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A Beekeeper’s Perspective

KEVIN NIXON is the president of Nixon Honey, a honey and pollinati on operati on just east of Innisfail, AB.

Kevin and his family have been keeping bees in central Alberta for years. They have 7,000-plus hives, and are into their second generation of business. They encounter lots of challenges but, for their operation, the three biggest are Varroa mites, nutrition and weather.

Nixon, who runs the operation with his father and brother, says that virtually all their hives are touched by Varroa at some time during the season.

beekeeping by the numbers

Their struggle is to keep Varroa numbers down below critical levels in each of their more than 7,000 hives at all times. They use a combination of methods to do this, some cultural, others chemical. But even their best efforts are only about 95 per cent successful, with the holdout fi ve per cent representing the strongest infestations.

Resistance management to chemical mite controls is a critical issue and the Nixons are down to their last tool in the box. Kevin says that unless beekeepers fi nd something new that works soon, they’ll be in big trouble. They’ve already lost a couple of miticides to resistance in the past 10 years and there’s little new on the horizon.

Nutrition is another huge challenge and, unlike Varroa mites, it’s a bee management factor that the Nixons have less control over since the most important contributor to honeybee nutrition is the pollen and nectar that worker bees forage and bring back to the hive. Nixon says the problem these days is that everyone is trying to maximize profitability, which, in agriculture, means less out-of-production acreage, thinner hedgerows and fence lines — places where bees would traditionally get a good meal.

When their bees need to be fed early in the spring or late in the fall when there’s insufficient natural forage available, the Nixons give them a combination of sugar solution and commercial pollen patties. If bees don’t get good quality nutrition, winter survival can be compromised. Kevin says that, just like us, balanced and sufficient nutrition is needed to keep bees’ immune systems working well, which, in turn, helps ward off attacks from parasites and diseases.

The least controllable variable in Nixon’s operation is, of course, the weather. “Winter bees,” those that stay alive in a hive over the winter months, are “programmed” to live for about fi ve months, then slowly begin the foraging and egg laying that will sustain the hive. When winter stretches to five-and-a-half or six months, like it did in 2013, then the number of old bees dying can’t be replaced quickly enough by new bees hatching, and the colony dwindles.

Beekeepers actually call it “spring dwindle,” and Nixon says it’s responsible for two-thirds of bee deaths in Alberta in 2013.

But it’s not just a late spring or a brutal winter where weather can weaken a bee operation. Last July was cool and wet in Alberta, and when bees should have been out enjoying a fi ne canola crop, they simply couldn’t fl y. The wet July also pushed the hay cut late into the fall, when it was too late for bees to take advantage of it, and a normal winter preparation just wasn’t there for them.

Nixon Honey needs to stay in operation for at least another 20 years before the next Nixon generation can take over. It’ll be a struggle, but they’re optimistic. So far this spring, the bees look fi ne and appear to have come out of the winter happy and healthy.