British Columbia’s 600 blueberry growers are looking forward to a good start to their production year despite a flurry of publicity that three Alberta beekeepers are not renting hives to the Lower Mainland. In early April, stories in the Vancouver press amplified worries of millions of dollars of lost production due to 6,000 Alberta hives not returning for pollination. That number equates to about 10 per cent of the number of colonies placed in blueberries.
“To our knowledge, the majority of our growers have not expressed concern about a lack of bees to pollinate this year’s blueberry crop,” says Jack Bates, chair of the BC Blueberry Council in an April 3 statement. “At this point in time we do not believe that our annual blueberry production will be greatly impacted by this issue. We of course, will continue to monitor this situation.”
John Gibeau, Honey Bee Centre, in Surrey, is the largest supplier in British Columbia of pollinating bees with 10,000 colonies for rent to eleven different fruit crops. Demand is high, and some beekeepers have increased rental rates from $95 to $150 per hive. Gibeau advises that a blueberry grower should budget about $400 per acre for pollination services depending on the age of the bushes, pruning regimes and density of the flower load. The increasing demand for bee pollination is directly correlated to increasing acreage in British Columbia. When he started suppling bees to blueberry growers in about 1978, Gibeau advised that there were only several thousand colonies required. Today, beekeepers supply close to 50,000 of the approximately 90,000 colonies needed to cover the blueberry crops in the region. Gibeau adds that not all growers rent bees, relying on indigenous pollinators -- mason bees and bumblebees -- or on their neighbour’s rented colonies.
“This will be my 40th year in beekeeping,” says Gibeau “and it looks like an early spring.”
In his view, the situation has been overblown regarding three Alberta beekeepers who chose not to return with 6,000 hives. Last year’s wet and cold spring resulted in every local beekeeper getting sick bees and having a poor yield during the summer. Most of their bees recovered by fall. Not every year is a banner year, a lesson that’s dealt by Mother Nature.
To supply his customers in 2018, Gibeau has called beekeepers as far east as Manitoba to supply more hives. “We are still about 2,000 to 3,000 colonies shy of what’s needed,” said Gibeau. He estimates a loss of $500,000 to beekeepers in pollination services plus $12.5 million in lost blueberry production.
For its part, the BC Blueberry Council is participating in bee health research along with the National Bee Diagnostic Centre, the BC Ministry of Agriculture apiculture program, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the University of British Columbia and the provincial bee association, the British Columbia Honey Producer’s Association. The study will look at outcomes for bees which pollinate on blueberry farms. Researchers already state that these bees are used for more than one crop, and may be foraging in wildflowers before and after blueberry bloom.
The provincial ag ministry reports that B.C. blueberry farmers generated more than $151 million in 2016.