Saskatchewan’s Bee Farmers Battle Drought & Disease

Temporary workers pull honey during harvest on July 14th 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ

It’s a typical frosty fall morning in rural Saskatchewan. Nick Hawrishok and his dad fire up the old work trucks at Kitalko Lake Honey as they begin retrieving the last of the nucleus colonies from different locations around the Lac Vert area. It’s the last hurrah of a bee season that has been threatened by factors outside the farmer’s control.

Today Saskatchewan is home to approximately 112,000 honey bee colonies which account for approximately 25 percent of Canada’s honey production. The industry not only produces honey but is also an important part of the ecological web that supports the province’s agriculture.

Disease and climate change are both large factors when it comes to bee keeping. New illnesses take time to treat and newer solutions are being experimented to keep the bees working. These concerns where tested this year as the Saskatchewan agricultural sector faced a very serious drought, one of the worst in Canadian history (CBC).

“This year was a reminder of how inclement weather can have an effect on the weather crop,” says Kitalko Lake Honey’s proprietor Steven Hawrishok.

Bees that are still alive are seen on a nucleus on October 31st 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Steven Hawrishok, Owner of Kitako Lake Honey inspects a canola crop near a cluster of hives on July 14th 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ

Farming has always been a precarious career, with local and international forces shaping the daily lives for those who put in the hard work to keep the agricultural industry moving. The bee farming industry shares many of the same trials and tribulations: climate challenges or global diseases being transported over borders are just some of the pitfalls facing those who enter this business.

Kitalko Lake Honey is a true family business, everyone chips in. Steven’s father Jim initially began operations in the 80’s after moving to the farm. Steven, who bought his first bee hives in 2013, took over Kitalko Lake Honey from his dad in 2016. Over the years both Steven’s parents turned the farm into a bee keeping operation that has grown to sell product wholesale and with Steven’s input, is now a commercial product that can bee seen in shelves across the province.

Jim Hawrishok, other of Steven Hawrishok, who originally built the bee farm lights a tool used to smoke bees to make them more docile on October 31st 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Nick Hawrishok uses a pallet jack to move hives into a heated storage facility under the family farm where the bees will remain until spring on October 31st 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Nick Hawrishok and Jim Hawrishok load nuclei onto a truck to bring inside at the end of the season on October 31st 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ

The relationship of the honey bee and the crops they pollinate is very symbiotic: if one of the other’s vital parts shuts down it can jeopardize the operation of the other. These are some of the issues that are always on Steven’s mind which add a lot of stress to a young entrepreneur carrying on a family legacy. “You would have to be a very privileged farmer to deal with losing a year” says Steven when discussing the sustainability of his farming operations.

A lot has changed since the 80s: technology, the environment and learning on the fly have all shape the business that exists today. As Steven states on his website, the company has an “attitude for experimentation”.

He is now using new methods to keep bee farming afloat like organic chemicals and “culture control” by cleaning and fumigating used frames so that disease does not cross contaminate new colonies. “We cant rely on the same old methods for pest and disease control,” he says.

Steven Hawrishok, Owner of Kitako Lake Honey harvests honey on July 14th 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ

Despite Kitalko Lake being a family-owned operation it takes a medium sized crew of workers to pull the year’s harvest from multiple locations scattered around various farms where the hives are situated. The most common crop is canola but Steven’s bees take from both clover and wildflower from nearby brush.

Although the family managed to have a satisfactory harvest at Kitalko Lake, Steven did have to end his season much sooner due to the early harvest of canola, which his bees depend on as a source of nectar. Steven had the successful harvest he needed to carry him through the winter but as with other bee farmers across the province the next season is always cause for concern.

Boxes full of honey sit in a field before being loaded onto a truck during harvest on July 14th 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Dead bees are seen on a nucleus on October 31st 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Temporary workers pull honey during harvest on July 14th 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Nick Hawrishok ties on boxes contained with bees onto the truck at the end of the season on October 31st 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Temporary workers pull honey during harvest on July 14th 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Steven Hawrishok, Owner of Kitako Lake Honey moves boxes full of honey into storage after pulling them out of the field as part of harvest season on July 14th 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
The Hawrishok family farm on October 31st 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ

Temporary workers wait before harvesting begins on July 14th 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ
Nick Hawrishok helps gather wood at the end of the work day to heat the family home on October 31st 2021 in Lac Vert, Saskatchewan. Kayle Neis/TNPJ

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Written By

Kayle Neis

Kayle Neis is an editorial and documentary photographer based in Montréal, Quebec. Completing his BA in Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, His photography focuses on politics/social issues and recovery. Kayle is an alumni of Eddie Adams XXXI.