How Alberta bees make Canada’s canola industry possible
Bees managed by Alberta beekeepers provide essential pollination services for canola seed production. Canola growers buy $1 billion worth of seed per year to grow this signature crop, whose total economic impact surpasses $25 billion per year. In this special Alberta Beekeepers Commission report, we take you inside the vital relationship between Alberta bees and Canadian canola
Canola pollination transforms beekeeping in Alberta
Toward the end of June each year, you’ll find Red Deer County beekeeper Kevin Nixon waiting for one of the most important phone calls he’ll receive all year. That call will be from a member of the agronomy team with Agricultural Solutions company BASF.
Once the call comes, Nixon transports his bees to the irrigated farmland of southern Alberta and positions them in canola seed production fields. As the bees forage in the canola, they perform the vital pollination work that makes hybrid canola seed possible.
“We normally get around 72 hours’ notice,” says Nixon. “Once the canola’s at 5% to 10% bloom, it’s time to go south.”
For Nixon and his team, the drill is well-known. He’s been active in canola pollination most years since the family’s bee and honey operation began in 1998. Experience has shown that the optimum stocking rate is 1.0 to 1.2 hives per acre of canola seed.
It’s impossible to quantify how much pollination work each bee or hive will do. For this reason, beekeepers like Nixon are paid according to the overall fitness of their bees.
“The bees are inspected and graded,” he explains, “and the amount of pay is based on the strength of the hives. We want to receive the top payment, so we want them going in strong.”
Like any athlete, bees need care and nutrition to achieve peak performance. This is Nixon’s focus as a beekeeper in the weeks and months leading up to canola pollination season.
When the bees are in pollination mode in southern Alberta, they work hard. Being in an area dominated by canola seed production, there’s little else for the bees to forage on. Imagine if you ate the same meal three times a day for several weeks straight. After a long stretch of canola pollination, Nixon’s bees are ready for a change of scene and a change in diet.
“The bees do well in canola, but when the crop shuts down, we want to get them back to a more diverse diet,” says Nixon. “I wouldn’t say they’re run down, but they’re ready to come home.”
Once back in Red Deer County, Nixon’s bees can resume their normal foraging. Commercial canola production – as distinct from seed production — is an agricultural staple in central Alberta. The bees forage on local canola crops, gathering nectar and pollen for honey production and perhaps even boosting the yield of those canola crops through foraging and pollination.
“Landowners believe they see a difference in their crop with the bees,” says Nixon. “It’s not something where money ever changes hands, it’s just kind of a win-win for both sides.”
Most years over the past 20, Kevin Nixon and his bees have travelled to southern Alberta for canola pollination work. He’s glad pollination is there to supplement his honey income and is proud of the contribution made by Alberta bees and beekeepers to the canola industry.
“Many in the agriculture industry, and for sure the general public, don’t realize the role of bees in canola seed production,” says Nixon. “Alberta has a large beekeeping industry relative to our population and the honey we produce is known around the world for its top quality. Especially in the years when honey prices have been depressed, pollination has been an important part of our business.”
For seed producers and beekeepers, a spirit of partnership
For Alberta beekeepers like Kevin Nixon, canola pollination season normally extends from late-June to mid-July.
The previous winter and spring, while Nixon was preparing his bees for pollination work, Andrew Wall, Manager of Certified Seed Production for BASF, was busy planning the production of the year’s hybrid canola seed. The process is guided by years of experience and some trusted production parameters.
“I would first look at how many acres of hybrid canola seed we’re going to grow in that upcoming growing season,” says Wall. BASF markets InVigor, the number one selling brand of canola seed in Western Canada. “That acreage is based on how many bags of seed my marketing team thinks they’re going to sell next year.”
Given the standard stocking rate for bees and canola seed production – 1.0 hives to 1.2 hives per acre – Wall can estimate how many hives he’ll need for the summer’s canola pollination.
One of the reasons hybrid canola production works so well in southern Alberta is that everyone’s a veteran of the process. Wall and his agronomy team, the farmers who grow the seed, and the beekeepers who provide the bees – most have been doing it for 10 to 20 years. It’s a well-oiled machine.
So when the call goes out to Kevin Nixon and his fellow beekeepers, everyone performs their part expertly. As noted, hives with strong and healthy bee populations earn beekeepers more.
“Most of the beekeepers are on multi-year contracts, kind of like an evergreen contract, for canola pollination,” Wall notes. “We inspect the bees and assuming they hit their quality criteria, we pay the beekeepers a base level of pay – and up to a 25% bonus for hives rated stronger and healthier. The vast majority of beekeepers get their full bonus because they bring us excellent hives.”
A hybrid is defined as a cross between two or more genetically unique in-bred parent lines. Bees enable this crossing.
“We’ll plant two different types of plants in a canola production field,” Wall explains. “We have our male line and our female line. We call it the male line, but it’s also called a perfect flower, in that it has both male and female parts so it can self-pollinate. In the same field, we’ll plant our females – which only have female parts so they cannot self-pollinate. They need an outside pollen source before they’ll form any seed.”
The bees’ job is to move pollen from males to females. In essence, every seed grown by Wall and his team comes from a different grain of pollen – and that grain of pollen very likely travelled on a bee.
After many years of working in hybrid canola seed production, Alberta canola seed growers, beekeepers and seed companies have developed a close and efficient relationship. It’s this teamwork that produces the seed needed for Canada’s $25 billion per year canola industry. The role of the bee might be little understood but it’s also irreplaceable.
“We see beekeepers as true partners, not just service providers, for seed production,” says Wall. “After all, without bees, there would be no hybrid canola.”
Research aims for further progress on bees and canola
Before the mid-1990s, when hybrid canola production came to Alberta, the province’s beekeepers had one main product to sell: honey.
The volume of honey produced could vary widely from year-to-year, and prices were volatile and subject to competition from cheap imports. Canola pollination provided much-needed diversification, fundamentally improving the business of beekeeping.
“Canola pollination continues to be an important driver of the whole business in Alberta,” says Shelley Hoover, Lethbridge-based Bee Researcher with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “It provides them with a stable income that’s more or less guaranteed from year to year. This has allowed some Alberta beekeepers to expand their businesses.”
How can Alberta beekeepers improve their economic returns from canola pollination? Research by Hoover and others has been looking into this question.
One possible area is the pollination of commercial canola crops. Some canola producers believe that having bees foraging in their crop helps yield or at least accelerates the crop’s development. Hoover reports that some studies see a benefit to this practice, while others aren’t convinced. She believes the benefits could go beyond yield.
“Some studies have shown that the effect of bees in a commodity canola crop isn’t so much yield, but more even ripening and shortening of the bloom time,” says Hoover. “If you’re running up against an early frost, the shorter your bloom time, the sooner your crop ripens and the more evenly it ripens, the better. So bees can contribute in that way.”
Having bees foraging in canola produces a light, mild-tasting honey that’s valued by processors for mixing with heavier grades of honey. One research project led by Hoover showed the difference in economic value of canola honey from a pollinated seed field and honey produced conventionally.
“Beekeepers get much less honey from a canola seed field than if they were managing those honeybee colonies purely for honey production,” she says. “To do canola pollination, beekeepers have a trucking cost, a labor cost and they also have a honey cost.”
Beekeepers like Kevin Nixon (see page 1) spend the weeks and months before pollination season building up the strength and health of their hives. After all, that’s the metric for how they get paid. Another Hoover project looked at which nutritional supplements are best to get honeybee colonies going strong in the spring so they’re vibrant and viable for canola pollination.
Another project considered whether canola seed fields are a suitable place for beekeepers to propagate queens. With warm summer temperatures and lots of strong drones available for mating, this could allow beekeepers to get even more from their time in southern Alberta.
All these ideas could help expand the economic value of canola pollination for beekeepers. Any way you slice it, however, that’s still dwarfed by the economic impact of canola production in Canada.
“A seed canola crop is heavily pollinator-dependent,” says Hoover. “Without honeybees and leafcutter bees in those fields, there would essentially be no crop. That crop produces the majority of the seed that’s grown commercially right across the Prairies. The value of hybrid canola seed is over $1 billion annually and it can’t happen without bees.”
Bees and canola: growing together
The close working relationship between canola producers and beekeepers has allowed both groups to thrive. So says Gregory Sekulic, Alberta-based Agronomy and Public Affairs Specialist with the Canola Council of Canada. In that role, he covers research, extension, and technology transfer, particularly as they relate to sustainable production and beneficial insect management.
“Canola and bees go hand in hand,” says Sekulic, “and we really want to maintain that relationship and let the general public know exactly how strong and valuable it is.”
In recent years, Sekulic has also enhanced the bee-canola connection by serving as spokesperson for the Bees Matter campaign and representing the Canola Council on the Canadian Bee Health Roundtable.
One way to understand the relationship between bees and canola over the past 25 years is to chart the rise in acres planted to canola next to the number of bee colonies in Alberta.
“As canola acres in Canada have increased – pretty geometrically since 2000 or so – we’ve also seen a similar increase in bee colonies,” says Sekulic. “Today, the canola seed companies growing hybrid canola seed in southern Alberta are the largest contractors of bee pollination services in Canada.”
In 2019, Alberta dominates Canadian honey production and, by Sekulic’s estimate, some two-thirds of Canadian bee colonies are in close proximity to canola fields.
The current health and vitality of Alberta bees is a welcome change from just a decade ago. For a number of years beginning around 2006, winterkill reached 40% compared to the longer-term trend of 15% to 18%. Two virulent pests – nosema disease and varroa mite – were responsible for most of this damage. To the relief of both beekeepers and canola producers, a strong focus on research and bee stewardship helped put the brakes on runaway winterkill and stabilize Alberta bee populations. Bee numbers have been trending up ever since.
“It’s impressive to see how well Canadian and Alberta beekeepers have risen to these challenges,” says Sekulic. “In a way, it’s quite similar to how canola production has changed over the years, with new pests, pest resistance, and new management tactics. Beekeepers have had to come up with new tools to fight their pests – just as canola producers have.”
Without bees, hybrid canola seed production would not be possible. Without the seed, farmers couldn’t grow 21.3 million acres (2019) of canola, providing the foundation for a $25 billion industry. In another recognition of shared interests, canola organizations have funded a variety of research into bee health issues and canola pollination.
As Sekulic sees it, the partnership between Alberta beekeepers and prairie canola producers is one of the best good-news stories in all of Canadian agriculture.
“The growth of the canola industry and the beekeeping and honey industry has really occurred in tandem over the past 25 years and we very much want to keep the relationship going.”