Bee Imports 2023: Now That’s More Like it

By Kieran Brett, Bootprint Marketing, on behalf of ABC.

So far this year, imports of bee packages into Canada are running well ahead of pre-COVID levels. Importers are reporting record numbers and are still turning business away. Alberta Bee News asked a range of stakeholders about this high demand and what this says about the viability of Canadian beekeepers.

Official figures on volume of bee package imports for 2023 aren’t available yet, but the Canadian Honey Council’s Rod Scarlett has a back-of-the-envelope number he’s pretty comfortable with.

“My guesstimate is that importers will bring in 65,000 packages in 2023,” says Scarlett, “but demand might have been even more.”

The 65,000 figure is 15% higher than 2022’s imports of 56,737 and 7.5 times more than 2021’s 8,600 packages imported. In pre-COVID times, Scarlett reports, annual package imports were generally in the upper 40,000s.

The Canadian Honey Council plays a supportive role in the annual bee import season. While not an importer as such, the group is on deck in the event of issues relating to transportation, quarantines, permits, border services and more.

What are the factors behind 2023’s high-traffic bee import season? As Scarlett notes, overwintering losses are key but mere survival isn’t enough.

“A lot depends on the strength of colonies,” he says. “Of those surviving the winter, if they’re strong you can split them. If they’re weak, you can’t. Plus, it depends on the nature of the business. For pollination, for example, colonies need to be strong.”

In 2022, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Australia (70.9%) and New Zealand (22.6%) accounted for the lion’s share of bee package imports into Canada. In 2023, newly or recently opened markets have made a mark. With Air Canada’s 787 aircraft now able to serve Chile (3,649 packages imported in 2022), the South American country can do more. With Italy and Ukraine also on board, Canadian importers and beekeepers have more options than in quite some time.

Even so, demand from Canadian beekeepers appears far higher than even 2023’s blockbuster numbers. Many beekeepers simply can’t get their hands on enough bees to keep their populations strong and healthy enough. What’s keeping them in the game? Ask Rod Scarlett.

“We have seen strong honey prices and I don’t see those weakening in the near future,” he says. “In fact, for commercial operators across Canada, there’s a lot of optimism. The price of honey provides the opportunity for a golden year.  We have seen major setbacks the past three years, but that opportunity is still there for 2023.”

Demand high, airline logistics remain an issue

For many years pre-COVID, Chris Bartel used to import 20,000 bee packages per year, routinely. He and his suppliers in New Zealand operated smoothly and efficiently, achieving a microscopic loss rate of 0.03%.

In 2023, after a major drop-off in the COVID years, Bartel has equaled or surpassed the 20,000 mark.

“We could have done more,” says Bartel, who operates Bartel Honey Farms near Oakbank, Manitoba. “We could do 10,000 to 20,000 more packages. There is demand over and above what’s available from airlines.”

He’s not pinning the supply-demand imbalance just on the airlines. Bartel wouldn’t mind if some of his package customers picked up the phone a bit earlier.

“Some customers want specific airlines and bees,” says Bartel. “It depends on when we get the order. If you want a certain producer and certain date, that might not be possible. If you call in the 3rd week of April, there’s nothing we can do. That said, most have been quite flexible.”

Back in the day, Bartel and his suppliers had their transportation game down tight. It’s more complicated now. In Europe, for example, climate change rules won’t allow airlines to use dry ice in transporting bees. Some airlines can be hit and miss on their commitment, expertise and customer service.

Demand from Canadian beekeepers is huge. Supply from exporting countries is available. As Chris Bartel sees it, it’s the middle part that needs work.

“If we had airlines that could do the job rapidly and correctly, have the right knowledge and provide the right service, that’s what is needed,” he says. “It’s about routing and planning. The product is there – it’s a matter of getting reliable routes.”

Importer sees packages from Australia up sharply

From where Martin Regan sits, the post-COVID recovery in bee package imports into Canada is complete. While he’s still working on a few late-arriving deals, the Manager of B.C.-based importer Aussie Bees is looking at a record year for the trade.

Regan explains that his company’s 2021 imports were 50% higher than the dog days of COVID in 2020. From there, business grew by a further 20% in 2022. Then came 2023.

“There has definitely been an increase of packages into Canada,” says Regan. “It could be double over last year. And we could have done even more.”

What’s behind this year’s big jump? For one thing, Air Canada approved the use of 787 aircraft for bees. A new supplier from New Zealand also entered the market.

Demand from Canadian beekeepers has been white hot, a sign that points to troubling levels of winterkill and other issues.

“Beekeepers have had losses and they need bees,” says Regan. “Many people want to buy packages and can’t. At a certain point this spring, everyone had a waiting list for bees.”

Could a trade deal smooth bee imports?

For the past three years, Ontario-based Niagara Beeway has been importing Carpathian queen bees from Ukraine.

“These are mountain bees – they make early, fast broods,” says President George Scott. “They get here and they work quickly – they can get their work done in two months and you can be making splits in July. You can address overwintering losses very quickly and this is great for Canadian commercial producers.”

In 2023, Scott has imported some 2,000 Carpathian queens through LOT Polish Airlines. The demand coming to his door is for closer to 20,000 queens. Scott points to a large number of Ontario beekeepers who’ve either reduced production or shut their doors entirely in recent years.

“It’s great to get the queens in – but not easy,” says Scott. “The hassle and the cost are ridiculous. But we have to do this, so we do it.”

Each year, Canadian importers deal with producer partnerships, regulations, airline requirements, border issues and more – all in an effort to get enough bees here in healthy condition. There’s a lot of improvisation and the rules of the road aren’t always clear.

Does it have to be this way? Scott believes – given the size and importance of this trade – that a long-term vision would help.

Says Scott: “I want the federal government to do more to secure a bee trade agreement with international partners.”

 Strong imports, but concern about sustainability at home

 At the tail end of a busy bee import season, Mike Gordon has provided bees to his many hobby and commercial beekeeper customers.

“We were able to get more bees than last year and keep most people happy,” says Gordon, Manager of Dancing Bee Equipment in Dufresne, Manitoba. “You need a crystal ball in this business and we don’t have one. There are always people who want to order last minute.”

The company describes itself as Canada’s #1 beekeeping supplier. It does a brisk trade in bees, supplies, workshops and tours.

“We also have a commercial base that is much larger in volume terms,” says Gordon, “but serving hobby beekeepers is a higher margin business – that’s our bread and butter.”

He credits 2023’s high import traffic to strong demand from both hobby and commercial customers, plus new links to producers in Italy. Despite some issues with initial shipments, Gordon’s Italian suppliers could do more once the process is ironed out.

While the 2023 import season was a success, Gordon believes the Canadian beekeeping industry would ultimately be stronger by having less of it.

“Our biggest issue is, we send so much money abroad for imported bees,” he says. “We need to figure out how to keep more in Canada. We import queens but our local queens almost have better genetics. If we kept that money here, our industry could be more self-sustaining.”

The downside of high demand

In recent years, Mike Paradis has been among the more prominent importers of bee packages into Canada. Despite calling the 2023 season a success, he’s concerned about the implications of high demand from beekeepers.

“We have done about 12,000 packages this year,” says Paradis, a seventh-generation beekeeper who operates Paradis Honey near Girouxville, Alta. “That’s a good year but we only filled 50% of the orders we could have filled. The paperwork is still onerous but the flights are more regular.”

One of the biggest issues Paradis sees is timing. When Canadian beekeepers need bees in the spring, Australia and New Zealand are heading into winter. That’s not the best timing in his view but then again, these southern hemisphere suppliers know the business and can execute.

On a regulatory level, Paradis asks why adding some new markets takes much longer than adding other countries. He’d like to see a more consistent and predictable framework.

Strong import numbers, Paradis cautions, should not be a cause for celebrations. This means there are serious issues among Canadian beekeepers.

“We are doing more every year but when you have a good year importing bees that means losses in Canada are high,” he says. “Overwintering, long winters, short spring, cold wet spring, you name it. Heavy imports indicate that Canadian beekeepers are having problems.”

Note: Does not include queen bees and live bees that are not honey bees. Source: Statistics Canada. (CATSNET, March 2023)

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