Heat and Drought Make 2021 one of the Toughest Years Ever
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EDMONTON, August 9, 2021 – Heat and Drought Make 2021 one of the Toughest Years Ever
There’s been widespread attention on the impact of this summer’s heat and drought on Alberta’s crop and livestock producers. When canola and other bee forages don’t develop and flower properly, bees lose a major source of food.
Though the impact varies from place to place, many of Alberta’s 175 commercial beekeepers have seen significantly reduced honey production and now face the threat of hive losses and potential disease. In this special report from Alberta Beekeepers Commission, we asked two beekeepers and two bee scientists to tell us what they’re seeing now and what comes next.
As the seventh generation of a family beekeeping operation, you’d think Mike Paradis has seen it all. He’ll tell you there’ve been tough years before, but for this Girouxville, Alta. beekeeper, 2021 has been devastating.
“I’ve never seen heat like 40C in Alberta before, the way we’ve had this summer at times,” says Paradis. “Some of the worst of the heat occurred when flowers were in full bloom, and when it’s that hot, the bees just don’t work. There is also no moisture in the ground.”
By late-July, honey yields for that time of year were down by 65% compared to a normal year. This provides an immediate and punishing hit to the farm’s revenue, but some of the worst impacts are yet to come.
First, with his bees stressed by reduced food and water, a normally productive fall season for honey harvesting is likely to be far short of normal. Second, Paradis will need to provide supplemental feed (sugar and pollen) to try to build up the bees’ fat stores for overwintering. That’s a significant added cost and comes at a time when revenue is way down. What’s more, the cost of bee supplemental feed is high due to COVID.
The occasional tough farming year is to be expected. For Paradis and many Alberta beekeepers, 2021 is year-three of an exceptionally bad run of luck. In 2019, it was dry. In 2020, excess moisture was a problem. Paradis’s long family history in beekeeping provides hope that things will get better, but right now, it’s hard to see that far ahead.
“It makes you think of the dust-bowl years of the 1930s,” says Paradis. “Back then, farmers were losing their soil, so farming practices had to change. No-till farming did that, and we’ll need to look at how today’s farming practices have to change from here.
“Looking at our situation now, we will need at least two to three years to recover.”
Lack of rain pressures bees and beekeepers
What do people associate most readily with bees? You might say: nectar, pollen, hives and honey. That’s true enough but according to Grace Strom, this leaves out the one element that makes the whole system possible.
“This is the story of water,” says Strom, a veteran beekeeper and Alberta Beekeepers Commission Board member who farms near High River. “A lack of water affects everyone. For bees, when we don’t get rain, there’s less flowering so there’s less nectar and pollen for our bees. The problem is not only the lack of water, but the incredible heat we’ve had.”
As Strom explains, this is about far more than a drop in honey production. Beekeepers like herself are now in a battle to keep their hives alive, then get the bees through a cold Alberta winter. Costly and time-consuming supplemental feeding is about the only option available.
“Bees understand nature and nature is telling them to be stressed out,” Strom says. “We can provide them with sugar water and pollen, but the bees are still stressed, which means they’re more susceptible to disease. We will have to intervene in the life cycle of an insect, when we would much prefer to work with nature.”
As challenging as the situation is, Strom is quick to point out that it could be worse. Conditions in local canola and hay crops were dire at the end of June. A couple of inches of rain in early-July allowed her bees to feed and produce some honey. By early-August, however, honey production was limping along well below the usual level.
“Normally we’d be getting our heaviest boxes now,” says Strom, “and they’re coming back lighter. It’s too early to know how much our production deficit is going to be. We’ll know more in September. For now, I encourage all landowners to put some water out for the bees. Fill a bucket with water and put in some straw or grass so bees have somewhere to land.”
Drought impact mixed, honey yields notably reduced
As bee scientist Dr. Renata Borba visits Alberta beekeepers this summer, it’s clear to her that heat and drought are having wide-ranging impacts on bees and beekeepers.
“As the Tech Transfer Program Lead for the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, I’m often out in the field collecting samples,” says Borba. “I see many different beekeepers and their hives. One way we assess colonies is to weigh the hives. At this point in the season, the hives were much heavier last year than this year.”
Because heat and moisture aren’t evenly distributed across areas, it’s hard to get a precise reading on how much honey production has been impacted. While some beekeepers tell Borba their honey production has been decent, others say they’re down by more than 50%.
If bees aren’t well-fed heading into winter, the result can be higher mortality by the springtime. To avoid this, beekeepers can feed their bees a carbohydrate solution of sugar/water, but that’s no substitute for the real thing.
“When we provide supplemental feed, it’s an emergency practice,” says Borba. “It will keep the hive alive, but it’s not great nutrition because the bees don’t get the micronutrients that they get from pollen.”
While Alberta’s annual crops and forages have done poorly this year, Borba sees an untapped resource as she drives around the countryside. Roadside ditches offer a variety of flowering plants – red and sweet clover, as well as goldenrod — with an abundance of nectar and pollen. Having access to these could benefit drought-affected beekeepers considerably.
More nectar and pollen would help matters, but that still leaves water as a major unmet need in 2021.
“For bees, water is nature’s air conditioning,” says Borba. “The bees bring water back to the hive for cooling, and this is especially important with the heat we’re having. Without it, some colonies could die. Landowners or homeowners putting out water in a way the bees can get at it would help.”
Less honey now, potential health concerns later
For many Alberta beekeepers, 2021 has been a challenging year due to excess heat and a lack of moisture.
Dr. Shelley Hoover, Biological Sciences Researcher at the University of Lethbridge, has observed this firsthand.
“We are seeing really spotty honey production with our bees,” she says. “We put bees in canola fields in July and some came back with empty honey supers, which is unusual. I’m hearing the same from beekeepers: spotty honey production because of spotty moisture. A couple of beekeepers also told me they’re getting darker honey than normal, which is less marketable and less valued.”
Even for areas that did see occasional moisture, the timing might not have been right. Hoover explains that with canola, which accounts for 75% of Alberta’s honey, the impact of rain depends on the stage of the crop. If it rains a week after the crop needed it, the rain might not help the crop (and therefore the bees) all that much.
Lower honey production is a serious concern for producers right now. There are also implications for bee population levels and hive health looking ahead to winter.
“The bees will go into autumn and will start shutting down,” says Hoover. “They won’t be rearing as much brood right up to the end of autumn if there isn’t pollen available. They may also have less honey stored for the winter, so beekeepers are going to have to feed them more.”
Lack of moisture, combined with an excess of heat, could stress the bees’ biology in such a way that disease becomes more likely. While it may be too early to itemize the damage precisely, Hoover believes the trend is clear enough.
“Overall, this hasn’t been a banner year for honey on the Prairies, but it’s variable depending on the area.”
For more information, please contact:
Alberta Beekeepers Commission