Manitoba’s beekeepers are anxiously waiting for the viciously cold and windy winter to come to an end.
Last winter’s length, this season’s exceptionally bitter cold spells, and long-standing tough import rules between the United States and Canada are all factors working against the bee industry.
"Such prolonged cold periods I wouldn’t think bodes well for wintering," said Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association president Allan Campbell.
After last winter, Manitoba beekeepers suffered the largest average colony loss on record of 46.4 per cent, provincial data showed, but some beekeepers were able to achieve some regeneration of colonies.
A small number of the province’s keepers, including Campbell, have been taking extra precautions to protect colonies other than just insulating hives or keeping them indoors: sending bees away to warmer climates for the winter months.
"There’s a small number of us that have started taking bees out to the Okanagan (in British Columbia)," Campbell said.
It’s expensive, Campbell said, but not only do his colonies experience a much milder winter, but he’s able to get at least a six-week head start on his spring work.
High mortality rates, like the ones witnessed last year, have forced some keepers to import outside of Canada since the number of "nucleus" colonies — those which are split up from a large healthy colony — doesn’t meet domestic demand.
So many keepers are forced to purchase and import packaged colonies, but they’re only allowed to bring them in from Australia, New Zealand and Chile because of import laws, according to Campbell.
"Coming from those countries, they’ve got completely different pressures ... and they’re just not built for winters and even for our disease profile," he said.
The country’s keepers have been pining for American bees — ones that come from similar climates — but trade rule established in the mid-1980s originally put in place to keep rural mites out forbids importation from the U.S.
After mites entered the country anyway, Campbell said "it’s been one excuse after the other."
"It seems political at this point," he said.
"Bees have wings. There’s not a physical barrier at the border," he continued, adding some 250,000 hives are brought up to North Dakota every year, right up against southern Manitoba.
"As long they are coming in and passing health protocols, meeting a standard, they should stand up to the same sort of pests and diseases that we already have."
However, there is a glimmer of hope from legislators in Ottawa. The Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association is part of an ongoing discussion with a Senate standing committee on agriculture and forestry regarding the importance of bees and bee health in the production of honey, food and seed in the country.
"They do seem quite concerned with what’s happening, I got a really genuine sort of feeling from them," Campbell said.
While other provinces haven’t been very proactive to open up the border again, Campbell said Manitoba’s association and its Alberta counterpart have a "strong" co-operated effort to get American bees up to Canada.