of their bees over the last couple of years due to disease.

“This spring I was going to buy a whole bunch of packages to try and regrow, and now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Simoneau says.

“I usually buy queens from Hawaii. I like the quality from a certain queen breeder in Hawaii,” he says. “And yeah, not gonna happen.”

Simoneau says he is down to zero hives after getting rid of the last of his hives last fall because of the disease and not wanting to worry about his hives over the winter. Without more bees, he can’t continue in the honey business.

“Oh, I’m dead,” he says. “If something doesn’t happen, done.”

While he doesn’t think he will ever have a problem getting one hive, Simoneau says there is a difference between being a one hive hobbyist and having 150 hives for honey production.

Simoneau says he is working with Danny Paradis to see if he can possibly get some bees from their operation.

However, Simoneau says he still needs money to buy bees, and the Simoneaus have temporarily lost most of their honey income with local markets such as the Peace River Farmer’s Market shut down due to the virus and the need for social distancing.

They are, however, still selling their honey and offering pickup at their home.

He says one thing that would help would be if the government allowed him to bring in packages from the US, where they often cost less than he can source locally, even with trucking.

Simoneau also says current government programs to provide 75 per cent payroll subsidies won’t help a small business like his that uses seasonal workers rather than full-time workers.

Paradis, meanwhile, says the crisis has meant an extra workload for her family, including her son, as they all work extended hours without their normal staff.

“The government has given us the green light for bringing our temporary foreign workers in, but it comes with a hefty price tag along with extremely high risks. We are expected to pay for chartered flights which are $2,500 plus per person one way, we then have to figure out how to get them from the airport to our farm site without exposing ourselves or anyone else. Most of these guys don’t have driver’s licences,” Paradis says.

The issues do not end there.

“Then we have to provide them with a place to self-quarantine for 14 days which in our case would mean paying rental at a secondary location to keep our current employees safe as they are already living in our employee house. If that’s not quite enough burden we then have to weigh the dangers of them actually becoming ill during their quarantine or time in Canada. That then puts another heavy load of responsibility on our shoulders as employees.”

Paradis says the situation is forcing the couple to consider grim possibilities, such as the costs of the transport of a body back into a foreign country.

“We would hope that would never be the case but there are circumstances that the current events have us very awake to,” she says.

“Lastly it’s important to remember that even if we chose the options above, some people in these foreign countries are being shot and injured for leaving their homes, so asking our employees to make the decision to take that risk to get themselves to the airport is not exactly a simple one. Our priority is the safety of all of our employees; so we are certainly not rushing into any decisions on this front.”

Paradis Valley Honey has also lost income due to the pandemic after trying to develop the agri-tourism side of their business, including building and operating a small café.

“It was a real hard blow for us and, yep, there were many tears,” Paradis says.

“I’ve been working diligently on developing our partnerships with Travel Alberta, Mighty Peace Tourism, schools, tour companies etc. in the last two years and literally everything I’ve done has come to a detrimental halt.

“I pray that the opportunity to continue education and community connection on-site will once again be a reality in the months ahead. For now I’ve had to keep my emotions out of the way and make the tough decisions needed to put the public’s safety above all else.”

Paradis says government programs so far don’t seem to be offering much help for small businesses like theirs.

“In my opinion making extra debt available to us and calling it support is shameful. The last things anyone needs right now is more debt! As small business owners in the agricultural field we don’t appear to qualify for any of the assistance I am finding thus far, it’s disappointing,” she says.

“Beekeeping is an essential service and like all essential services we should be supported so we can continue to serve our communities and the world at large.”

Paradis says her family is still “extremely grateful” to everyone who is placing orders on-line for home delivery or making the use of their pick-up service to support them.

“It may seem small but its impact is huge for us; knowing we have people supporting us through this is a real gift.”

Paradis says she can also still offer fundraising opportunities for others who may need them.

“I would like to invite anyone who currently needs extra income or would like to support Canadian initiatives such as front line workers, not for profit organization etc. to connect with me,” she says.

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