Opinion

Why a Total Ban on the Importation of Honey Bees from Western Australia Might Not Be a Smart Move at This Particular Point in Time for Beekeeping in Newfoundland

Beekeeping in Newfoundland was so much nicer before it caught the attention of people trying to make big money off it, and before some officious people began pushing their weight around by telling everyone from hobbyists to commercial beekeepers what they could and couldn’t do with their beekeeping.

Too many people in positions of influence continue to create conflict and division among beekeepers in Newfoundland, much of it under a questionable air of authority, and most certainly under a façade of altruism. That’s the main reason I keep to myself and my bees these days. I don’t like to be around it.

The general public sees the smiling beekeeper and doesn’t question a word of it, when in fact, most of the information about beekeeping in Newfoundland comes from organisations or people with agendas that aren’t entirely forthright. Transparency and honesty are hard to come by even from those with good intentions. Reliable information about beekeeping in Newfoundland is hard to come by, too, which makes informed opinions even harder to come by. (Innocent but one-sided puff pieces about beekeeping on local newscasts may not be the best foundation for an informed opinion.)

But from what I gather through impartial conversations with people not affiliated with any organisation or commercial enterprise, the petition to completely ban the importation of disease-free honey bees from Western Australia doesn’t make sense. There might also be more going on than meets the eye. There usually is.

In any case, nobody wants to import honey bees into Newfoundland if they can help it. That’s a given. But as a last resort to replenish Newfoundland honey bee stocks that may someday suffer a loss because of a particularly brutal winter, for instance, importing disease-free bees from Western Australia may be necessary. If there was an absolute ban on importation in that situation, some unscrupulous beekeepers (and they do exist) could easily smuggle in diseased bees from Nova Scotia to build up their lost colonies, and then we’re in deep trouble.

Trevor Tuck and Chris Lester imported honey bees from Western Australia about five years ago. That didn’t go over well because they didn’t tell the beekeeping community about it until the bees were already on the island. Furthermore, the government’s so-called quarantine procedure for the honey bees brought into St. John’s was a joke. (There was also very little transparency during that whole debacle. Most of what I’ve learned about it came through unofficial off-the-record channels, which seems to be the only way to hear a truthful opinion about beekeeping in Newfoundland these days.) The importation regulations today, however, are more strict, and the designated quarantine area for imported bees would actually meet the definition of a quarantine this time. Subsequently, there seems to be little risk of importing or spreading disease from Western Australian honey bees, especially if importations only happen under exceptional circumstances.

But the greatest risk to Newfoundland honey bees comes from people wanting to smuggle in bees from Nova Scotia. (I’ve met some of these people online. It’s unsettling.) Importing honey bees from Western Australia isn’t ideal, but beekeeping in Newfoundland is still viewed as a largely untapped resource and more and more people want to make money off it while the going is good. They see people like Trevor Tuck and Chris Lester reaping the financial rewards of importing bees and they naturally ask, “Why can’t I do that too?”

It’s no surprise that the demand for honey bees in Newfoundland has skyrocketed in the past five years. It’s as if everybody suddenly has visions of beekeeping in their heads, along with visions of being first-to-market so they can scoop up all the cash before someone else takes it. That’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s a definition of free enterprise. I suspect that many of the conflicts and disagreements among beekeepers are from people trying to profit from beekeeping or make a name for themselves — which can happen by default in a small place like Newfoundland. It’s just one of those pesky things we have to put up with in a free society. In any case, people want bees and a lot of them.

In the past five years since the first controversial importation occurred, the Newfoundland government could have provided local beekeepers with the resources to produce enough bees through nucleus colonies, or starter hives, to help meet the increasing demand so that importation of any kind wouldn’t be necessary. The problem might have been fixed within a year — five years ago.

It seems that the NL Beekeepers Association now has access to funds to promote the local production of honey bees. Good. It’s five years late, but it’s better than nothing. Those funds are likely reserved for members of the association or people already profiting from their beekeeping, which isn’t great but it’s a start, I suppose.

The distribution of those funds (around $300,000) is likely to stir up another stink, for two reasons: Money seems only to go to people who already have money, which doesn’t necessarily mean it goes to good beekeepers, and the commercial operators who didn’t get the money will see it as a lost opportunity to make more money. Whether justified or not, someone will cry foul, no doubt about it.

Personally, I’d like to see some funds go to well-trained beekeepers, including hobbyists, with no affiliation or obligations to any organisation or business, which would allow for an unbiased local production of nucleus colonies to help appease the demand for honey bees in Newfoundland, and not just the commercial demand. As a general practice, it would be great for new beekeepers to learn how to make nucleus colonies as part of their beekeeping apprenticeship, whether learning on their own or with mentors.

There are numerous small-scale beekeepers on the island who are capable of producing up to a dozen or more nucs every year if provided the resources to do so. Those dozens upon dozens can add up quickly. It wouldn’t require much tax-payers’ money either. Beekeepers would mostly need beehives to put the expanding colonies in. It’s not that complicated. I’ve been disillusioned and frustrated by the lack of action in this regard over the past five years. I know many excellent beekeepers who would gladly produce nucs if they could. This is a potentially huge, affordable source of honey bee colonies for new beekeepers in Newfoundland, one not necessarily dependent on an excessive need for profit.

As long as they’re not hurting anyone, let the beekeepers who like to soak up all the attention and adoration do whatever they want to do, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by them. I haven’t yet met a new beekeeper who didn’t at times feel like they were living in a dream. Not every one, however, wants to wake up from that dream, possibly because nothing on the planet is more romanticised than beekeeping and it’s hard to let go of something that initially feels so good, even if it doesn’t exactly line up with reality.

Many people have the hardest time walking away from beekeeping long after it’s become nothing but a chore to them. There’s a reason for that. Nobody talks about this, but beekeeping often triggers addictive behaviour. It’s an addiction to the romance of beekeeping and to the automatic love that’s bestowed upon beekeepers. It easily develops into an obsession where the beekeeper is constantly chasing after a high — the high they got the first time they opened a beehive, or the ego-feeding feeling when everybody suddenly loves you because you’re a Beekeeper now. I know it took me a couple years to snap out of it. A few too many people never seem to snap out of it. The beekeeping association isn’t immune to this. Commercial beekeepers aren’t immune to it. Hobbyist beekeepers fall for it too. If there’s anything we all likely have in common, it’s that beekeeping can go to our heads. It’s kind of sad and ridiculous, but it’s true. There will always be delusional beekeepers. It just comes with the territory.

Now let’s kindly step aside all that and go in another direction where we can place our feet on solid earth. Imagine a genuine grassroots movement of hobbyists and small-scale beekeepers in Newfoundland, and even non-profits, providing nucleus colonies for other beekeepers on the island, and not making a big fuss about it or charging an arm and a leg for it, because that’s just what beekeepers in Newfoundland do. That’s a radical thought for governments, businesses and associations that tend to think big instead of small, as if bigger is always better. Or we could stick to the current modus operandi and wait another five years for something big to happen.

At any rate, I don’t like the idea of importing honey bees from Western Australia. I have my doubts about commercial operators who claim that imported honey bees from Western Australia are healthier than honey bees that have been bred in Newfoundland for decades. For now, though, it’s good enough to know that Western Australian honey bees are certified disease-free.

But until all capable beekeepers on the island, not just those who already have the wealth and resources to do what they like, are provided the opportunity to make nucleus colonies as a general practice of beekeeping on the island, there will likely be a necessity to import honey bees from Western Australia from time to time.

The current argument for a complete and immediate ban on importing honey bees from Western Australia may appeal to the general public’s desire to save the bees, but the argument might also be more idealistic than realistic — which is often the case with anything to do with beekeeping. Considering the nearly insatiable demand for honey bees in Newfoundland, a complete ban on imports would effectively open the door to smuggling. I’m not happy about the possibility of more imports, but I can’t find a rational argument for not allowing it to happen under certain conditions.

I said this five years ago and I’ll say it again: Producing enough nucleus colonies on the island ourselves to meet demand is the best way to prevent the smuggling in of diseased honey bees from Nova Scotia and to eventually eliminate the necessity of importations from Western Australia.

Until that happens, signing the petition against importation isn’t going to help. It could even make things worse if a complete ban went though.

— Phillip Cairns
July 23rd, 2020

P.S. #1: Please note that when I say disease-free, I’m referring to honey bees that are relatively disease-free. All honey bees have some sort of disease or viruses, but they’re in such low numbers in certified disease-free honey bees as to have no detrimental effect on the bees’ health. Honey bees from Western Australia are also parasite-free. Most importantly they don’t have Varroa mites — just like all honey bees living on the Isle of Newfoundland. This doesn’t mean I’m pro-importation. Imported honey bees from Western Australia are not absolutely guaranteed to be of no risk to Newfoundland honey bees. However, as much as I’d like to say that any risk is too much risk, if that risk is nearly zero, which it seems to be at the moment, then I can’t help but question the motivation and rationale necessary to argue for a complete and immediate ban. It doesn’t add up.

P.S. #2: I have been a small-scale beekeeper in Newfoundland since 2010. I have no affiliation with the provincial beekeeping association, the Newfoundland government or any commercial beekeeping enterprise. I’m just one of a growing number of independent beekeepers disheartened by how beekeeping has been managed in Newfoundland by almost everyone involved. More info about this rambler can be found on the About page if you really want to know. Everything I’ve written here may be modified, updated, corrected or deleted at any time.

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