The disruption of air traffic due to the Covid-19 pandemic made beekeepers fear the worst in Canada. Each spring, package bees and queen bees are imported to Canada from a short list of approved locations.  They are ordered to arrive in time for the arrival of spring in that region, to replace queens and colonies that are lost or weakened over the winter, and to grow operations in time for the arrival of pollination season.

According to James Watson, the media relations officer at the public affairs branch of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Government of Canada, in a typical recent year, some 250,000 queen bees, primarily from the United States (Hawaii and California), as well as 40,000 “packages” (approximately one kilo of worker bees and a queen in a box or tube), primarily from Australia or New Zealand, are imported to Canada each spring.

Beyond the value of honey and other hive products, the value of pollination services, paid and unpaid, delivered to farmers of pollination-dependent crops, is estimated to be in the billions of dollars annually. Pollination dependent crops include blueberries, cranberries, tree fruits, some vegetables, and hybrid canola seeds. The value of honey bee pollination to Canadian crops annually is estimated to range from three to five billion dollars.

It is normally from March to May that international passenger flights land in Canada’s key airports with this unusual cargo in their bellies. These packages are often small and therefore passenger airlines can carry them on wide-body aircraft on international flights. They are quickly transferred into a narrow body planes or to trucks to move into their destination within Canada. The Canadian flag carrier has been playing a very critical role in this.

The Covid-19 pandemic drastically reduced passenger flight frequencies and that threatened Canada’s farmers of pollination-dependent crops. But Air Canada Cargo came to its rescue with some timely interventions.

A spokesperson for Air Canada Cargo said that it would be impossible for us to know the number of packages or shipments, as bees are booked under the same code as other insects and aquatics. “We don’t track it at that level. This year, we did track it because there was a lot of attention in the media about this, because the sudden drop in air cargo capacity created a bit of a panic.”

According to the spokesperson, Air Canada Cargo handled 100 shipments that were either international or from the US for a total of 62 tonnes. It also handled 328 domestic shipments (within Canada, using its narrow-body services) for a total of 50 tonnes.

“Covid-19 eliminated most travel, which resulted in airlines cancelling most or all of their flights. AAFC, together with the Canadian Honey Council, Air Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, worked out measures whereby Air Canada allowed for honey bees to be flown into and across Canada.” James Watson, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

To deal with the challenge arising out of the non availability of passenger flights and thus no access to belly capacity, AAFC, together with the Canadian Honey Council, Air Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, worked out measures whereby Air Canada allowed for honey bees to be flown into and across Canada.

“The evolving availability of bees from approved source countries, and limited opportunities for transportation, required flexibility and resourcefulness to import spring replacement bees to Canada,” said Watson.

On 28 April this year Air Canada Cargo did a charter (a cargo-only passenger freighter) from Auckland in New Zealand to Vancouver in Canada carrying 3,800 kilos of bees. Doing a charter for bee transport is a first for Air Canada Cargo because in the normal circumstances all those shipments travel along with other commodities in the cargo hold of passenger flights.

Air cargo management for bee transport 

Air cargo plays a critical role in bee transport because of its speed. Bees need to be transported without undue delay as their health would deteriorate if left on their own for too long. Unlike regular cargo, living queen bee shipments need to be kept at specific temperatures during their travel. Commercial passenger flights are ideal to transport bees because cargo holds are kept warm enough for the journey. “Temperature management for the full journey is critical to ensuring the bees are fully productive when they arrive in Canada,” said Watson.

From the air cargo management and planning side, there are several factors that need to be kept in mind when such cargo is carried. “At the planning stage, there are indications that need to be included in the booking to ensure the cargo hold is kept at the correct temperature. When they are in the facility, waiting to be boarded or retrieved, other bees from the neighborhood will be attracted to the shipment. This is important to know, as it can seem as if the shipped bees are escaping. They’re not! They’re just having visitors,” said the spokesperson for Air Canada Cargo.

In a report published in La Presse, a French publication in Canada, Joël Laberge, president of Stanabbey, a Montreal-based company specialised in beekeeping supplies, nutrition, packaged bees and queens, said the he would be able to meet the demand of his customers this year, but he said April and May months have been eventful. Stanabbey, established in 1960, operates a few thousand bee hives.

According to the report before the Covid-19 pandemic, queens always arrived from abroad on Air Canada passenger flights before being redistributed across the country on domestic flights. Things got complicated with the closing of borders to travellers. Its bees are now arriving from California using the UPS courier service.

"Logistics is more difficult. Having to go through UPS service adds another day to the process and is more stressful for losses. Previously, we had to go to Montreal once or twice a week; now we go there four times. It is double the management,” Laberge was quoted in the report.

Pierre Giovenazzo, a faculty at the Department of Biology in Laval University, Quebec, has been studying the potential dangers of extraordinary dependence on queen bee import for Canada’s pollination-dependent crops.

“We are extremely dependent on imports of bees. Imagine if at some point for one reason or another we can no longer import queens. What is at stake?” questions the assistant professor in the leadership chair in education in beekeeping sciences at Laval University in the above report.

Covid-19 pandemic is making every industry to take stock of the preparedness for risk mitigation. It is forcing global industries to pay attention to build resilient global supply chains.