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Heat sucks sweetness out of honey harvest

Cooks flowers and riles up wasp assassins, say beekeepers
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ALL ABUZZ — Craig Toth lifts the lid off a hive during an inspection in Sturgeon County in this 2019 photo. Toth says high heat has made hives more prone to swarming this summer. CRAIG TOTH/Photo

Sturgeon County beekeepers are looking at a below-average honey harvest this year as the summer heat cooks crops and makes bees turn on the air conditioning. 

Sturgeon County joined many other Alberta counties July 23 when it declared a state of agricultural disaster as weeks of blazing heat and no rain sent canola, wheat, barley, and hay crops into a nose-dive. The July 27 Alberta Crop Report found that about 20 per cent of the crops around Edmonton were in good to excellent condition — less than a third of the 10-year average of about 65 per cent.  

Those wilted crops have also affected beekeepers, who rely on abundant flowers to feed their bees. 

The heat’s impacts varied greatly throughout Alberta, said Alberta Beekeepers Commission executive director Connie Phillips. Fields up north look like they’ve been torched, for example, and producers there say their honey production has fallen by half. Yields across the province would likely be below average this year, which could mean higher honey prices in stores this fall.  

Sturgeon County fared better than most regions, as the early start to spring seeding made for earlier canola flowers, said Paul Greidanus of Greidanus Apiaries. The late June heat dome cooked those canola crops, causing them to drop their flowers and cease nectar and pollen production. 

“If canola is hammered, that’s a big deal for us,” Greidanus said.  

Too hot for hives 

Greidanus said the 30-plus-degree heat causes bees to collect water for cooling instead of nectar for food. The bees spread that water around their hives and flap their wings for some evaporative cooling or “bee air conditioning.” 

High heat lowers reproductive success among queens, which means fewer young bees are available to restock the hive after winter, Phillips said. Hot weather and flower shortages also encourage bees to start robbing other hives for food. 

Heat also makes hives hotter, which makes colonies more likely to send most of their members packing to a new, cooler location under a new queen, said Craig Toth of the Edmonton District Beekeepers Association.  

“Your honey harvest would completely be gone” if that happens, he said, as the remaining bees would need about a year to ramp up production again.  

The heat has also caused a population boom among wasps and yellowjackets, both of which love to murder bees, Toth continued. Keepers have had to deploy more traps to protect their hives, and have stepped up hive inspections to spot new queen cells (a sign of imminent swarming) before they hatch.  

Beekeepers typically harvest honey three times a year, with the second harvest (or “pull”) being the best, Greidanus said. This year, due to the early start and June heat, he expects his second and third harvests to be worse than his first, and to have, at best, an average honey haul overall. Honey prices, which are about a dollar-per-pound higher than last year, will help take some of the sting out of this situation. 

Phillips said heat pressures have caused some beekeepers to start fattening up their bees with sugar solution almost four weeks ahead of schedule to ensure more survive the winter. These and other issues have added about $8 million to the Alberta industry’s costs this year. Philips said her group is in talks with federal and provincial authorities to get financial support for beekeepers.  

Greidanus said he hopes recent rains in Sturgeon will cause more alfalfa and clover crops to flower and boost the year’s honey harvest. 

With files from Jennifer Henderson 

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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