Bees & canola: a match made in Alberta

Talk about teamwork. Bee pollination makes today’s canola industry possible, while canola flowers provide the nectar for a tasty, versatile honey.

On the face of it, bees and canola might appear to have little in common. One’s a cornerstone crop, the other accounts for agriculture’s very smallest livestock segment. Canola is grown on millions of acres by tens of thousands of farmers in Western Canada, underpinning an industry worth $20 billion in total economic impact. In 2018, by comparison, Alberta’s 1,500 beekeepers produced $64 million worth of honey.

This seeming disparity belies a close relationship between bees and canola. Bees provide the pollination that’s essential to the production of hybrid canola seed that takes place in the irrigated areas of southern Alberta. It’s a cool billion dollars’ worth of canola seed each year, and it wouldn’t be possible without bees.

If the relationship seems a bit one-sided, a visit to Greidanus Honey Mill near High River is in order. Established in 1973, this second-generation farm raises bees and blends and packages honey for customers near and far. As Grace Strom explains, while the farm doesn’t provide pollination services, canola is very much a silent partner.

“Canola honey is prized because of its light color,” explains Strom. “On the scale that measures honey color, it’s classified as ‘water white’, so it’s a fantastic honey for lightening darker honeys from floral sources such as goldenrod, purple thistle and dandelion.”

The bees love it

Canola is such an economically important crop, Alberta farmers will grow as much of it as they can. When Strom’s bees head out to forage, there’s always plenty of canola nearby. It’s a bit like having your favorite restaurant just around the corner. You’ll probably go there a lot.

“Like all creatures on earth, bees are inherently lazy,” says Strom. “Canola produces an abundance of nectar that is easily gathered by the bee, and it does so at a lower temperature than some of the other floral sources. If you can get a full stomach from going to one flower, versus having to go to three flowers, what would you choose?”

The only complication in the bee-canola relationship is crystallization. Canola honey in the hive tends to harden quickly. It must be harvested by beekeepers as soon as possible so that it’s in a conveniently liquid state for honey blending and packaging. This is a complication that beekeepers take in stride, given canola’s many benefits as a bee food source.

Hybrid canola seed production in southern Alberta couldn’t happen without bee pollination. Bees can also have a hand in commercial canola production – that is, the crops grown from the hybrid canola seed. Many farmers believe that having bees foraging can speed-up canola maturity, allowing the crop to be harvested sooner and potentially avoid damage from an early-fall frost. For that reason, Grace Strom’s bees are more than welcome in canola fields around High River.

As Strom sees it, bees and canola have formed a productive partnership where both sides benefit, as do consumers of canola oil and Alberta-grown honey.

“For us, and for all the beekeepers in our area, and for the beekeepers in northern Alberta for sure, canola is our bread and butter.”