Apiculture Factsheet #101
Beekeeping in British Columbia
A Brief Review
Beekeeping has been practised in British Columbia for nearly 150 years. The first two hives of honeybees arrived to Victoria
by ship in May, 1858.
Since then, honeybees have spread to all parts
of the province and more than 2,300 beekeepers currently operate approximately
47,000 colonies as a hobby or as a full or part-time business
venture. B.C.'s topography and climatic conditions determine its vegetation, including forage sources for bees.
The Peace River District in north-eastern B.C. is unique in
its climate and abundance of nectar sources during the
summer season. This area extends into Alberta and is among the most
productive honey producing regions in the world with average honey yields of 200 lbs per colony and higher.
Other parts of the province may not offer the same conditions because of
limited nectar floral sources. For example,
coastal British Columbia offers few nectar sources but agriculture and forest clearing
have increased the availability of nectar producing sources.
Establishing a Beekeeping Operation
Unlike most other agricultural enterprises, beekeeping is highly
dependent on the seasonal availability of nectar and pollen. Other
important factors include quality of management, presence of
diseases and pests, and the genetic quality of the bee stock. The
combination of all these factors ultimately determines the outcome
of the beekeeping enterprise.
Notwithstanding B.C.'s large size, climate and vegetation limit
suitable beekeeping areas. The interior of the province is affected
by the continental climate but also tempered by oceanic air
currents that allow for successful beekeeping in most years.
Northern B.C., on the other hand, is gripped by severe winter
conditions seven months of the year, which places stresses on
the bees. Long-term averages of winter mortality in the Peace are
about 30% while colonies in southern B.C. experience average winter
mortality of 12-15%. The Peace District is a region of extremes
where huge honey crops can be produced in good years, while in some
years the summer never materializes and the large adult bee
populations need supplemental feeding to avert the risk of
The southern interior of the province offers bees good spring
conditions when fruit trees and other floral sources are in bloom. But
later in the summer, hot conditions cause all forage
sources to disappear and colonies must be moved into the mountains
for the remainder of the season. Coastal British Columbia offers its own unique climatic
challenges. Winters may be mild, but excess moisture threatens
the survival of the wintering colony. Improved air circulation, keeping the colonies well
off the ground during winter and placement of the apiary in a
sheltered location are essential.
Nectar and Pollen Availability
When weather conditions are favourable, floral sources can produce an abundance of nectar and pollen. The availability of moisture, temperature and overall presence of floral sources place limits on the number of colonies that can be placed in any location.
In the Fraser Valley, berry crops have increasingly become
dependent on the availability of honeybee colonies for pollination.
Since cranberries are an unattractive crop to bees because of low
nectar and pollen yields, growers have increased the number of
colonies per acre. Higher bee density in cranberry bogs creates
stress, which often results in the bees' increased sensitivity to diseases. Weakened colonies may not regain sufficient strength for the
following winter. For this reason, cranberry pollination fees have
traditionally been higher than for other crops.
Diversification of the Beekeeping Enterprise
Climate may place constraints on beekeeping; it also offers
opportunities that may not be available in other parts of Canada.
Honey yields in the Fraser Valley may not be the highest in the
province, but its proximity to large consuming centres offers better
marketing opportunities. The large acreage of fruit bearing crops,
most of which are very dependent on insect pollination, have enabled
Fraser Valley and Okanagan beekeepers to derive a large portion of their income
from pollination contracts. While per capita honey consumption may
not be easily increased, other hive products such as pollen,
propolis and bee venom may offer new marketing opportunities. Mild
climatic conditions in southern B.C., and especially on southern
Vancouver Island, have allowed some beekeepers to become breeders
and suppliers of bee stock to beekeepers across the country.
Urbanization and Land Use Pressures
Honeybees and humans have coexisted successfully for thousands of
years. In many parts of Europe and North America, honeybee colonies
are kept in urban areas without any problems. Yet, it is important
to recognize that in urban areas, beekeeping poses unique challenges
and responsibilities. One must be aware that honeybees in urban settings could have an impact in the immediate area, which include
medical and legal issues. For example, in early spring when bees first
emerge, their feces may be found on smooth surfaces of
cars, decks and patio furniture. In mid to late summer, colonies
need large volumes of water and will visit bird baths and swimming
pools. At the end of the season, when colonies reach their maximum population size, bees
become more defensive. Although a
bee sting may not pose a health risk to most people, those that are
truly allergic (less than 3% of the general population) may
experience a medical emergency. Many municipalities administer bylaws that either limit or ban beekeeping. It is important to check for local restrictions
that may apply at a prospective site before bees are placed.
Most beekeepers are enthusiastic to have a few colonies in their backyard but it is important to remember that neighbours may not share that enthusiasm. Some people develop anxiety when they become aware of the presence of beehives in their neighbourhood. To avert these emotionally driven situations, beekeepers may take steps to have their colonies less visible and blending with the vegetation.
Bears and Vandalism
Virtually all parts of British Columbia must be viewed as
"bear country". Bears are attracted to honeybee colonies
because of the high food value of bee brood. In summer, bears roam
over great distances to fatten themselves for winter. In many areas, the threat of bears is
so high that precautions must be taken. Electric fences are most
effective as long as bears have not previously raided the apiary.
Vandalism can be a costly threat to beekeepers. In populated
areas, colonies may be stolen while in rural areas, colonies are
sometimes driven over or used for target practice. Selecting an
apiary site must take all these factors into consideration. Hidden
from highway view, locked and fenced gates, or a site near a farm
house all help to reduce the risk of theft and vandalism. Some
beekeepers paint their colonies green to blend with the environment
or place the colonies behind dense vegetation.
Purchase and Establishment of a Beekeeping Enterprise
Diversification of beekeeping has proven to greatly increase the
income potential and enjoyment of the business. Honey production as a sole source of income can only be considered in the Peace District.
For starting a commercial beekeeping enterprise, the purchase of an established operation with registered apiary sites
may be more cost-effective than starting a small operation and slowly building up colony numbers.
Honeybees and Modern Agriculture
Forage diversity and limited space of suitable beekeeping areas
in British Columbia require beekeepers to be familiar with local
floral sources and sound management practices. In addition, many
beekeepers have pollination contracts for crops such as tree fruits,
high bush blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, and field
cucumbers. Pollination is the most important agricultural function
of honeybees. Studies have shown that honeybee pollination in B.C. is
responsible for over $200 million per year in agricultural production,
while the total market value of hive products accounts for only $8
million per year. In Canada, the value of honeybee pollination is estimated at
over $1.5 billion per year, while in the U.S. this value is
estimated at over $14 billion per year. For this reason, it is
essential to ensure the future health and viability of bee
populations. The beekeeping industry plays an important role in
realizing this goal. Most provincial governments across Canada still
support apiculture programs but in recent years, significant changes
have been applied in the type of services offered to the beekeeping
industry. In general, there has been a trend towards greater
industry self-regulation and self-reliance.