Between Slave Lake and Kinuso, there’s a honey sign two roads east of the Swan Hills turnoff. This sign for McLaughlin Apiaries has been up for forty years.
The McLaughlins bought the farm down the road in 1977, says Kirk McLaughlin. His father had bees from when he was a child, but didn’t start farming them commercially until the late 70s. Until the early 80s, the apiary bought new bees each year, but in the early 80s. They were part of a push to breed bees which could ‘over winter’ in Canada.
The bees keep the swarm within the hive at 34 degrees Celsius, says McLaughlin. In the summer, they circle near the bottom of the hive to keep it cool and in the winter they fly to keep each other warm.
In its heyday, McLaughlin Apiary had 400 hives and bred and sold queen bees all over Canada. Mites and other factors caused the McLaughlin bee population to decline.
A few years ago, like many beekeepers, McLaughlin started buying bees from New Zealand. Over the last few years, it has downsized. The plan this year was to have 50 hives, but it only has 30. McLaughlin sells honey locally, but is no longer a commercial grower.
COVID-19 has impacted beekeepers because bees aren’t native to North America and so each winter some die. These are usually replaced by shipments from New Zealand and other places, but most international flights have been shut down, so the bees weren’t shipped.
Bumble bees, wasps and other bees are native to North America, says McLaughlin, but none of these make honey or store honey in large enough quantities to be harvested.
The Canadian Wildlife Federation says there are 800 types of bees native to Canada.
McLaughlin Apiaries sells honey from the ‘honey barn’ a barn-shaped shed on the farm.
“The honey is as natural as we can keep it without floating wax in it,” says McLaughlin. Some customers buy the honey to help with seasonal allergies. This is because it is made with local pollen. This is often the pollen people are allergic to.
The new honey will be available in mid-August. Last year’s honey has crystallized, but there’s no real difference since honey doesn’t go bad.
Southeast of Slave Lake near Smith, Scott Hastie has a few hives, but otherwise the hives in the southern part of the M.D. of Lesser Slave River are owned by a keeper from outside of the area.
On a larger scale, Kemp Honey west of High Prairie is a commercial apiary. It is currently sold out of honey. It also sells honey-based natural body products.
“Alberta is the largest producer of honey in Canada,” says a recent Alberta government media release, “producing 41 million pounds annually and contributing $67 million to the economy.” This honey is produced by 168 commercial beekeepers in Alberta.