November Fireside

I’ve been doing this honey thing for decades and right when I think I’ve seen absolutely everything, something, usually fascinating or horrific, comes along to correct my view.

I’m beginning to suspect that I need to stop thinking as much, because this year the ratio between fascinating and horrifying was definitely leaning toward the macabre.

In April I wrote a short essay on "The Awakening of the Bees" detailing the springtime cycle of the hive, and how honeybees behave as the days get longer. Around this time, winter surrenders its hold and good weather (mostly) tends to roll in. Warmer, sunny days really help jumpstart the bees, and they begin to gain back their full strength and momentum. This year, that didn’t happen. The weather was cold, wet, with ample rain and snow and it didn’t really let up until nearly mid-May. In over 25 years, this was the worst spring for beekeeping I’ve seen.

Bees that survive the winter don’t always survive the spring, and that’s because the "winter bees" that hatched out in September / October are at the end of their life cycle, and are dying out. The colony will work to replace these natural losses with a new batch of spring bees.

During the winter, the queen will still produce eggs (in a very regulated and minimal number), with perhaps a break of no laying at all for 7 to 10 days or so. This is like "keeping the engine running". However, after the solstice and the daylight begins to increase bit by tiny bit, the queen will start to slowly increase her egg laying to replace the older bees.

To raise brood, bees need honey, pollen, and warmth. The honey and pollen is available from the vast amount stored last season. The warmth is generated by the bees themselves. However, the amount of brood they can keep warm depends on the surviving numbers. If the old bees die off faster than replacements hatch, it creates a situation called spring dwindling. If the spring is wet and cold, this increases the decline and puts the colony in jeopardy.

Last spring’s weather was the catalyst of very heavy losses across the prairies, and losses within Manitoba was in the range of 60 percent. This number does not take into account of the condition the survivors were in: Weak, surviving colonies can take an entire season to rebuild their strength, and will not produce a surplus of honey. Without that surplus of honey, the colony only has just enough to get by and to take that away (for example for human consumption) would mean disaster for them.

For contrast, 15 percent is the sustainable loss average in beekeeping. You can produce honey, or bees, or pollen as a commercial beekeeper, but only one of these things in a harvestable surplus. Bees that would normally be producing surplus honey in summer of 2022, were instead used to raise queens and frames of brood to replace winter losses. The numbers are not all in yet, but initial figures show that only half the honey in Manitoba was extracted to the deficit of over 6 million tonnes.

Shortages have caused increased prices and the basic cost of honey in the barrel has increased by a dollar per pound since the spring. We are not immune to this, as the increasing costs of fuel and packaging have also forced us to increase prices. This does not put money in my or my family’s pockets. Instead, it drives customers to cheaper, lower quality alternatives and I lose sleep over this, but that’s agriculture overall in a nutshell! We will continue to find a way to offer the best for less, someway somehow.

This fall has been long and pleasant. The bees are plentiful, and in good shape heading into winter. Next week, when the temperatures dip, the hive wraps will go on and then I get to return to my work in the kitchen for a few months: coming up with new flavours, testing recipes that can put honey to good use, and getting out to the local markets in order to meet the folks that all of this is for (we hope that includes you!)

I’m a big fan of collaboration. If anyone, including you reading this, has a favourite recipe, a new flavoured honey idea, or pictures of nature, bees, plants, and similar that you would like to share with us and get out there for more people to enjoy, I’d love to hear about it. If we end up making or posting something that you send in, I’ll personally make sure that you are taken care of with some of our fine, Manitoban honey and a heartfelt thanks.

Here’s to a short and mild winter! As always, I deeply appreciate your patronage, encouragement and as well supporting my fellow beekeepers across this province called Manitoba.

Warm regards,

John Russell