Checking out the blackberry flowers, early June.  Photo Jeff Lee

Blackberry honey harvest in Metro Vancouver washes out

What started out as a promising spring bloom appears to be taking a left turn, leaving Metro Vancouver beekeepers with a challenge if they want their bees to be ready for winter.

This spring’s glorious warm weather proved a boon for Lower Mainlanders, allowing for lots of divides and the opportunity for strong hives.

Blueberries came into bloom two weeks early, keeping pollination beekeepers busy trying to meet demand. As you’ve probably read elsewhere, there was a reported shortage of thousands of hives available for blueberries, driving pollination prices high – as much as $140 a box in some areas – and allowing beekeepers to be choosy about where they placed their hives. With four weeks of strong sunny weather the honey crop was decent, followed by a week of rain and then a finishing week of moderately sunny skies.

But from that point onwards, it’s been a difficult road for bees and beekeepers. The wet weather, combined with the early bloom of blackberries, has resulted in a lower-than-expected honey crop. Two large commercial beekeepers, John Gibeau in Surrey and Peter Awram in Chilliwack, had similar reports: abnormally low yields so far of blackberry honey. Gibeau noted that even the normally dependable raspberries tanked; where he ordinarily would expect 60 pounds he got 10.

“The best hope for beekeepers right now to get honey is pumpkin, squash and zucchini in July,” Gibeau said.

At this time of writing in late June, cranberry pollination is in full swing and will last for another couple of weeks.

This week I talked to another commercial beekeeper, Steve Gourley of Goldstrike Honeybee Co, who said he’s moving 200 hives out of the Lower Mainland to alfalfa fields in the Ashcroft-Lytton area because of the early end of blackberry harvest. “It’s better than having to feed my bees,” he said.

At the hobbyist and urban beekeeper level, things are perhaps a bit brighter. Multiple floral sources resulted in city beekeepers taking small harvests prior to the turn in weather. In our home our best hives have each produced 50 pounds and we appear to be heading towards another box or two. But in most of our others – which we are managing for summer divides – there’s no prospect of a harvest.

Jaquie Bunse, the Vancouver-area bee inspector, reports a noticeable increase in some hive diseases as a result of the changing weather: more chalk brood and European Foulbrood. That’s because bees are not able to get out, and the level of stress in hives has increased.

Bunse also warns that the recent mild and wet weather is likely to produce an abundance of later swarms as colonies get jammed with brood. “I’ve got lots of people telling me they have swarm cells all over the place and they want to know what to do,” she said. “The answer is to carefully watch and manage them and be prepared to divide.”

The early arrival and then wash-out of large parts of the blackberry crop means beekeepers are going to need to monitor the collection of stores in the late summer and early fall to make sure their bees have enough for winter.

Some experienced beekeepers who supply the local queen market report having difficulty in producing enough to satisfy local demand. Prices for locally-bred queens are running between $25-35. Small amounts of import queens from California and Hawaii continued to be available up to July, at higher prices.

Most of the queen breeders in the Okanagan/Interior report being out of queens, but I managed to find 10 in Tappen at Bill Stagg’s Sweetacres Apiary. He’s still producing queens and expects to launch one more round of grafts for a late July batch of requeening. These new prizes of mine are sitting in a queen bank awaiting placement in the new divides this weekend.

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