Toronto Star: Beekeepers feeling the sting of honey

Honey runs in André Flys’ blood.

Since 2001, the beekeeper has been the sole proprietor of Nobleton-based honey producer Pioneer Brand. The company was started in the 1920s by his grandfather — naturalist and hobby beekeeper Charles Sauriol — who kept bees at his cottage at the forks of the Don Valley.

As the third generation in a family of beekeepers, Flys said it was “hard to take” when he lost hundreds of bee colonies over the winter months, a drop from about 550 hives before the winter to around 150 in the spring.

Some Ontario beekeepers are now feeling the financial impact of those winter losses this honey harvest season, which typically wraps up in September.

Josip Ispanovic, owner of Flamborough-based Golden Orchard Apiary, said he lost around 20 out of 40 hives over the winter.

Last year, he produced about 2500 pounds of honey, but anticipates harvesting less than 50 per cent of that amount this year.

“I would (estimate) that, over the past two or three years alone, I’ve lost $250,000 to 300,000 in net revenue,” said Flys.

As the Star reported in July, Ontario’s bee populations were hit particularly hard this winter, with a mortality rate of 58 per cent according to a report released earlier this year by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists.

Beekeepers typically describe the winter bee loss rate as 15 per cent, the report noted.

“More than half the colonies were lost just this past winter. It was a very bad year for the industry, and that has a strong impact on the economy,” noted Ernesto Guzman, PhD, Director of the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph.

“Through pollination, (honey bees) contribute to about one-third of the food we eat in Western societies, including Ontario,” he said.

Ispanovic said he’s been in the business for around 30 years, but this is the first time he has experienced “so much loss.”

“It was a really, really tough year for beekeepers,” he said.

Flys said he knows one Ontario beekeeper who lost 90 per cent of his colonies over the winter.

“Each one of those colonies is livestock to us,” he said. “It’s a head of cattle, or a sheep, or a goat. When you come out in the spring to check on them and they’re dead, it’s disheartening.”

And costly. Beekeepers need the bulk of their crop to make money and pay the bills, said Flys, who keeps most of his bees in around 20 different locations across King Township, about an hour and a half north of Toronto.

So why did so many Ontario bees die this year?

The impact of pesticides on bee populations has attracted recent attention, after two of Ontario’s biggest honey producers spearheaded the launch of a $450-million class action lawsuit against two pesticide manufacturers.

But experts say a combination of factors is impacting bee mortality rates, including the ongoing issue of parasitic mites and this year’s long, cold winter.

One beekeeper said that tough climate can provide great opportunity.

“The price of honey is the highest it’s ever been and the demand for pollination and bee sales is totally unprecedented. There’s not enough bees in Ontario to meet the demand,” said beekeeper Brian Rowaan, Ontario Delegate for Canadian Honey Council and a member of the Board of Directors for the Ontario Beekeeper Association.

The wholesale price of raw, unpackaged honey is around $2.30 per pound right now, he added.

“There’s never been a better opportunity in the bee industry to make good money,” he said. “But the reason that is, is because it’s extremely difficult.”

Flys said his bulk rate for honey went from $6.50 a pound to $7.50 a pound last fall — but that hasn’t prevented his hundreds of thousands in revenue losses.

“Imagine (being) a cattle farmer or diary farmer and coming in to milk the cows, and finding 60 per cent of them are dead,” he said. “You have to try and put it behind you and do your best.”

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