Kerry Clark has been keeping bees in the Peace Country for nearly three decades, and he’s never seen a year quite like this one.
“Last year was the best year I’ve ever had, and this year was better,” he said as he finished harvesting honey from the six hives he keeps on his rural property outside Dawson Creek. Decked out in white coveralls and shooing the occasional bee from his beard, Clark pried apart the wooden hive boxes to reveal interior panels thick with wax and honey.
So far, 2016 has been a banner year for Peace Region honey production. Wet weather made for record-setting yields, and there’s renewed interest in beekeeping from environmentally-conscious hobbyists. Thirty to 40 new apiarists joined the ranks in the Peace Region this year alone, by Clark’s estimate—the start of what could be a beekeeping comeback in one of the world’s great honey-producing regions.
While those numbers are an improvement, they’re a far cry from beekeeping’s golden age in the 1970s and 80s, when tens of thousands of hives dotted the Peace River country.
According to Paul van Westendorp, B.C.’s provincial apiculturist, the Peace used to be home to up to 20,000 commercial bee colonies. While the numbers have shrunk, it remains one of the world’s best honey-producing regions thanks to its long summer days and abundant forage.
“The yields in the Peace River have traditionally been among the most outstanding anywhere in the world,” he said. “Only certain areas in Australia can compete.”
The number of colonies began to drop due to changes in farming practices—particularly the declining popularity of clover—as well as overseas competition. The region’s relative isolation also made it difficult to get honey to market. Now, the Fraser Valley produces around 70 per cent of B.C.’s honey.
Despite that, Peace honey yields remain the best in B.C. In 2015, the average hive produced 118 pounds—nearly 40 pounds over the provincial average. This year was even better, thanks in part to record-setting rainfall.
“The long-term average in this area is 150 pounds per hive, and I’m pretty sure the average (this year) is going to be over 200 pounds,” Clark said. “A couple of hives have 300. So double (the average), which is the most I’ve ever produced.”
Clark began beekeeping in the mid-60s, when his family moved to Pitt Meadows and discovered a trove of honey in a fallen cedar tree. He decided to study bees, and moved to the Peace in 1989 for a job as provincial apiarist. At the time, the region had just one per cent of the province’s beekeepers but produced 30 per cent of the honey.
By 2015, Peace beekeepers were producing just four per cent, and the region accounted for just $355,000 of B.C.’s $20 million honey industry. Most local producers are like Clark: hobbyists who prefer to produce small amounts of quality product. Their numbers have grown in recent years: in 2010, there were 732 hives in Northeast B.C. Last year, there were 1,236.
Clark believed much of the renewed interest in beekeeping comes from the publicity around colony collapse disorder, as well as the development of “flow” hives that make it easier to extract honey.
“The publicity that the bee ‘crisis’ has generated has created a lot of interest,” he said.
Van Westendorp said beekeeping itself is more popular than ever.
“Down south, we have hundreds of new beekeepers who operate a few colonies,” he said. “The courses the ministry offers are full. The popularity of beekeeping is something we can hardly keep up with.”
While the economics of beekeeping in Northeast B.C. aren’t what they once were, there are signs of improvement. More and more commercial producers are retiring, leaving the door open for hobbyists who want to turn beekeeping into a money-making enterprise.
New labelling rules could make it viable for small time beekeepers to compete with foreign products that often contain a blend of cheap honey and corn syrup. “It’s unclear to the average consumer whether honey is from Canada or if its been blended with imported honeys,” van Westendorp said.
Beekeeping’s newfound popularity combined with an aging work force could make for a honey-producing revival in the Peace.
“Even if they’re starting at the small end with just a few hives, that group is the group that could get more into beekeeping more seriously in the years to come,” he said.