Honey is the glue that cements this working relationship

At least two 1930s-era W.  W.  Dyck honey cans are still in existence in Manitoba.  One sits on Grant Dyck’s desk at Artel Farms, near Niverville, just south of Winnipeg.  “The whole business started in the ’30s with an apiary,” says Dyck of the 14,000-acre grain and oilseed farm he operates with his wife, Colleen.  W.  W.  Dyck was his grandfather.  “I keep that old honey can on my desk to remind myself of that.  ”

The other vintage honey can sits on the desk of Lorne Peters who, along with his brother Larry, operates Peters’ Honey Farm, located on — none other than — Honey Lane in Kleefeld, MB.  “My dad started the business in 1933,” he says, adding that his father was also one of the founding members, in 1938, of the Manitoba Honey Co-Operative.

“My dad would have worked with Grant’s dad,” says Peters.  And that relationship has carried on through generations to the mutual benefit of both families.  Dyck seeds 3,000 acres of canola every year and Peters supplies enough bees to enhance the pollination of his entire crop.  Dyck says honey bee pollination is an important contribution to the success of his canola, and, of course, Peters benefits when his bees turn canola nectar into honey — his main crop.

On paper, it seems easy enough — place hives in the fields and let the bees go to work.  But the reality is more complicated, with success hinging more on strong human relationships than on hive behaviour.  Because they understand that, Grant and Lorne have developed an extremely successful farmer-beekeeper relationship that others can learn from.

Plan, talk, act

When it comes to pollinating canola, a chief consideration is the blooming period.  A lot has to be done in what is sometimes a very tight window — get the hives in, get necessary spraying done, add new hive boxes — and all coordinated with military precision to ensure bees and crop thrive.

With 3,000 acres of canola spread over a 14,000- acre farm, it’s critical to work out a plan well ahead of time, and then keep in touch throughout the growing season to avoid stepping on each other’s toes.

“Lorne and I will talk in January, and I give him the tentative plan as to what fields will be strategic for him,” says Dyck.  They meet again in March to confirm canola field locations.

Peters decides how many and where in each field the hives will go based on what will work best for the bees such as a nearby water supply, ease of access to hives and the ability to get farm equipment in and out of the field.  “We have to work out flood considerations, where driveways are and road access,” he says.  “Sometimes it’s better to put the hives on higher ground in a wheat field across the road because we can get at them.  Grant’s really good about that.  He says we can drive anywhere and just asks us to keep a trail.  ”

“Lorne will say where he wants to put them and I’ll update our maps,” says Dyck.  “Anyone who pulls up a map of the farm will know where those hives are.  ” Fields are numbered and everyone involved with the farm including Dyck’s 10 full-time employees, his crop advisor, and Peters, refer to those maps and numbers for the rest of the season, leaving no room for confusion.

Peters moves his bees into the fields just before bloom and takes them out once bloom is over.  He checks on each site once a week, usually adding a box, or hive, each time as the colonies expand.

This is when the field numbers are critical.  While the bees are busy doing their job, fieldwork must proceed.  When Dyck needs to spray, he calls Peters to tell him what field he needs to go into and what he needs to do there.  And this is a discussion that’s important to both of them.

“He’ll call me and we’ll work out a plan,” says Peters.  They discuss the disease or insect problem in question, pesticide products, timing, method of application, any residual issues — anything that impacts either the crop or the bees.  “He’s switched products for me before, and it meant him spraying in the evening when the bees had stopped foraging,” says Peters.

It may be less convenient for Dyck, but it’s a price he’s willing to pay to protect the bees, which, in a roundabout way, means he’s protecting his yield.

And that’s the point.  This collaborative approach means that both men sometimes have to make adjustments to their plans.  But Dyck sees this as simply the right way to do business for the long term.  “My dad said he got a bushel an acre yield increase from bees,” he says.

“And who knows, that’s hard to quantify.  But the benefit is there.  We have to recognize the entirety of the ecosystem; it’s in our best interests to work with our honey guys, and I think this (mapping and negotiating) should be the natural course of operation, especially when it comes to spraying.  ”

Both agree that open and frequent communication is critical to maintaining an effective pollination program on the farm.  “I pride myself on this being a best-practice farm, and number one is absolutely open communication,” says Dyck.

Peters agrees.  “The working relationship is critical.  ” And when they get it right, they both win.