Happy New Year! If you’ve been considering taking up beekeeping, this may just be your year. If you’ve been reading articles about declining bee health and a variety of issues that affect both honey and native bees, you can absolutely begin keeping bees in a sustainable way. This may be honeybees but you may also want to just start maintaining a pollinator friendly garden. Not everybody has the time or means to be a full fledged beekeeper…but we can all take care of the bees who ensure our food supply and economy are secure. It’s estimated bees are responsible for one in three bites of food we eat at every meal. Having bees on site increases crop yield by a third, and many farmers are moving to using bumblebee vectoring as a means to spread beneficial microbes that inhibit grey mould on raspberries for example, extending shelf life and food value by about a week. In terms of our economy, honey sales in Canada totalled $173 million in 2012 alone. The direct and indirect value of pollination, however, is even greater; 2.7 billion per annum according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Aside from finances and our food supply, bees’ role as an indicator species cannot be ignored.
The oldest bee fossil discovered in 2006 is that of Melittosphex Burmensis, trapped in amber for a hundred million years. When an ancient, highly resilient superorganism begins to die in unprecedented and unsustainable numbers, we should take immediate action to ensure their survival, which is linked closely to our own. In 2013/14, Ontario lost 58% of our colonies, a grave statistic considering that just 15% winter hive losses are considered sustainable. As the Ontario Beekeepers Association notes, this number is misleading as it does not take Spring or Summer losses into consideration, which largely resulted from weakened immune systems of bees due to sublethal effects of neonicotinoid buildup in hives and corn planting which at that time in Ontario was 99% composed of neonic treated seeds, along with our other main crops wheat and soy (also neonic coated meaning the systemic pesticide grows throughout the entire plant, including what was served on our dinner plates). Toxin laden hives were not resistant to a myriad of other bee health issues including mites, AFB and more.
Since our worst year ever on record for bee losses, we have seen legislative change largely due to direct action by beekeepers both in advocacy through largely impotent government process and very public protests including 2014’s Requiem for Bees. This was the fifth such protest I organized, when beekeepers dumped a million dead bees into a coffin at Queens Park, marched with thousands of people through the streets of Toronto with the dead bees, and made national news. Intense public pressure led to neonic restrictions in Ontario at that point, so this year is the first we will see neonics used according to their intended use, and not as a prophylactic which has been proven to kill not only beneficial insects but also songbirds, according to the American Songbird Conservancy. The Ontario government pledged to reduce neonic use by 80%, a decision protested heavily by pesticide corporation funded Grain Farmers Association. Quebec beekeepers who have also seen unacceptable levels of bee losses have joined in advocacy efforts and we hope all of Canada restricts bee-killing pesticides and promotes healthier farming practices.
That said this could be a great time for you to get into beekeeping! The past couple of years I haven’t had any ‘dead-outs’ over winter and I attribute this to both keeping my bees away from contaminated areas as much as possible (thank you urban roofs and backyards!), and reduced neonic exposure for those bees in agricultural areas now forced to follow healthier pesticide practices. Common questions from those interested in beekeeping follow.
You may be wondering how to begin. Beekeeping doesn’t have to be complicated to get into; you are best to find a mentor to work with either for a full season before you get your own bees or at the very least in tandem with your first nuc (packaged box of bees, usually about 10000 workers and drones, and a queen). I do not remember a time I didn’t want to be an apiarist. My family in Ireland kept bees for generations and in traditional Irish culture, bees were considered sacred; the Druidic indigenous Brehon laws have more detail dedicated to bees and their care than any other topic. Bees are indeed sacred and our hives contain powerful medicines for example propolis, a substance bees make from select tree resins which is anti-bacterial, antiviral and anti fungal. Sound incredible? Recent peer reviewed studies of Brazilian red and green propolis have demonstrated tumour killing properties. Having trained with the American Apitherapy Society I could go on about the efficacy of bee venom therapy but just wait till you get stung! But to begin put an order in with a reputable breeder and set yourself up with a mentor. You don’t need to offer to volunteer to help as frankly having a beginner in a bee yard is more work for a beekeeper established in their ways. Just join local beekeeping meeting, no need to sign up for expensive hipster-play-beekeeper programs. It’s an ancient tradition and I like passing on my knowledge in an accessible way. Except to those who’ve taken photos of my bees without permission, pretend they own the bees and use them for marketing purposes…we are a small community. There are less than 7000 beekeepers in Canada. Bee nice.
Do you get stung? Yes, and I feel bad each time a bee rips her organs out trying to defend her home from me so I try my best to work slowly and peacefully with the bees. My meditation teacher came out to my hives and made a beautiful meditation which you can find on Youtube (Dorothy Ratusny). Only female bees (workers are all female) have barbed stingers, housed in her vagina, which will allow her to sting just once. Your harvesting process will be much easier and less fatal to bees if you use a Quebec Bee Escape, very simple to use. With this affordable device bees move down into the brood chamber out of the honey box completely within 24 hours, and it’s much less disturbing for the bees, which translates into few if any stings. When I do get stung, I am grateful for the anti-inflammatory effects of bee venom. Stings happen.
Do I need a suit? Yes. You cannot predict when your hive may become ‘hot’ or vicious. Weather, genetics, death of a queen, and even your own odour may impact bee behaviour in unpredictable ways. Also as a beginner you will be more relaxed with less jerky movements if you feel safe. Don’t let anyone try to convince you to be a hero! These days I can often go without a suit but I like to have one close-by just in case. Also if you like taking selfies tossing you hair around at the beehive, please be advised that bee legs were designed to stick on flowers and after she gets trapped in your sexy hair, a bee will be terrified and sting your scalp. Wear a veil. Don’t bee an idiot.
How much honey will I get? In a healthy hive you will likely be able to harvest anywhere between 50-200 pounds per hive. Your management practices, breeding, surrounding pollen and nectar forage area and other factors will determine how much you may be able to harvest. As a hobbyist, there will be years you harvest nothing, unless you want to kill your bees via winter starvation. Your first year you should let the bees build up and not expect any surplus honey.
How far will be bees fly? Bees will forage up to 8 kilometres away and communicate sweet spots to their sister with very sophisticated directional dances. It is imperative that you monitor and take good care of your bees to avoid spreading highly contagious diseases to other bees in the surrounding area. One such disease is American Foulbrood, a devastating disease for which you are required by law to burn all affected hives (including your bees).
Will my neighbours know if I have them? If you adjust flight paths with fencing or other structures, you can keep bees out of your neighbour’s yards. But it really depends on how close your neighbours are and how much you like to brag about your new hobby! In any case have at least one epi-pen on hand. Nobody wants anaphylaxis.
What laws govern where I can have a hive? The Bees Act in Ontario states that hives must be at least 30 metres from the nearest property line. Local bylaws also dictate what livestock, if any, you are permitted to have and where. In Ontario anyone with hives is required to register with OMAFRA. Each province has their own set of rules around beekeeping; I am envious of Vancouver residents whose council aims to make theirs one of the most sustainable cities, and are encouraged to keep bees, openly. Regardless of where you aim to keep bees, make sure you are keenly aware of spotting swarming behaviours (queen cells, overcrowding) and intervene by making a split or adding another box so you don’t make neighbourhood bees scary and lead to more restrictive practices! Although swarming bees are at their calmest as their sole intention is to find a new home, most people have no direct experience with swarms and are understandably frightened of a cloud of bees. Always have extra brood and honey supers on hand, and more frames than you think you need. Gently inspect your hives every 7-10 days. Bee observant.
How much will it cost? It depends on whether you make your own or buy all new equipment. If you are buying used, have a Bee Inspector assess the equipment; this is a legal requirement to avoid the spread of disease. If you are lucky enough to catch a swarm you will not have to buy a nuc; which otherwise will currently run you anywhere from $150-200, depending on the time in the season you buy and other factors. With a new suit, nuc, smoker, hive body (also called box or super) and farms you are probably looking at about $500 to begin. I advise a ventilated suit as it is extremely hot in a canvas suit in increasingly hot summers. Apihex has an impressive selection of beginner kits which will save you money in the long run.
What if I have an emergency? If you are ever unsure of any issue with your new bees, we are very lucky as beekeepers to have Bee Inspectors who will come out for free and look at your hive(s) and help you determine bee health and any actions you need to take. Don’t bee afraid!
If you do decide to take up beekeeping, know that you will never know everything about bees. This makes it a complex and fascinating area to constantly learn about bees, and yourself. My own mentor has been keeping bees since 1949 and is consistently humble in saying that he knows ‘nothing’ about bees, nature is full of surprises. Beekeeping is such a nice way to connect with nature and each other; I never would have met many amazing people if not for our shared bee love. Bees have brought me to several countries and even my dogs have gotten in on my beekeeping pursuits. My young dog, Winnie, woke me up this past summer when my bees were just starting to swarm on a record setting high heat day, she forced me outside and I am still in awe of how connected and interdependent we really are. I managed to catch them after several attempts and eventually rigging up a low suction bee-vac. Bees were thought by our ancestors to be messengers of our prayers to our Creator. It’s time we listen to the bees too, and act as stewards on their behalf in all of our respective ways. Blessed Bee.