Beekeeping is relatively unknown to most people in agriculture. But these hardworking little creatures contribute a great deal more to agriculture and Ontario’s economy than one might realize.
More than 100 types of crops are pollinated by bees and about 85 per cent of plants on Earth exist because of bees and pollination, said Tim Greer, a Temiskaming beekeeper, who spoke at a recent agriculture conference in Sudbury.
Their contribution is not something that’s overlooked by big commercial fruit growers, said Greer, in explaining the economics behind his commercial beekeeping operation.
“A third of what we eat is pollinated by honeybees,” said Greer, co-owner of Lilley Bee Apiaries, located near New Liskeard.
Together with his wife, Kristina, and son, Jesse, Greer's business consists of honey production and pollination services.
The couple keeps between 2,000 and 2,500 colonies each year, producing about 4.4 million pounds of honey on average.
The roots of Lilley Bee Apiaries date back to 1944 when the provincial government asked Kristina’s grandfather, Harold Lilley, to bring his bees north to the Temiskaming district to pollinate the area’s pasture crop of trefoil, clover and alfalfa.
The couple went into the bee business full-time after her father retired in 2002.
While honey production is not a huge GDP contributor to the provincial economy, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ontario’s managed honeybees and bumblebees generate $897 million of the roughly $6.7 billion in sales for agriculture crops in Ontario each year. It’s about 13 per cent of the annual crop.
“Bees contribute a huge part to Ontario agriculture,” said Greer.
Ontario’s 3,300 beekeepers and 105,000 colonies represent 32 per cent of Canada’s commercial operations.
Most of the operators are in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
While there is tremendous demand for locally sourced honey, Greer said that alone doesn’t pay the bills due to the Northern Ontario climate.
Pollination services are the biggest contributor to the Greers' bottom line.
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Commercial growers invest tremendously in paying beekeepers to move colonies into their pastures because of the recognized impact on their crop yields.
In Eastern Canada, Greer said commercial blueberry growers can calculate “down to the dime” what their yields will be due to the presence of honeybees.
Managing a thriving commercial honeybee operation is no different than raising livestock, he said. Good nutrition and proper animal husbandry are paramount.
The Greers breed their stock with an emphasis on bees that are good pollinators for honey production and possess a gentle nature.
“Stinging, nasty bees are no fun for anyone,” said Greer.
The Greers constantly monitor the health of their bees to ensure they’re at peak efficiency as a “pollinating unit.”
“We’re always assessing the strength and performance of a colony,” Greer said.
“Our season is very short. If a change needs to be made, we need to get on top of it right away.”
Like all farmers, beekeepers contend with many challenges including new pests and diseases.
Top of the list is the Varroa, a bloodsucking parasitic mite that sits on the back of the honeybee in a position where the insect can’t groom it off.
Greer admits it’s hard to keep bees alive.
Coming into the spring, a colony’s population can be reduced to a third or a quarter of its original size.
“What they need to build back up in the spring time is pollen,” said Greer.
Bees forage for pollen to stimulate the growth of the colony so that during summer months they can gather nectar to produce honey.
The Greers supplement the bees with a pollen substitute to establish a strong reproducing colony.
It’s a balancing act to ensure their bees are at peak performance in July when the bulk of their honey crop is produced.
“As the old beekeepers used to say, you’ve got to raise your bees to have the power in July,” said Greer.
To prepare them for a busy crop pollination year ahead, his bees winter in a special warming house in New Liskeard.
Inside the 2,275-square-foot climate-controlled indoor wintering room, his 2,200 colonies are kept at a steady 4 C.
Coming out of the winter, the bees go through their own version of spring training.
They’re trucked down to the tender fruit grounds of the Niagara peninsula where growers of apricots, pears and apples pay for the bees to be placed in their orchards. When finished there, the Greers rotate their bees out to the blueberry fields in the Maritimes.
Upon returning to Temiskaming from the East Coast, the focus is on honey production.
“If it wasn’t for the relationship that we have with the growers on our area – and their gracious hosting of bees on their property – we would be out of business,” said Greer.
At about 100 different locations, they’ll keep 24 to 32 hives per spot.
For efficiencies, they usually place hives within a mile of a crop to allow the bees to make more flights back and forth each day.
Greer said they’re blessed to be in the largest canola growing area in Ontario, which he describes as the “perfect crop” for honeybees.
“The nectar that it produces in vast quantities is easy for the bees to get.”
The canola crop makes up roughly 60 per cent of their historic honey production.
Since Kristina’s grandfather constructed his first Temiskaming honey house, the Greers have experienced three phases of expansion at the same location, including building a new honey extraction and packing facility in 2012.
From that operation, they ship honey in 650-pound drums and in jars, sold in retail outlets, mostly in southern Ontario.
As an unabashed promoter of Northern Ontario agriculture, Greer encourages others to become beekeepers, calling it a “fantastic” hobby and business for people to get into since there’s an untapped northern market for regionally sourced honey.
But he warns people to do their homework first.
“A lot of people in recent years, that were well intentioned to help the bee population, decided to get a few bees and put them on property, (but) had no idea the animal husbandry involved in keeping those bees, and it becomes a problem for commercial beekeepers. Those bees are prone to disease and pests that carry over to the managed colonies.
“Although we encourage people to go into beekeeping, we encourage them to go into it – as you would with farming – with a love of education and experience and practise under someone to learn the trade.”