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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.
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 starvation.
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.
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.