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Thoughts on Being a Fair Fair Judge
What makes first-class honey? Is it the taste? The flavour? The colour? A lack of bubbly foam, dirt, bee lips, and assorted bee organs? It's a personal choice, of course. Some like it spicy; some like it mild. But the honey judge at the County Fair has to rise above personal quirks and has to select the Blue Ribbon Best of Show on something approaching non-biased criteria.
I was a honey judge at the Millarville Fair today. For some reason, the number of entries was small. A few years ago, there were 40 jars of honey to critique. This year, there were far fewer - it is turning into a good honey year, so maybe all the beekeepers were busy with their bees. Nevertheless, judging proceeded and in the photo to your right you can see the First, Second, and Third Ribbon winners. It takes courage - and time and patience - to enter your honey into a contest. Kudos to those who dare to compete. And filter, fill jars, and finally present their homemade treasure for inspection by some odd character such as I. I tried to be fair. But we all know that wine and honey connoisseurs are snobs.
Well, here is how you, too, can be a honey snob. If you can see the chart in the photograph, you can see how the honey entries are scored here in southern Alberta. Most of the graded factors are entirely objective. Container, for example, worth 10 of the 100 points, includes the appropriateness of the jar (sorry, re-used pickle bottles get fewer marks), cleanliness (not too sticky, please), and the container's lid and surface condition (no chips on the glass or bent metal on the lid). And so it goes through the list. The only somewhat subjective attribute relates to flavour and taste. But this has nothing to do with the judge's appreciation of honey. I may like the foulest, blackest buckwheat (an obvious personal defect in my psyche), but I have to rise above that and treat the whitest, mildest honey with equal respect. The attributes of flavour and taste must associate with the honey entry's degree of suitable (or unsuitable) in quality despite any ravishes of heat or water. Too much heat in the processing spoils otherwise wonderful honey, darkening it and imparting a caramelized flavour. Too much water (moisture) in the honey quickly results in a sour or vinegary flavour - it will spoil. These are the things the judge is judging when flavour and taste are being examined. In the end, then, honey should be judged on its suitability as a food and on its bright and clean presentation. If you would like a copy of the scoring sheet I used for this purpose, you can download it here.
Have you heard of the Robo-Suit? Japanese scientists are responding to the problem of creaky-boned farmers in their country by designing muscle suits that can be worn over the farmer's khakis. Two-thirds of Japan's farmers are over the age of 65. And much Japanese agriculture operates on small, hand-tended estates. Not so many big tractors there. If the farmer reaches down to pluck a carrot, the exoskeleton provides back support. If the farmer holds a heavy load, the exoskeleton can straighten, strengthen, and support legs. Grape-picking farmers are provided upright posture. One prototype has eight motors, multiple motion sensors and voice recognition software that allows the user to give it commands. When the machine recognizes that a load is becoming too heavy or muscles are getting too tired, it compensates for the human’s strength with its metal and plastic frame.
They are working on this idea in Korea, too. Your next Hyundai might be assembled by a small army of bionic men. Or at least loaded onto a ship built by bionic men - the sprawling Korean Daewoo ship-building yard has begun testing human-robot hybrids. Workers strapped into a prototype exoskeleton can effortlessly lift 30 kilos (65 pounds) - about the weight of a super of honey. New models will lift almost 200 pounds. The shipyard has just inked a contract to build 10 of the world's largest freighters (each will be nearly half a kilometre long and hold 18,000 containers). The men in suits will soon be hoisting and holding and welding pieces of steel heavier than themselves. The suit itself is heavy (about 50 pounds) but the worker feels none of that weight because the aluminum and steel frame's mass is distributed through the skeleton down into the wearer's boots.
The military has been watching. And for years, they have been developing their own exoskeletons. The goal is to have a platoon of soldiers trudging hours on end, carrying 200-pounds of gear, possibly even napping while their robo-suits are marching forward on auto-pilot. Special-Ops and Navy Seals are expected to be outfitted with some model of Iron Man suits by late-summer 2018. A beekeeper might not benefit from all the nifty flame-throwers and razor-fingers, but the fact that military use exists makes the suit's reality and rapid development more likely.
Meanwhile, the other big segment of America's economy, health care, is also beginning to see exoskeletons as a part of the rehab for patients who have suffered strokes and accidents which limit mobility. But the really remarkable breakthrough will come when light-weight, easily donned robo-suits allow paraplegics to stand and walk. This has already been accomplished in trials. In June, the FDA approved the sale of ReWalk units, a robotic system developed by an Israeli tech company. It was tested at Mount Sinai (the hospital, not the hill) by Errol Samuels, a former athlete who says getting out of his wheelchair was "like a breath of fresh air." Indeed, exercise and mobility are tough for people forced into a sedentary life by disease or accident. This system would improve circulation and general health, to say nothing of mood and quality of life. As my own paralysis advances year-by-year (I have a motor neuron disorder, similar to Stephen Hawking's illness), so anything that can increase my activity level is eagerly sought.
I want one. Bee hive honey boxes often weigh 40 kilos (over 80 pounds). And the average beekeeper's age is now 57. This exoskeleton-robo-suit would find a ready market in the army of honey-harvesters in North America. Imagine working through an apiary in half the time at a third the effort. The farmer's friend has been on sale in Japan for a million yen (about $10,000) per suit, but the price is expected to drop to about $5000. For beekeepers, the robo-suit would strap overtop the bee-suit. Five thousand dollars is beyond the reach of most beekeepers, but if it eliminates back surgery later in life, it's a worthy investment. And if you are already having trouble walking, such an outfit could keep you active a lot longer.
The Mountain Mystery
Ever wonder why the world has mountains? Where do those things come from? Ask most school kids and they will tell you about plate tectonics - the continents are moving, they bump into each other, mountains are the wreckage from continental collisions. But just fifty years ago, geologists were still thinking mountains are the result of a shrinking Earth. Or an expanding Earth. Or they would have mentioned some complicated system of deep trenches, heat, pressure, and - look out - mountains come springing up. That was 50 years ago.
The idea of mountains puzzled me, too. When I discovered that the science of mountains is about as old as I am, I thought I'd read up on the people who figured out continental drift and plate tectonics. It turned out to be so interesting that I gathered up everything I could find (about thirty books and a thousand scientific papers) and I wrote a book about the people who figured the whole thing out. The book, The Mountain Mystery, is a "people book," not a science book, though you will accidentally learn a bit about the nature of science along the way. I'd like you to read it, then send me your thoughts about the story.
If you are among my many friends who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, I'd especially like to hear from you after you have read this book. But be forewarned - I have been a geophysicist and a scientist too many years and the system has corrupted me into seeing the world as over four billion years in age. But science is an open book and I would change my mind in a flash with evidence to the contrary. If you are among the folks who don't think continents can move, you might not be aware that over 2,000 GPS monitors are stuck like pins into our planet and are tracking the Earth's movements in real-time, even as you read these words. The continents are moving. Finally, if you are among my many, many friends who are fascinated by everything in science and nature, but don't know anything about geology or earth sciences, then this book is absolutely for you. You can buy The Mountain Mystery from Amazon - it went on sale earlier this week. By the way, honey bees make a cameo appearance near the end of the book, but this is not a beekeeping book.
Alberta beekeepers have initiated a nation-wide program to monitor the health of Canadian bees. Even though Alberta has been largely untouched by heavy losses (so far), the Alberta Beekeepers Commission wants to stay ahead of potential disaster. Alberta beekeepers lost an average of 18% over this past winter (2013-2014). Tragically, Ontario beekeepers lost 58% of their colonies, according to a new CAPA publication you will find at this link. Beekeepers, according to the professional apiculturalists' report, cited weather as the leading factor in winter losses this past year. The winter weather resulted in higher levels of starvation than normal. Secondary losses - as listed by the beekeepers managing the hives - were poor queens and nosema issues. Excluding the disaster in Ontario, the overall average for Canada was 19.2% of wintered hives lost. Beekeepers have already made splits and purchased packages and nucs to make up the losses - in fact, Canadian beekeepers are expected to operate more colonies in 2014 than they did in 2013.
The new Alberta-initiated surveillance project will yield real data about the prevalence of disease and pests across Canada. These numbers are needed to calibrate and understand what might cause bee deaths. This is part of the reason the Alberta beekeepers have begun this massive study. The work will be led by Dr. Carlos Castillo at the National Bee Diagnostic Centre in Beaverlodge, Alberta, and honey bees from all ten provinces will be sampled for common pests and diseases as well as exotic high-risk invaders. Some of this work has been done on a regional level, but never nation-wide. It will take four years to complete the project as currently designed. Important to the work will likely be factorial and statistical analysis that might collate the various factors that occur simultaneously in failing colonies. As this blog pointed out not long ago, combinations of factors very often outweigh the sum of individual problems affecting bees. In other words, a mild varroa infection or a mild nosema infection might be manageable individually, but when they strike together, the results could be bitterly painful. This sort of thing requires data, not speculation, to understand. The new nation-wide honey bee surveillance program is designed to gather that sort of data.
Happy Dusty Anniversary
You know what they say about new technology - someone always finds a way to put it to nasty use. Combine airplanes and chemicals, and what could possibly go wrong? Let's fly back to 1921 and visit a grove of catalpas covered in Sphynx moth caterpillars. They are dead now, mostly because 1921 was nearly a hundred years ago and worms don't live that long. But it did little for their longevity that the 6-acre grove of trees they once feasted upon was assaulted by lead arsenic from the air. It was the world's first aerial dust application, the birth of crop dusting. It was hugely successful according to the Cleveland, Ohio, entomologist who suggested the scheme. The dusting killed all the bugs. All of them. And probably some rabbits and deer, too. And added to the arsenal used to slaughter bees.
The slaughter continues. A year ago, I posted a blog entry about bees killed in Florida by poisons used by one on the state's largest citrus companies. I sent two e-mails to Florida's Natural marketing cooperative, asking their representative how they felt about having one of their members found guilty of violating state law. That was a year ago. They did not respond to my e-mail. So, I thought I'd repeat the piece from September 4, 2013. Here it is:
A bee-kill decision in Florida. According to Palm Beach's The Ledger, beekeepers Barry Hart and Randall Foti lost $390,000 worth of bees and honey production when one of Florida's largest citrus producers sprayed pesticides. (The loss does not seem exaggerated. For example, Foti's honey production was off by 200 drums of orange blossom honey and millions of dead bees were piled in front of his hives.) According to a Florida state investigation, the spraying was illegal. The grower, Ben Hill Griffin Inc, was ordered to pay a fine. Of $1,500. That's the fine?? Destroy two beekeepers, pay $1,500? It would be bad enough if the pesticide use had been legal and all those bees were killed. But $1,500 for an illegal application of poison resulting in this sort of damage? This sends the signal that one might spray whenever and however it best suits the grower, then shell out the trivial fine. The state pointed out that the maximum fine is $10,000 per instance of abuse. The state says pesticide laws were violated by Ben Hill Griffin Inc on February 21, February 22, March 8, and March 19, 2013. That would sort of indicate four violations and up to $40,000 in fines. According to one of the beekeepers, Randall Foti, every four days they were spraying where his bees were working. The insecticide application occurred while the orange trees were in full bloom. Millions of bees died.
This is all very interesting, but, as it turns out, there is much more to this story. The company accused of using the pesticides is a green, natural citrus grower, indicates Florida's Natural Growers, a marketing cooperative. The fellow in charge is a fourth-generation grower - apparently a gentleman with a deep love for the environment, for the aquifer, for wildlife. According to Florida's Natural website, the groves' operator, Ben Hill Griffin IV, "prides his grove operation on environmental stewardship, as it helps to recharge the aquifer, generate oxygen, and provide a home for an abundance of wildlife. Many of the family's decisions in the groves are made to accommodate both the health of the citrus trees and the land they grow from." I could almost hear frogs croaking and birds tweeting as I read about the way oranges are grown by Ben Hill Griffin Inc. What I read were all very nice words and who can doubt what Florida's Natural Co-op says? Certainly not I. So, I wrote to Florida's Natural and asked how the company that stands accused by the state of Florida (and is ordered to pay the pittance of a fine) fits with the Florida's Natural brand. Natural, right? If they write back, I'll amend this blog entry with their information.
In reading the family biography and the Ben Hill Griffin company details on the Florida's Natural website, I felt compassion for the corporation. They love the land. They must be heart-broken about the tragedy they have apparently caused. They have a fleet of pickup trucks painted in "Griffin Green." Green. The clean color. The present owner started in the family business at age 11, "working with the baby trees in the family nursery." Sigh. But Ben Hill Griffin Inc is a huge corporation. The University of Florida's football stadium is named after the founder of that huge corporation. Ben Hill Griffin Jr, now deceased, was majority share holder of a company that owned the land the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad was built on - and various sugarcane, citrus, cattle, forestry, and sod farms. He was on the Forbes List of richest Americans. When he died, his $300,000,000 estate was bitterly contested in court by his four daughters who seemed to feel the one son (Ben Hill Griffin III), who was the sole trustee, had grabbed the bulk of the money, according to the Orlando Sentinel. In the newspaper's story "Drama Ends With Heirs Splitting Citrus Millions," they describe the fight as tabloid stuff: "The closet door swung open and out fell the skeletons..." This is not your average grove-owning family. Among Griffin Jr's grandchildren are several Republican politicians. You might remember Katherine Harris, a Griffin granddaughter, who was Florida Secretary of State in 2000 when the 'hanging chad' issue contributed to George Bush's election. Other members of the family have been in the Florida Senate and House. This is a powerful family. So it is really reassuring that their company is so anxious to do good things for the environment.
Beekeeper Foti has said that he saw empty containers of Montana 2F insecticide in a burn pile in the groves. If this is true, what does it say about one's love for aquifers, the land, the wildlife? Or maybe empty canisters of Imidacloprid stacked in a burning pile are OK? I have read Montana 2F's label. Surprisingly, yes, old containers may be burned if so allowed by the state, but the label also warns: "If burned, stay out of the smoke." Always good advice. Stay out of the smoke. The label also says:
"This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment or residues on blooming crops or weeds. Do not apply this product or allow it to drift to blooming crops or weeds if bees are visiting the treatment area. This product is toxic to wildlife and highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates."
In issuing its fine the Florida regulators also said that in using insecticides, "The label is the law."
Morgan Freeman is incredible. Whether you enjoyed him driving over Ms Daisy or gaining redemption after Shawshank, you likely admired the way the man can perform. I really began to appreciate Freeman when I started watching his series of science documentaries on Discovery, the astrophysics lectures called Through the Wormhole. Respect for the actor is deep - he was born in Tennessee, grew up in rural Mississippi, yet became comfortable in Hollywood. To top it off, at age 65 he earned his pilot's license and he flies a Cessna 414. Now 77, he decided to become a beekeeper. And it's not just a one-hive gimmick. He is keeping 26 colonies on his Mississippi farm. He's the beekeeper. (You'll enjoy his interview on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show where he told us about his new business.)
So, it's acting, flying, lecturing, and beekeeping. What's not to like? That's what I was wondering when I saw a Facebook page, owned by someone called JD, gushing with pride that Morgan Freeman has taken up with the bees. Facebook, as most readers of this blog know, sometimes turns into a rowdy forum with deadbeats and losers leaving their entrails and brain droppings scattered under even the most innocent of postings. Here is what one respondent replied to JD's enthusiasm. "Freeman is a creep. Animal scat." That was it. Nothing more. No explanation, no sources, no references. Just raw, juvenile arrogant opinion. Nothing at all to back up the stupidity, just mindless trolling rants. And this is a problem with much "social media." Here in Canada, the RCMP have just arrested someone for allegedly bullying a former co-worker by allegedly posting crap about the co-worker, co-worker's friends, and co-workers family on the net. The alleged bully, with over 100 charges against him, allegedly went to the trouble of creating fake Facebook accounts under the victims' names and then, for years, he apparently wrote all manner of insult about them. If ordinary people can be attacked, how does a person like Morgan Freeman defend himself against tirades that have no substance? Why are so many people cowardly bullying and lying, while hidden behind somewhat anonymous walls? I have received my share of mail from the stupids. You, of course, learn to ignore it and you worry about the safety of the sender's family, but it still burns up a little bit of your soul when you are hit by spitballs.
By the way, if you suspect Freeman is not really the Beeman Freeman, read on. He was asked what he is doing with the bees right now. "Feeding them sugar syrup. I mix two parts water and one part sugar." He is also (so far) not using a bee suit in his apiary rounds. How does he keep from getting stung? "I resonate," the new beekeeper said.
I previewed a new beekeeping movie, something a little different. I have to give Bee People a mixed review. I'll walk through some of what I liked, do my thumbs down bit, then try to wrap up with some overall impressions.
The good news. First - and this is a big positive - the photography was excellent. Lots of good close-ups of bees, occasionally interesting scenery, and smart, well-positioned camera angles. As a beekeeper, I enjoy seeing hives, seeing bees, seeing honey. But I also like watching people. Bee People lives up to its title with lots of interesting characters. Their interactions, though sometimes clumsily staged, are mostly genuine. A third aspect which makes the film appealing to me is the general lack of in-your-face the-sky-is-falling-in commentary. This is not yet another movie about colony collapse disorder, or the New World Order's conspiracy to starve us by poisoning our bees, or an exaggerated re-take on the statement that Einstein is credited with, but never said. Instead, the very real and very difficult situation of severe losses of bees for some beekeepers is obliquely referenced. Sometimes such a subtle approach is more palatable and makes a stronger case. So instead, the movie focuses on a small group of Colorado beekeepers (with a brief scene in NYC and New Jersey, and a cameo of the film's only real expert, Dr Larry Connor). The beekeepers shown are almost all newbies: enthusiastic, but unskilled.
I had three issues with the Bee People movie. These shouldn't stop any lover of all things bee, but they stood out in my mind. First, I had trouble finding a theme, or raison d'etre for the film. I found myself asking, "What the heck is this about?" and "Who's the audience going to be?" There is a long string of vignettes - some interesting, some not so much - but I couldn't find the glue that was supposed to hold them together. That might have been my own problem. Others might see it as a look at people who care about bees, but for me, there is little incentive to watch a movie about people I can see anytime.
I hope absolutely no one takes Bee People as an educational documentary because this is my second criticism. Factually, the film is a mess. Although it does not play up sympathy for dying bees, there are the statements "Commercial beekeepers lose 60% of their hives every year." and "Every time commercial beekeepers open their hives, they find 75% of their bees are dead." Simply not true. Winter losses for commercial beekeepers have been rather high, averaging 31% for the past 8 years, but commercial beekeepers make up the winter losses from splits in the spring (or they buy queens and packages from beekeepers who specialize in such sales). Overall numbers of hives in the USA have not dropped in the past few years - there are actually several hundred thousand more kept colonies today than there were in 2006 when CCD was first reported. (And world-wide, the number of colonies has increased much more.)
But more egregious errors surface in the beekeeping practices that are shown. At one point someone shows us how to put an active hive back together without squashing bees. And does it wrong. And then sort of shrugs and says that you will always kill a few. In another scene, the Bee Guru performs a "bee rescue" which turns into a major farce. He and his friends spend 8 hours ripping open a barn which is home to a huge, thriving, well-established colony. From the dark combs, heavy propolis, and kilos of honey stored by the bees, this is a colony which clearly did not need humans "rescuing" it. They were doing just fine and likely were headed by a queen with superior genetics - the bees had lived without meds and chemical treatment for years in the barn. The landowner apparently wanted the bees out, but she herself was a beekeeper, so the removal wasn't because she was afraid of bees. Maybe this was a "barn rescue" and not a bee rescue. Because they took so long removing the bees, the fiasco turned into a robbing frenzy with neighbourhood bees descending on the open combs lying about. This "rescue" was in September so the bees that were hoovered up had no chance to re-establish themselves before winter. Instead, the "rescued" bees were coated with powdered sugar and placed atop an established hive at a new location so the two colonies might fight it out, or possibly merge. No mention was made of the queen. I was actually sick to the stomach watching the brutal demise of the old colony.
In the last major scene of the movie, the Bee Guru flies to New York City to help the Bee Cop who, it seems, called the Bee Guru as a reinforcement to remove bees from a house. They get to the house, use a $7,000 heat sensor to locate a nest behind a wall, rip into it, and find abandoned combs, no bees. The combs were occupied by fat ugly wax worms. Bee Guru and Bee Cop both seemed surprised that the wax worms give off heat - which was what the sensor had detected. This made a rather surreal scene for the movie. The effect, to me, is simply a big Yuck! because of the webby wormy mess - with great photography - and the scene comes near enough to the end to make it one of my last mental images of the film.
My third problem with the movie: Some of the bee people showcased by Bee People seem less than endearing. I couldn't like the Bee Guru, though I tried. He came across as rather self-assured and self-important. (To his credit, there is a clip of the Bee Guru telling us how brilliantly innovative beekeepers are, then telling himself to "Deflate, deflate.") In a particularly strange scene, one of the beekeepers pushes on the tail end of a squat pig named Pickles, forcing her from his house - sorry, I could neither identify with this nor see how it added to the film. On the other hand, there was the Bee Medic who seemed like a nice guy, a new beekeeper, someone I could have a beer with. The Writer (Leslie Ellis) was the nicest of all and I'd gladly have two beers with her. She was enthusiastic and self-effacing and the sort of person one wants to see keeping bees. A briefly-spotlighted family of beekeepers also seemed like totally nice folks, as did a new kid beekeeper harvesting a great honey crop. Unfortunately, he was being coached by the Bee Guru who told onlookers that beekeepers get stung on the nose more than any other place. Totally untrue, real beekeepers mostly get stung on the hands and fingers. But then again, the Bee Guru was rarely (if ever) working bees without gloves, so maybe in his case it is true.
Here is my recommendation. If you are new at beekeeping, you might identify with some of the characters. If you have a friend getting into bees, you might watch this and learn that beekeepers are strange birds, but if you have a friend who is a beekeeper, you already know this. If you are looking for hints and tips or profound knowledge, that will only come from Larry Connor, near the end of the flick when he says he likes the new beekeepers who are getting involved, but cautions against becoming a "drive-by beekeeper" the most apt term I'd never heard before. Larry tells us to beware the beekeeper who jumps into the hobby, drives by the bee supply store, drives by the bee yard - in other words, never engages, never becomes a real beekeeper. That person's bees will die. Instead, says the master, find a good mentor and make a real commitment to beekeeping. For a new beekeeper, that's the best advice possible.
Cool in the line of fire
Gotta give the prime minister's wife credit. She was cool and calm. Unlike the unfortunate beekeeper/chef who was jumping around and swatting bees. Had to be sooo embarrassing for the executive chef. Just another day in the public spotlight for Laureen Harper. Why so calm? She's probably like that all the time, but it helps that Laureen grew up on a little farm near Turner Valley, south of Calgary, where the family had a greenhouse business and kept some bees. I like that she put the lid back on the hive, keeping the bees from getting even more irritated. You can watch the video (it's worth viewing) by going to this link. She seems a natural beekeeper - wish she had also been Canada's prime minister for these past eight years.
Canola - a tasteful upgrade
Canola is in peak bloom here this week. The cultivated oil-seed crop is a phenomenal honey producer. Canadian farmers plant just over 20 million acres of the crop each year. It yields about 100 pounds of honey per acre. If there were enough bees to collect it all, Canada would have a crop of 2 billion pounds of canola honey. As it is, we produce about 90 million pounds, but that includes alfalfa, sweetclover, fireweed, buckwheat, goldenrod, and a host of other exotics. I would guess Canada's canola honey production is about 30 million pounds a year, hence leaving 98% of the nectar to drip to the ground for lack of honey bees. But canola is a crop that might have never existed. Except for a couple of earnest crop scientists and the magic of genetic manipulation.
When I moved to western Canada about 40 years ago, the farmers were puzzling over a crop they called rape. Or rapeseed. The more discerning called it by its Latin name, rapa, which means turnip. A few said the stuff was big mustard, but they were wrong, although mustard seed is a distant cousin. I never liked the sound of the old name and I'm glad farmers no longer plant rape here. However, I have to wonder what happened to the old, odd sign I used to see upon entering the town of Tisdale, Saskatchewan: "Welcome to Tisdale, Land of Rape & Honey" - it was the sign that greeted me when I went to the honey co-op in that town back in the 1970s. The greeting was on that billboard because northern Saskatchewan was rife with those yellow unruly cultivars and bees made gold from their flowers. The sign, by the way, was inspirational fodder for the British band Ministry, a heavy-metal gang that released an album called "The Land of Rape and Honey" in 1988. But fortunately, political correctness and genetic engineering put an end to rapeseed.
Heart disease. Rape, as Brassica napus was known, began its domestic life in China as the vegetable yu choy, then arrived in Europe around 600 years ago. It became popular on the northern Canadian plains because it could be planted late and harvested early, beating the cold weather on both ends of the season. For quite a few years, it was used as an engine lubricant but was pushed off the market by cheap petro-substitutes. So people here started frying their perogies with the oil. When I came to be part of Saskatchewan's landscape in the 1970s, Canadian government botanists had discovered that rapeseed - pressed and squeezed into cooking oil - contained erucic acid which caused heart disease. Rape was being phased out - worse, the government was hinting the crop might be banned by royal decree.
How to make a better oil. Keith Downey and Buldur Stefansson contravened the threatened ban by a bold move. They genetically coaxed rape into becoming canola. Canola (derived from the words CANadian OiL, A?) came about because Downey and Stefansson tediously cut the tiny seed's endosperm from its embryo by using tiny scalpels. Then they analyzed the oil's acids, selecting seeds that were the least erucic-ish. By 1974 the scientists ended up with a seed rich in oleic acid instead of harmful erucic. The result was the lowest content of saturated fat in any oil on the market. It was an immediate darling on health food shelves - and it found a place outside of everyone's heart.
Not every beekeeper loves canola. Today I drove out to my daughter and son-in-law's honey farm. I passed a few fields of canola before reaching their property, which is mostly in alfalfa and sweetclover ranch country. If they could, they would avoid canola as a nectar source for their bees. Although the honey is mild, white, and thick, it has one disagreeable attribute for the kids who are trying to make a living producing comb honey. Canola granulates, or crystallizes, really quickly. Within days. Even in pristine comb honey sections, much to the disappointment of the beekeepers. So, if someone is looking for a breeding project, perhaps canola that produces a non-granulating nectar could be the next thing to tackle.
Hives for Humans
I had not heard of "Hives for Humanity" until yesterday when I stumbled upon an article that talked about a garden in Vancouver where an outfit calling itself "Hives for Humanity" has placed bees. The article goes on to say that the organization would like to put a few hives on various private properties, give landowners a bit of honey, and use any profits to support the endeavour. This, of course, perfectly describes what beekeepers have been doing for hundreds of years.
But it got me thinking. Why is it that only bees get to live in beehives? (OK, bees and mice and wasps and hive beetles, wax moths, varroa mites and the occasional racoon sleeping off a hangover.) Why not take the organization's name as a literal invitation? Hives for Humanity: A hive for every human. Just like the houses in the picture above. These Turkish hive-homes seem perfect. Thick walls to keep the place cool in winter; peaky tops to hold all those TV receivers. How quaint.
Our Bees, Ourselves
Interesting Op-Ed column in the New York Times. Mark Winston, a senior prof at British Columbia's Simon Fraser, wrote about the widespread collapse of honey bees. Winston is one of those super-brains who studied bees and entomology for years and has more recently stepped back to take a wide view of the big ecological picture, without losing touch with his stinging friends. He is one of the ablest of scientists to warn us (yet again) to listen to the little canaries in our cage. His aptly titled piece, "Our Bees, Ourselves: Bees and Colony Collapse" invites us to scare ourselves sleepless about the future demise of our bees - and our own species. He is right to issue the warning.
More than 120 pesticides. Dr Winston says that a "A typical honeybee colony contains residue from more than 120 pesticides." I would never eat honey again, except the professor adds that each alone "represents a benign dose." Great, I will keep eating honey... but then he continues (and this is the red meat in his editorial) to say that together the pesticides "form a toxic soup of chemicals." The interplay of all those poisons affects the bees' immune systems, leading to big problems for the little bugs, and significantly impacting Colony Collapse Disorder.
Synergy. We usually think of synergy as a big positive. "The whole is more than the sum of the parts" as Mrs Rabinowitz, my grade-nine geometry teacher used to say. One plus one equals three. No, not the new math - the new reality. Two people working smartly together can carry a 300-pound baby hippo easier than two people separately, each giving it a try. That's all good and positive, until you start talking about bad things. Bald tires might get you to the bee yard. An icy road might be passable. But put bald tires on an icy road, and their synergy spells ditch.
Mark Winston reminds us of some of the things that hurt bees:
Monoculture - the bees don't get a mixed diet; Varroa mites - big blood-sucking monsters; Habitat destruction - lack of diversity, soil moisture retention, and wind break; Pesticides outside the hive - fungicides, insecticides, herbicides; Pesticides inside the hive - with residues that build up in the wax; Stress of commercial beekeeping - moving hives and packing them densely in yards; Genetics - maybe Winston didn't mention this, but inbreeding abounds; Fungal, bacterial, and viral pests - the little things that we can't see.
My bees are tough. They can lick any one or two of these enemies. But not two or three (or 120) simultaneously. And this is where the "Ourselves" part of Winston's story comes in. We are at risk of HCD (Human Collapse Disorder) with our unending messing with the environment. Specifically, Dr Winston points out that in humans it is known that pharmaceutical interactions can be fatal when prescription drugs are used together. We are belatedly studying this. We are not studying the same effect on people from combinations of chemicals cast about in the environment. I'd like to add that one big difference between CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) and HCD (Human Collapse Disorder) is that the bees didn't create their disorder.
I don't know what causes colony collapse disorder. CCD is likely due to poor nutrition, weak genetics, farm pesticides, chemicals used inside bee hives, varroa mites, and viruses carried by mites and injected into whatever gooey stuff bees use as blood. CCD is complicated - that's why it is controversial and that's why it has been hard to predict and hard to prevent. I think one reason Alberta beekeepers have not (yet) had huge bee losses has been the extraordinary help, advocacy, and educational projects provided by Alberta's Chief Apiculturalist, Dr Medhat Nasr and his staff. They have worked extremely hard to help Alberta beekeepers keep their bees healthy - especially in areas of nosema and varroa mite control.
Alberta has a lot going for it. Our two big cities - Edmonton and Calgary - each have a million people. Another two million Albertans live out on the land. And it is a big land - the size of Texas. This Canadian province stretches from grasslands along the Montana border to parklands bordering the Northwest Territories. And Alberta includes some gorgeous Rocky Mountains. People here live well - we have the highest per capital income in North America of any state/province - roughly $80,500 for every person. With it comes great schools, universal health care, and some pretty nice biking trails. Honey is produced everywhere in Alberta that has farms and ranches. You may have heard of the Peace River Country - that's here, too. Honey crops in the Peace can (and often do) top 250 pounds per hive. The province has 250,000 colonies and honey crops average 150 pounds; but this includes 50,000 colonies kept mostly for canola pollination contracts - those bees aren't expected to produce much honey. The summer climate is mild, days are really long, and there are millions of acres of alfalfa, canola, and sweet clover - all of which produce white, mild-flavoured nectar.
Alberta has a lot going for it. With the lowest taxes in North America (Seriously - you didn't expect that from a place in Canada, did you?) and a fairly libertarian government, people are mostly left alone to make a living. And that brings us back to the role of a chief bee inspector. When I was a kid, I spent three summers as a Pennsylvania bee inspector. My job was to find American foulbrood. And burn hives. I was a skinny teenager and had to talk smoothly to inspect bees hidden on farms in Appalachian hillbilly country. Only once did I need state police backup. Even though sulfathiazole was a proven treatment for AFB, our out-dated laws mandated burning. It was an awkward job, to say the least. Much better to have a system where individuals are responsible for their own welfare but are offered free or inexpensive advice and tools to help them keep healthy bees.
Good government makes a difference. You can't let the biggest and meanest kid on the block take advantage of everyone else. The fellow who spends the most on lawyers isn't always right - chances are he is wrong, that's why he hires an army of lawyers. There has to be law and order and we have to participate as helpful members of the human family. When American foulbrood was the beekeepers' biggest problem, equipment was burned to stop the disease from spreading to neighbouring farms - even if the guilty party threatened lawsuits or violence. But that was long ago and far away. I moved to western Canada 40 years ago and have always felt like I won the lottery by being here. But back to the theme of this blog entry - part of the reason Alberta has been such a successful place for beekeepers is the good governance of the bee inspection office - the Office of Beekeeping Help and Advice.
An indoor hive
I can't even begin to imagine the clever wit that went into designing this revolutionary beehive. What you see to your right - if you are looking at the hive-gadget rather than the demonstrator - is a new hive design developed by Philips. Philips is the smart Dutch company that makes everything from water-jet dental flossers to coffee makers and electric shavers. They have classy stuff. Their website tells us that Royal Philips Electronics is a diversified health and well-being company, focused on improving people’s lives through timely innovations. Their focus is on "sense and simplicity." The Philips design department apparently dreams up great product ideas for modern living - sleek designs for products that they will probably never sell. Like the Urban beehive.
A Philips team of design experts came up with this idea. "Why not keep bees in the kitchen?" someone probably asked during a brainstorming session. "Yes! Yes! And have a potted flower at the end of the bees' tube so bees can crawl through the tube, then fly down to the flower, gather some nectar, then bring it back into the hive!" said a second brainstormer. The third brainstormer would have jumped from her chair, "And we'll have a string that the owner can pull so honey will drip out of the hive!" The idea, of course, is nothing short of brilliant. But it can't be patented - beekeepers have been pulling strings and squeezing honey from their hives for centuries already.
To help Philips promote their product, I want to let you read their own sales literature: (By the way, I don't take anyone's money, I do this all for fun.)
"The design of the beehive is unconventional, appealing, and respects the natural behavior of the bees. It consists of two parts: entry passage and flower pot outside, and glass vessel containing an array of honeycomb frames, inside. The glass shell filters light to let through the orange wavelength which bees use for sight. The frames are provided with a honeycomb texture for bees to build their wax cells on. Smoke can be released into the hive to calm the bees before it is opened, in keeping with established practice.
"This is a sustainable, environmentally friendly product concept that has direct educational effects. The city benefits from the pollination, and humans benefit from the honey and the therapeutic value of observing these fascinating creatures in action. As global bee colonies are in decline, this design contributes to the preservation of the species and encourages the return of the urban bee."
Did the ad department miss any buzz words? They mentioned natural, sustainable, environmentally friendly, therapeutic, and the (imaginary) global collapse of bee colonies. But will the hive actually work? What do you think? Observation hives work. This is the loveliest observation hive you can imagine - times ten! I like the design! I wonder if I could get 400 of these and put them in apartments and houses throughout Calgary? It would be such fun going from house to house, maybe dragging a little red wagon, and pulling all those strings while the honey drips out.
As you can see in the accompanying purple-coloured blueprints, the hive and flower pot are separated by an exterior house wall. The bees climb through the tube and find themselves outside where they could maybe work on more than a single potted flower. The only thing I can't figure out is how the honey drips out the bottom when you pull the string. Chances are the designers of this hive have never actually kept bees or worked with honey combs. They will also be somewhat surprised to discover that when the hive is opened in the house, not only will the smoker set off the fire alarm, but the bees will be somewhat drawn to the kitchen lights and windows and the bees will, unfortunately, never, never, ever return to their hive. They will just hang out among the pots and pans. Other than that, it will probably work fine. But let me add this:
It is nice to see a big company such as Philips (one of the largest healthcare and electronics firms in the world) encouraging its designers, admen, and other folks to experiment, to think outside the (bee) box. Although this prototype will likely not be built, the training and learning and innovation involved are really laudatory. Seriously.
Sorry I was late posting this. Hope you are not in big trouble now. But Albertans who keep honey bees or who own beekeeping equipment are required - by law - to register as a beekeeper by June 29 of each year. Registration is nearly painless - previously-registered beekeepers receive a form to fill out before the deadline. New beekeepers need to ask for the paperwork. Although compliance is more difficult than buying a long-gun in Alberta (which is super easy, believe me, I know from experience), the registration process isn't too tough. They need your name, location, and number of colonies. This is to help control the spread of bee diseases. If you are new to beekeeping, contact Dr Medhat Nasr, the provincial apiarist, and his staff will help you out. Their number is 1-780-415-2314.
How are Alberta's bees? With the growing concern over the role neonicotinoids play in severe overwintering problems for honey bees, Alberta beekeepers should be worried, say anti-nic activists. Of course, they are right. The stuff is poison, a pesticide designed to kill sucking bugs. Alberta is Canada's biggest honey producer (Alberta beekeepers make about 5 times as much honey each year as Ontario beekeepers.) and our main honey crop from canola. Canola grows from seeds treated with neonicotinoids and each year the farmer plants new seeds for each new canola crop. You can see where this is heading. Or maybe not. Last winter, Alberta had excellent wintering of honey bees. According to chief inspector Dr Nasr, the province lost only 10 to 15 percent of its bees. And it was a long, cold, nasty winter. In fact, the Western Producer ran a story about Alberta that beamed, "Bees come through gruelling winter in good condition" and indicated that losses averaged half of last year's numbers. I can't understand this. If the neonicotinoids are as bad as claimed (and maybe they are?) then Alberta should be ground-zero for death and destruction. But it is not. I know of one newish beekeeper who had pretty awful wintering this year due to nosema and wind exposure, but the vast majority had great wintering. Can someone help me out on this? I have heard from some western beekeepers who are seriously worried that neonics will be banned and farmers will be back to aerial spraying which slaughtered bees by the billions back in the 1980s. But if the neonics are causing the massive deaths attributed to them in other places, well no one wants that either.
Finally! Glow-in-the-dark honey bees! We've all been waiting for these glow bugs to complement our glow-in-the-dark radium-painted wristwatches and glow-in-the-dark jelly bean collections. Now you can have the complete set of things you probably didn't know existed. Researchers at Germany's Heinrich Heine University have announced they were able to add a glowing gene to a fertilized honey bee egg, feed the resulting larva enough royal jelly to create a queen, then produce drones that carry the gene. The idea was not to help scout and forager bees work more effectively at night (the Heinrich Heine Tech College is working on miniature flashlights) or to help hive bees see the waggle dance more clearly (disco balls were introduced in the 70s to accomplish that), but according to post-doc tinkerer Christina Schulte, the scientists were simply trying a "proof of concept" experiment. It worked. The glowing applications will come later.
The honey bee genome was fully decoded in 2006. That was almost ten years ago. I thought by now we would have genetically-modified stingless honey bees, honey bees that never die, and, of course, bees modified by Monsanto to be resistant to Bayer's neonicotinoids. Science sometimes lags necessity, doesn't it?
Wild bees again
A few days ago, I wrote a snappy blog entry about one researcher's efforts to alert us to a hazard of urban beekeeping. It is Dr Cartar's contention that keeping bees in an urban environment robs wild native bees of food, which in turn threatens their survival. I agree with some of the Calgary professor's position. We agree that honey bees are an invasive species - they are not native to North America - and thus they disrupt the natural ecological balance established by millions of years of evolution on our continent. We also agree that honey bees sometimes take nectar and pollen produced by native (and invasive) flowers that wild bees may have eaten. But we disagree on the severity of the problem and on Dr Cartar's premise that forage competition is the primary threat to native bees. I think enough research and evidence exists to show that the loss of habitat (nesting sites) in urban settings has jeopardized wild native bees much more than competition for food from honey bees. I also believe urban honey bee keepers should be encouraged as these people are often advocates for maintaining nesting sites for wild bees. You can read our difference of opinion in more detail in the June 12 blog entry on this page.
This blog site does not allow reader feedback, except through e-mail sent directly to me. When warranted, I publish letters received from readers. I feel that Dr Cartar deserves the opportunity to answer some of my missives, so with his permission, the bulk of his letter to me follows:
"The point of my “every joule of honey in their jars….is a joule robbed from native bees” quote is simple. At equilibrium, the density of native bees tends to be most determined by flower availability (that is, the nectar and pollen available). More flowers = more bees, in general. This is the essence of competition, and is readily observable in nature. Bee populations build up (or get smaller) based on floral availability. And the converse is true, but over longer scales (because most bees are annuals, and most flowers are perennials; more on this later). Think of this as a game of musical chairs: native bee abundance is (on average) in proportion to the chairs in the game (i.e., the flowers). Then somebody brings in a large number of players (a colony of honey bees), but there’s no change in the number of chairs. And these introduced, non-native honey bees have little chance of failing, because their keeper usually feeds the colony when foraging is insufficient to colony needs. What you’ve done is stack the game of musical chairs against native bees, with an expected outcome (loss of local bees). Hence, “every joule of honey is robbed from native bees”...
"But there are exceptions to this too-simplistic characterization. As I noted in my email to you, in some years, bad weather (often in spring) removes many of the bees, so there’s little competition, and flowers get insufficient pollination service from natives. I see this in one year in 5 or 6, locally. In these cases, nectar accumulates in flowers. Flowers age and drop off without producing seed. You’d think that in this circumstance, adding honey bees would have little impact on natives. But the outcome depends on amount. As noted in the paper I emailed you, honey bees prefer to forage near their colony (but will fly far if necessary). So the addition of a honey bee colony, will greatly deplete nectar and pollen rewards in the local area (others have documented this, where the depletion of floral rewards makes their use by other bees unprofitable). Hence, even in the case where flowers are super-abundant relative to native bees, adding honey bees can easily push out the natives who previously had more food than they knew what to do with. This is not an empirical observation, just one that seems reasonable. The observation that honey bees deplete flowers to levels that make them unprofitable to local native bees is reasonably well established...
"Another exception of note is that, for some flower species, the joules available depend on the rate of visitation. In these species (which are not typical), flowers resorb nectar that is accumulating unharvested, and/or produce more nectar when it is harvested more rapidly. In this case, floral rewards depend on visitation, suggesting that then number of chairs in my musical chairs analogy might change. But again, these effects are easily dominated by the sheer density of honey bees in a colony, so adding honey bees is likely to hurt natives...
"Of course, other factors determine abundance of native bees. You correctly point to one: nesting habitat. But to make the argument persuasive, you need to point to evidence of nest site limitation of population abundance in the literature. I’ve noted that abundance of floral resources is the single best predictor of bee abundance, and this obtains at 2 levels: bees visiting flowers, and bee reproductive success. To be complete, the other determinants of local population size are diseases, predators, and parasites. Along with nest sites, all of these should operate in a density-dependent manner. But don’t assume that nesting resources limit bees in Calgary, when there is such heterogeneity in human structures (bare ground for hole-diggers, tubes for cavity-nesters, vole nests and unprotected insulation for bumble bees)...
"I’m not deliberatley picking on urban beekeepers, and admire them for embracing a truly fascinating insect. I share that admiration and fascination. I’m just pointing out that ANY honey bee colony, given its enormous size (relative to local densities of native bees) and propensity for local foraging, has the potential to have big negative impacts on the local native bees. The overall impact would depend on the number of these colonies added. So one colony is too many, at least for the locals. Urban beekeeping is not a win-win (beekeeper gets free honey, plants get pollinated), unless you ignore the displaced native bees. My suggestion: DO feel guilty about keeping non-native bees, but keep your fascination with bees! Instead, consider accommodating native bees. The Xerces society provides a wonderful web resource for how to begin in this endeavour.
"Introduced, managed honey bees have negative effects, in all sorts of ways, on native bees (especially when the native bees are honey bees, like in Europe). If scientific evidence still matters in decision-making (an increasingly dubious preposition in recent years in Canada), then it’s unlikely that an urban (or rural) honey beekeeper will have no local negative effects on native bees. And the extent of the problem will increase with each increase in the extent of urban and rural honey beekeeping...
"Just because everything we do (short of suicide) has negative effects on our environment should not make us throw in the towel, and ignore the environment. Let’s be mindful of what we do, and embrace our love of and fascination with insect pollinators. Instead, let’s channel and extend that affection and fascination to our neglected native bees. When you notice native bees, and their amazing diversity, your fascination will be well-rewarded.
One last look at the Calgary ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) fundraising event. You may wonder what this has to do with beekeeping. I guess it reaffirms the idea that the human condition is as frail as the environment and that any beekeeper anywhere can end up with a horrible illness. It also shows that any beekeeper anywhere can help by supporting the effort to end the disease and make life as comfortable as possible for those who have ALS.
This short post is a thank you to the people and companies that supported this year's drive. This includes my friends at Medivet Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes Fumagilin-B and other bee-healthy products; Diane Dunaway and her husband Dave at Bee Happy Honey, in BC; Calgary beekeepers Dave and Liz Goldie; and the honey-packing company Pure Sweet Honey Farm Inc, in Wisconsin. I used to sell a bit of honey to Pure Sweet many years ago and the owners have remained very close friends. Pure Sweet was one of only a few high-level sponsors (see the photo, above) for the ALS fundraiser and their sponsorship made a big impact on this year's success. Thanks to all these great people - Ursula at Medivet, Diane & Dave at Bee Happy, Dave & Liz, and Stan and Willi at Pure Sweet Honey!
At home in a home
A swarm of honey bees have invaded an Alberta home. Who can blame them? According to one newspaper, the bees were confused by the skep-looking geodesic dome that a rural Canadian family calls home. The bees were confused? Perhaps the news reporter was making a joke.
Once again, we have succumbed to our tendency to imagine that bees think like people. The Sun newspaper reporter wrote: "That’s what you get when your house happens to look like a giant beehive... the bees just seem naturally drawn to the round structure." No, not true. Not even a little itsy-bit true. The honey bees had absolutely no idea that the house they settled in looked like the old-fashioned skep hives that haven't been used in Canada for over a hundred years. Unless those bees had been reading some very, very old beekeeping journals, they would not have been thinking, "Hey, Betsy-bee, don't that look like a big beehive? Let's go fill 'er up." Nope. Bees don't think like that.
"That’s what you get when your house happens to look like a giant beehive," said the newspaper. Actually, beehives built by humans are rectangular white boxes - they sort of look like most of the houses on Main Street. They don't look like geodesic domes. But the bees don't care. With their multi-lensed eyes (with tens of thousands of receptors) they do not see what we see, they don't recognize hives or homes as we do. What drew the bees? The home-owner, Cheryl Morgan got it right when she said, “Maybe they saw it as a ready-made beehive, so they moved right in.” Scout bees see every crevasse, nook, and hole-in-the-wall as a potential "ready-made" beehive, which their swarm might call home. If it is dark, sheltered from sun, wind and rain, and has a small defendable entrance, it could definitely be used as a swarm's castle.
Bees invading a home can be a big problem for a home owner. In this case, I think the story ends happily. The home owner found Calgary's Urban Beekeepers' network (Apiaries and Bees for Communities) which helped put her in touch with a local beekeeper who removed the bees. An interesting interview and more details to this story are found on CBC radio at this link.
A Calgary University professor has this to say about urban beekeepers: "It is not as rosy as they think. Every jewel of honey that they get on their plate or in their jars is a jewel that has been robbed from native bees." Dr Ralph Cartar also says that urban beekeepers "swamp the world with bees and the competition becomes intensed and you risk losing those native pollinators."
How could anyone be so utterly opposed to the hobby beekeeper with a colony in the backyard? Dr Cartar, in a CBC radio interview this week, explained that honey bees are an invasive species that steals (OK, he says "robs") food from native bees. You see, honey bees are not native to North America. Or South America. Or Australia, New Zealand, India, China, and a whole bunch of places that depend on the bee for crop pollination and where a whole bunch of people who love ecology, nature, outdoor activities, and communion with buzzers have been keeping honey bees. Cartar tells us that "people seem to think that because they are important for some agricultural crops, they are good everywhere." He says Calgary urban beekeeping should stop immediately.
Is he right? I have struggled with this myself. Beekeepers don't necessarily have the high road as environmentalists. It is a fact that honey bees were introduced as an invasive species in most of the places they are fondly kept. And it may be somewhat hypocritical for us beekeepers to claim to represent the environmental movement while keeping bees. Unless we do something more than tend our artsy little hive.
Before I elaborate on my idea of a solution, I want to address some errors in Dr Cartar's flawed logic. In the radio interview, the professor said, "Every jewel of honey...in their jars is a jewel that has been robbed from native bees." This is hyperbolic nonsense. Some nectar, certainly, might have gone to a native bee. But it is not true that every drop of nectar taken by your honey bees has been stolen from the mouth of a native bee. This is because there is much, much, much, much more nectar produced than can be used by the native bees. Without honey bees, the nectar is simply lost - it does not automatically go to feed a native bee as Dr Cartar asserts.
In Calgary, there are fewer than 300 colonies of honey bees. Calgary's urban area covers 700 square kilometres - that means there are over 2 square kilometres for each hive. That's 200 hectares, or one hive per 500 acres in Calgary. We usually figure that for effective pollination, you need to place 1,000 hives on 500 acres. At this rate, instead of 300 colonies, Calgary could have ten thousand and there would still be enough food for all the bees. Of course, not all the land is growing flowers - there are lawns and parking lots and skyscrapers. But Calgary has immense public parks and huge gardens, so we might calculate that a third of our land is still somewhat floral - our parks and meadows have a gazillion dandelions - plus willows, wild cherries, caragana bushes, Russian olives, goats' beard, clovers, wild alfalfa, sweet clover, fireweed, goldenrod, asters, and I am certainly forgetting some. In his correspondence with me, Dr Cartar wrote, "If you start with the premise that populations of pollinators are best explained by floral resources (as opposed to disease, predation, weather, etc.), then a logical outcome of increasing the density of one competitor (honey bees) is to decrease the density of others." This may be true in some situations, but I reject this basic premise in the case of Calgary - the limiting factor here is not forage, but it is nesting sites for native bees. There is no shortage of forage for the honey bees and wild bees to share. Think about the flowers - just as many creatures have thousands of offspring each generation - with only a couple reaching maturity - so, too, flowers with nectar are generated with more abundance than bees could ever cover. It is a reproductive and survival tactic on the plants' part.
If anything, more honey bees result in more seeds, which results in more flowering plants the next season for all the creatures. Did you ever wonder why honey bees are kept near orchards, or hauled in by beekeepers to ensure pollination? It is to try to get as many flowers in touch with bees as possible. With only a few native bees, and no honey bees, in a very natural environment, nearly all the flowers with nectar and pollen will never have a pollinator visit. With saturations of bees, more seed, nuts, or fruit are produced because a greater number of flowers are pollinated. It is really, really hard to over-saturate an area with bees. That's why commercial beekeepers often keep 50 colonies in a single 1/10th acre lot - and they all do well! No, competition for forage from honey bees is NOT hurting native bees. I pointed this out in my e-mail to Dr Cartar and suggested that if he really wanted to help native bees, he would tackle issues around the native bees' loss of nesting sites. Native bees do not nest in man-made honey bee boxes. They most frequently nest inside the ground. Honey bees almost never nest inside the ground. I told Dr Cartar that a single car lot or shopping plaza destroys many times more native bees than all the urban bees kept in the city. Because the problem is nesting site destruction, not floral competition, his opposition to urban beekeeping is misdirected. In his reply to me, he did not address that concern. Instead he echoed his insistence that any amount of urban beekeeping is a bad thing.
Here is what I think. First, I think Dr Cartar is wrong to pick on hobby urban beekeepers. These people are his allies, not his enemies. I realize that many young professors feel they must champion a controversial cause to be noticed. I don't know if Dr Cartar is similarly motivated. I don't know him. We exchanged e-mails when I tried to uncover his thoughts in more detail and when I offered him a chance to backtrack a little in his animosity towards urban beekeepers. (He was unyielding.) He seems intelligent, articulate, and I suspect that he is a really nice fellow. But if one cares about wild bees, as Cartar very obviously does, then alienating a group that also finds bees fascinating is a mistake. It is true that we beekeepers are engaged in an activity that can disrupt native bees. But we are among a small group that can be encouraged to do more than almost any other group to help native bees.
Even the most strident environmentalist needs to eat and function in society in a normal way. As an environmentalist, one does not retreat to a cave, eschew clothing and fire, and humbly scrounge for grubs and berries. The environmentalist instead tries to balance his or her carbon footprint and environmental impact by reusing and recycling, and especially by offsetting the damage we all do by contributing to carbon sequestering (eg., forests) and environmentally constructive projects. Dr Cartar wrote that it is his philosophical position that if you know something is harmful, then you simply do not do it. He has a point, but in our society everything we do is harmful to the environment. Unless we retreat naked into that cave, we are doing harm. It is more about mititgating the damage than reducing it to zero. I, for one, prefer living in a society where children have a chance to survive infancy and can have the hope of a healthy, long life. Science, technology, and even beekeeping with invasive species, has made this possible.
So here is what we can do. Set up habitat in the backyard as nesting sites for native bees. Continue to develop awareness for bees in general. Donate or invest in native bee garden projects. Plant flowers for native bees - usually these are native, non-invasive flower varieties that are not very attractive to honey bees but co-evolved with native bees and are well suited to their needs. (Dr Cartar agrees with this - he sent this link to me that can help people select appropriate flowers: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.) Do these things to reduce your "honey bee footprint" and don't feel guilty about keeping bees in the city. You are not part of the problem, you are part of the solution.
Who's your friend?
My family participated in Calgary's ALS fundraiser this weekend. It was a great success. We had a sunny and mild Sunday morning with almost 2,000 people at the North Glenmore park for this year's walk/run. A lot of money was raised to support victims of ALS with practical daily aids - things like breathing devices, beds, wheelchair ramps - and with an active support group. ALS (sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease in the States and Motor Neuron Disorder in Europe) is a devastating fatal disease of unknown cause that results in paralysis and eventually suffocation when lung muscles no longer function. Support for the illness is largely through events like this annual gathering here in Calgary.
It was really nice to see our Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, at the event. He spoke about volunteerism (Our mayor used to be a university professor who taught NGO, or non-profit charity, management.) Mayor Nenshi told the assembly that everyone who participated was exemplifying unselfish good citizenship because ALS can affect anyone. This event, he said, was not just for friends or family, but was for strangers whom we will never meet. Calgary's Mayor Nenshi is an honourable, hard-working man who believes good citizenship involves helping others. As he spoke, I couldn't help but compare him with Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford, a rich and spoiled self-centered man, who advocates for himself. When Toronto's Ford is in the news, it is a good day for clowns. When Calgary's Nenshi makes the news, it is a good day for the city. You've heard the old adage - you know a man by his friends. My sympathies to the folks in Toronto. Hope you can do better in the fall election.
Dandy Days Indeed
For three weeks, my 7-year-old daughter has been counting dandelions nearly every day. There is a large field behind our house, a city meadow of sorts. From mid-May to early June, our meadow likes to show a bit of yellow. My daughter began her list May 12th when 4 dandelions were in flower. Her numbers increased irregularly with dozens appearing in a few days, then several hundred. By the 25th of May, the blossoming dandelions were like stars on a clear night - too numerous to count. Then suddenly the yellow turned to white as heads of seeds appeared. So now, at the end of the first week of June, they are rapidly disappearing. The number of open flowers depends on heat and rainfall. It has been cooler than normal (or maybe more normal than normal - we were getting used to hot springs). With mild weather, the dandelions lasted a bit longer this year than they have during our past few springs.
Dandelions are great. The beekeeper's friend. They are native to Europe, Asia, and the Americas, so before honey bees arrived here in the 1600s, they must have been a fantastic feast for the wild bees. Honey bees love the showy little flowers - for most northern-hemisphere beekeepers, dandelions are the first really big meal of the honey season. After the first flush of crocus, willow, and maple, which bloom when the weather is still cool and unstable, the "lion's teeth" as the French named our "dent-de-lion" are welcome for their enormous yields of pollen and nectar. I have seen bees store 20 kilos (40 pounds) of honey in just two peak weeks of flow. I've also seen relatively weak hives explode in population. Dandelion season, you see, is also the real beginning of swarm season. Hope your neighbourhood bees have had their fill from this under-rated weed. And hope they have resisted their natural temptation to flee to the trees!
Running for Betty
This weekend is Calgary's ALS benefit. Calgary-area readers of this blog are invited (urged!) to head over to North Glenmore Park and "Run for Betty." 20 years ago, Betty died from ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease. She was an avid runner before her illness. Like most victims of the disease, she passed away within months of her diagnosis. Her friends wanted to honour her memory, raise awareness of the disease, assist other people who become afflicted, and help search for a cure - so they started the annual fundraising-run/walk. Our mayor, Naheed Nenshi, has proclaimed June "ALS Awareness Month" here in Calgary.
You can do your part by coming out to cheer and support the runners. ALS is an incurable illness of unknown cause, always fatal, and it manifests itself with the complete loss of motor neurons. Within months, most people with ALS cannot walk, talk, use their hands, and eventually cannot breathe. Some of us have been able to hang on for years and years with slowly progressive variants - but that's very rare. At least 90% of people with ALS do not survive past 3 years after their diagnosis. It can affect even the most active people (even beekeepers!) and even the smartest people (famously, Stephen Hawking). Do your part, if you can - hope to see you Sunday at 10 for the big event! I'll post pictures afterwards... Meanwhile, if you'd like to support a great cause, here is a link to make it happen. I can tell you from my own experience, the ALS Society brought all sorts of equipment to my house to help me. This is a good organization.
Did I goof up, or what?
Last week's blog post drew a few interesting responses. Not from Monsanto, whom I expected would be outraged because I wrote that it is perhaps justifiable to vilify "the huge multinational for all manner of environmental ills." Instead, incredibly, the nasty letters I got were from people who seem to be environmentalists and my sin was pointing out the horrible truth that Monsanto does not manufacture neonicotinoids! Here is what one of the letters sent to me said: "I read your misinformed post ... and would appreciate if you did some fact checking prior to your future posts... Sorry your life seems to revolves [sic] around baseless bullying behind a keyboard, and refusal to correct your errors. Perhaps a post about your own bad journalism attempt is in order." I googled the author. Turns out the note was sent to me by a school teacher! That's why you see the picture of me, or someone who looks like I did when I was ten years old, wearing the dunce hat. I have no patience for people who resort to name-calling in any discourse - whether on the internet or in the school yard. The same person told me to check my facts, adding that Monsanto owns Dekalb and Dekalb manufactures neonicotinoids. Dekalb is a seed company. It buys neonics and treats some (but not all) the 48 varieties of corn seed which farmers may buy from Dekalb. . . So, let us try, once more, to set the facts straight - Bayer makes neonics. Why is that so painful to hear? And why is that a reason to send rude e-mail to a real beekeeper, someone who has produced millions of pounds of honey, grafted thousands of queen cells, provided bees to pollinate billions of flowers, and has actually depended on beekeeping for a living?
But wait a minute. There is more. Another note from someone else. This time respectful, except for a little snipe at the end that said, "An honourable man would append a correction to the original blog post." If I don't then I am (at least in one person's opinion) dishonourable. The correction being sought is that I should write what the correspondent would like me to write. As it turns out, the correspondent has some valid points.
In my original blog (which you can see just below), I state that Monsanto does not make neonicotinoids, Bayer does. Beyond that, I offer almost no actual facts that could be retracted. I wrote: "The March Against Monsanto trekked through the streets of Toronto hoisting the bees' coffin." It was Toronto, I fact-checked. I wrote that the protest "was intended as a statement against neonicotinoids, which most of the participants blame for the bee deaths." Admittedly, I don't know this, but the news reporter covering the story wrote "The beekeepers called for Monsanto and its subsidiaries and allied companies to stop producing GMOs and neonicotinoids."
I do ask the question, "Why is the protest being directed against Monsanto?" when Monsanto does not make neonicotinoids. So, really, it seems that since I dare ask a question, I receive interesting fan mail. Regular readers of this post know that I take an off-the-wall approach to almost every subject. I make light of the European fad of the honey massage, I humour Prince Charles's beekeeping (though I like the man), I question whether beekeepers are environmentalists when we propagate our invasive honey bee which displaces native local bees. To ask me to retract facts is like sending indignant letters to the Onion. As I write in my permanent side-notes on this same blog page, "Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily express anyone's opinions - not even the author's" and "If you strongly disagree with things you find here, send Ron a note - or keep reading as you are likely to find he also advocates an opposite point of view elsewhere on the website." Hate mail is uncalled for.
Why was the Toronto bee protest directed against Monsanto instead of Bayer or against the poor farmers trying to keep their family businesses alive? Another writer (who I think was at the protest) patiently explained to me that Monsanto sells corn seed treated with neonics and the bees sometimes gather pollen from corn (this is rare - corn does not have nectary flowers to attract bees, but if bees are desperate they may collect corn pollen from the dangling tassels). It should be noted that not all corn seed is treated with neonicotinoids - Dekalb, which is owned by Monsanto, offers 48 varieties of corn seed, about two-thirds have been treated by some form of neonics, the others have not. It is up to the farmer to select the variety they want to grow. Two-thirds is a similar ratio among the 300 growers of Ontario corn seed in the Chatham-Kent area. But I am off on a fact-chase here, I'll try to control myself and continue with the idea that some of Monsanto's corn seeds that farmers are planting in southwest Ontario (most of it over 200 kilometres from Toronto) have been treated with neonicotinoids and this insecticide kills honey bees. But the bigger question remains - is Monsanto the cause of the horrific bee losses in Ontario? Or are these sorts of protests deflecting attention away from the real cause of the total and sudden collapse of bee colonies? Ultimately, the protests may do more damage to the bee industry than good. Now that it is assumed the bee slayer has been found, other research projects will not receive the significant attention they perhaps should.
I expect that neonicotinoids will be banned. Among the dozen e-mails sent to me on this subject, one stated that an Ontario county has already agreed to the ban. That person also told me that 99% of corn grown there has been treated by neonicotinoids. With the ban, I am wondering what those farmers will do. One alternative, of course, is they could quit farming. Or maybe they could grow tobacco, which Stompin' Tom once told me used to be a big deal around Tillsonburg. Most likely, they will continue growing corn, then they will spray their fields with massive insecticide aerial assaults that drift across hedgerow and bee yard alike, killing everything. That's the way it was before the neonicotinoids, and that's the way it will be again. I had seen hundreds of colonies killed at the peak of production in a single afternoon. Unfortunately, those non-beekeepers and those name-calling school teachers with two hives of bees and no long history with beekeeping can't imagine what this was like. But it won't matter, they will have already moved along to the next trendy-thingy.
I want to end this blog entry with one of the e-mails I received. Fran Freeman was also at the protest. She presents a well-reasoned argument about why Monsanto was an appropriate target so, having received her permission, I am ending with her thoughts on the matter:
On 03/06/2014 9:44 AM, Fran Freeman wrote:
Saw your May 25/14 Bad Beekeeping blog and was more than a little surprised that you mocked the Monsanto March/Requiem for Bees. The march is an annual event and the decision was made to make mass bee die-offs the particular focus this year. No one that day was claiming, as you allege in your blog, that Monsanto makes these systemic pesticides, rather they use them.
Neonics are applied as a seed coating on approximately 90% of corn seed available in Ontario and it is Monsanto that produces this seed. By buying out other seed suppliers, Monsanto has sown up the market very tightly so that it is extremely difficult to obtain corn seed that has not been treated with clothianadin or other neonics. PMRA analysis of poisoned bee samples provide a clear causal link to both seeding in the spring and tasseling in later summer of the treated corn. Research on sublethal effects of neonicotinoids is amassing and includes impaired fertility, failure to thrive, increased susceptibility to pathogens, and increased winter mortality.
Our commercial beekeeping industry in Ontario (honey production, pollination services and bee breeding particularly of hygienic bees) is being decimated. Many third- and fourth- generation beekeepers have reached the point where they feel they cannot continue beyond another year. Consequently the call May 24 was for an immediate ban on the use of neonicotinoids.
The bees' funeral
Dead bees are back on the evening news. Last night our national news broadcaster, the CBC, had relatively extensive coverage of a honey bee funeral in Toronto. These Canadian heroes, encountering death in the line of duty, were celebrated with a fitting send-off to wherever bees go when they shuffle off their mortal coils. In a headline that reads "Anti-GMO protesters rally against Monsanto - Beekeepers fill coffin full of thousands of dead bees" the CBC tells us how the third March Against Monsanto featured a "Requiem for the Bees." Ontario beekeepers collected several million dead honey bees and dumped their bodies into a casket of sorts. The March Against Monsanto trekked through the streets of Toronto hoisting the bees' coffin. It was intended as a statement against neonicotinoids, which most of the participants blame for the bee deaths.
But wait a minute. If the bee deaths are caused by neonicotinoids, why is the protest directed against Monsanto? Here is a little known piece of trivial, a fun fact that People Who Hate Monsanto almost invariably ignore: Monsanto does NOT make neonics. I know it is quite trendy to despise Monsanto and to accuse the huge multinational for all manner of environmental ills. Perhaps justifiably. But it makes the protest look pretty silly when the wrong monster is blamed. Bayer (the Aspirin company) manufactures neonicotinoids. If you are going to fight evil, at least know your opposing team's dark-side forces. This is important. It is too easy for the dark side to dismiss people who care about the environment if ignorance and rage take the place of an educated and informed response. Attack the guilty parties, do it thoughtfully, with proof and fact. Know which company manufactures neonicotinoids and know how the poison is killing bees. It makes for a much stronger protest.
So glad I've never had one of these. This one looks bad. The 460 double-story colonies being carried from south Florida to Maine's blueberries for pollination were spewed after the driver rolled over on an I-95 exit ramp in Delaware. The 55-year-old driver, Adolfo Guerra of Miami, was fined for carrying an "insecure" load. His cargo stung him several dozen times and was hospitalized. Police responded with traffic control, firemen hosed everything (probably drowning bees in the process) and local beekeepers arrived to rehive bees and reassemble bee boxes. The exit ramp was open 12 hours later.
Best Bee Club in the World? Attended the Calgary & District Beekeepers Association monthly meeting last night, and as I drove home in the ten o'clock twilight, my mind recycled some of what I had learned. There was an absolutely stellar presentation on spring management - focused mostly on ways to make splits, or increases. The two gentlemen knew what they were talking about and their enthusiasm was infectious. Part of the discussion was around the 2-queen systems which were praised in every way except one - here in southern Alberta, 2-queen management leads to hives making four or five hundred pounds of honey - hives get stacked so high with supers that they are hard to manage. Other than that, it was pointed out that for the price of an extra queen, the producer may double their crop, reduce swarming, and with the variation of genetic make-up in the hive, improve the hive's wintering and its house-cleaning habits. There was plenty of talk around the mechanics of making nucs, too. In a sentence: pull two or three frames of brood (without taking the queen) from the best hives (which reduces swarming) and add two or three frames of young bees from brood combs, drive off to a new location a few miles away, and put a caged queen into the newly created split. The result, at this time of year, is a producing colony.
So, there was good, practical advice for Calgary-area beekeepers. But I was equally impressed with the huge number of committees and activities sponsored by the bee club. This is the time of year for swarms, so there is a swarm committee. School bee presentations were addressed by the relevant folks. Beekeeping displays were at the annual science fair, several regional country fairs, Aggie Days, and will be at the Calgary Stampede. Honey judging at the Millarville Fair in August and the Chestermere Fair in September require honey judges and their training and recruitment are club responsibilities. There are committees that liaison with the city. The bee club is involved with a research project at a local college (South Alberta Institute of Technology) and is designing a steam-wax press for rendering old combs for the club's members. Informally, some members loan extractors to other members. A group in the bee club sent delegates to pick up packages and queens from importers and there is a group that sends equipment for irradiation treatment. Classes in queen rearing and disease inspection are regular events as is the annual summer BBQ. There are monthly formal meetings for the 100 members (65 were at last night's meeting) and there are casual get-togethers for beer and pizza at the veteran's hall in Kensington. There is much to admire about this group.
a web site question
I have a question for my geeky friends. I have been approached by the Chinese government regarding this website - www.badbeekeeping.com. A company inside China wants to register the domain name www.badbeekeeping.com.cn - I asked the Chinese government (actually, a director at their internet regulatory board) to deny the request, and told them I've had this domain name for 15 years and it is named after my book, Bad Beekeeping. But then I received an e-mail directly from the company. The Chinese spokesman wrote:
Our company based in chinese office, our company has submitted the "badbeekeeping " as CN(.cn/.com.cn/.net.cn/.org.cn) domain name and Internet Keyword, we are waiting for Mr. Jim's approval. We think this name is very important for our products in Chinese market. Even though Mr. Jim advises us to change another name, we will persist in this name.
Well, this sounds ominous. I can not stop anyone from using a domain name identical to mine if it has the '.cn' extension. Does it matter? Except for the obvious fact that I myself will not be able to later register the same name in China, does it matter in terms of how internet users will access my current site? If you know the answer, please send a note to me at (email@example.com). Thanks!
Living in cold Canada, it's easy to forget some people have it hot. Especially right after we've had a big snowstorm - half a metre (over a foot) of white wet stuff in the past couple of days. So I thought I'd share the view from our back door. Meanwhile, my brother David has sent a reminder that not all trees covered in white are covered in snow. You can see his proof - he planted this eucalyptus on his Florida farm 15 years ago as a nectar source for his bees. The tree is flowering (and buzzing) brilliantly partly because central Florida had 15 cm (6 inches) of rain in the past week. And partly because that's the way it is in the Sunshine State.
Rise of the Bee Thieves
Hive theft has been around ever since there were beehives and beekeepers. For example, the classic watercolour of Cupid, the Honey Thief, by Dürer was painted in 1514. Jumping ahead just a little, during the early 1980s, when I bee-kept in Saskatchewan (summers) and Florida (winters), an inordinate number of hives began disappearing in south Florida. Turned out that a beekeeper with a serious drug problem was stealing hives at night, taking them to his farm, shaking the bees into his own boxes, extracting the honey, melting the wax, then burning all the stolen branded equipment. By morning, there was nothing to show of the stolen bees except a drum or two of honey, some blocks of wax, and a pile of ashes in his burning pit.
With honey bees dropping like flies from CCD, pesticides, malnutrition, or poor beekeeping, bee thefts are back in the news again. Some beekeepers can't resist repopulating their hives with other people's bees. Bee rustling is about the same as cattle rustling. Darkness, daring, and the right equipment are all the thief needs. Experience is useful - the bee robbers are always beekeepers. They know the value of what they are taking, know how to load the illicit cargo, and know what to do with the bees once they have them.
Someone ran off with 30 hives on the outskirts of Calgary this spring, but this is not just a local problem. A news report from France tells of 61 colonies (worth 60,000 Euros) stolen in Loire and recovered hundreds of kilometres away in Brittany. In Australia, The Guardian tells about a dozen hives stolen near Ipswich while the BBC mentions "45,000 bees, 3 queens, along with 3 honeycomb frames" stolen in Craichie, Scotland and a separate theft of "6 queens and 18 honeycomb frames" from a farm in Coupar Angus last week. Similar robberies have been reported in California and near Houston, Texas, in the USA. Bee theft is tough to stop - most beekeepers keep their bees in fields and orchards far from their own homes. Landowners might not be concerned about a late evening bee truck visiting the property somewhere in the woods behind their home, thinking it is the owner/beekeeper moving some hives, not suspecting it is a bee thief. Usually the legitimate owner can prevent theft if the hives are behind locked fences. Branding the wooden parts helps, but as I mentioned earlier, a really desperate thief may simply remove the good parts and burn the wood.
The Empty Beekeeper
At first it felt a bit creepy when my wife texted this picture of an empty beekeeper holding my book. Then I was flattered. My wife was attending the Calgary Science Fair where our son's entry (a behavioural-science study) was being judged. There were over a thousand entries, the science fair filled the Olympics Oval (built for the 1988 Winter Olympics, the big venue is used for a lot of conferences and programs). In addition to the children's science project entries, there were several displays set up by Calgary clubs and organizations to show various ways science is used in the community. For example, the university's health sciences department displayed some software used by doctors and a geology group demonstrated something about GPS. But the best-attended booth was the beekeepers' exhibit - they had an extractor, posters, free comb honey samples for the kids, demonstration hives (without bees), eager beekeepers who talked bees with the youngsters, and of course, the empty beesuit holding the Bad Beekeeping book. Why not?
The Calgary Bee Club is a fantastically active group of amateur beekeepers who love their hobby and share their enthusiasm with everyone within earshot. Years ago, I was active in the group, even served as president for a number of years, but I lacked the energy and organizational skills of the new group of club enthusiasts. These beekeepers arrange programs all over southern Alberta - elementary schools, the Aggie Days at the Calgary Stampede grounds, local fairs and farmers' markets, honey-judging contests. I should be more active with the group, they are an exuberant group of people, but I haven't attended their meetings in months. I had no idea they were setting up at the science fair. (And no idea they sent an empty beesuit to hold the bad beekeeping book.) Planning, staging, and staffing an event like this is a lot of hard work. Kudos to the club for promoting honey bees to the kids at the science fair!
Dead and Dying
California almond pollination season is finished. And so are many of the bees which made the trip to the west coast to participate in the largest honey bee mosh pit ever in the history of beekeeping. (For those of you over 30, I'll define mosh pit: "The controlled violence of a mindless jumble of enthralled dancers and screamers (usually experiencing a buzz) participating in a large mutually attractive event." Mosh pits typically occur at concerts, but California's honey bee mosh pit includes a beehive staging area where hundreds of thousands of colonies are off-loaded from semi-trucks arriving from New York, North Carolina, the Dakotas, and perhaps every state except Alaska and Hawaii. The beekeepers, enticed by pollination fees now approaching $200 per hive, send the little buzzers via big trucks in December or January, parking them in huge apiaries (some 'beeyards' contain ten thousand hives on a few acres) where the bees are fed sugar syrup and pollen substitutes to keep them alive until the almonds blossom. The flowers usually open in February and the beekeepers again load the bees and move them into the groves. Since most of the pollinator bees are arriving from colder climates, the California sunshine excites them, the queen lays lots of eggs, the workers head out looking for flowers (they don't find man), and the beekeeper feeds the colonies to encourage the insects' population growth. The unnatural diet and close proximity to millions of neighbour bees is a bit rough on them. So are the insecticides sprayed around California's countryside.
This year, beekeepers claim a quarter of all their honey bees died during almond pollination season. The direct cause seems to be insecticides, not malnourishment or overcrowded conditions. Increasingly, something called a "toxic tank" of poisons have been blamed. Most almond groves are controlled by enormous agribusinesses, not ma-and-pa growers. These farm corporations have been accused of mixing multiple toxins in a delicious cocktail that includes neonictinoids, fungicides, and various pesticides. Mixing such a toxic blend, instead of targeting specific problems with single passes, saves time and money. But it also escalates honey bee deaths. During the 2014 pollination season, an estimated 17,000,000,000 (17 billion) bees died from the sprays. Sticking with the grim economics, that would be about 400,000 colonies at a cost of $200 each, an eighty-million dollar value. OK, in today's economy, that is admittedly pocket change. But 400,000 hives have quite a multiplier effect: they add one billion dollars to the almond producer's crop, then the same bees (if they hadn't been killed) would travel to pollinate blueberries, cherries, apples, cukes, melons, and squash, where, if they were undead, they would have given consumers another four billion dollars worth of food. Many of the beekeepers who lost bees in California will not return to pollinate almonds next year - they have had enough death and destruction to last their lifetimes.
Lawsuits have been launched. Not so much against farm corporations, though that has been happening, but, significantly, the Environmental Protection Agency has had a legal notice of complaint filed against it. Beekeepers and environmentalists allege the watchdog has not done enough to test and regulate poisons, educate farmers, or protect bees. Specifically, the lawsuit claims that in "a vast and extremely risky experiment, EPA has allowed over two million pounds of clothianidin and thiamethoxam to be used annually on more than 100 million acres and on dozens of different plant crops without adhering to existing procedural frameworks and with no adequate risk assessments in place." The plaintiffs also allege that the EPA approved the chemicals "without affording notice in the Federal Register and the opportunity for public comment, in violation of the FIFRA and the APA." Perhaps you are thinking the people who are suing the government for their lack of protection are a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals and wild-eyed environmentalists. Think again. The key plaintiffs include beekeeper Bill Rhodes, a former professional football player from central Florida, a gentleman I knew when I kept bees there some years ago. In those days, I saw Bill retire after two seasons with the Canadian Football League (which followed some outstanding years as a lineman at Florida State) and then Bill bought 50 hives, which he expanded to 400. Thirty years later, Bill Rhodes owns and operates 8,000 colonies. With his family, he also farms in Florida and Georgia. Bill is not a wild-eyed anything. He is practical, realistic, and he works very, very hard.
Many of us libertarian types are beginning to rethink our politics. We generally favor being left alone. We don't think any government should control how we live, the people we live with, or what we do at home. We don't want to pay high taxes so corporate welfare porkies can take salaries of ten million dollars funnelled to them through government subsidies. We have insisted on a lean mean government, but our carefully purchased politicians have cut only those things least likely to bite their fingers - the EPA, created by Nixon in 1970, has especially taken a hit. We have encouraged everyone - including agribusiness - to do whatever they want. Meanwhile, by insisting on trimming government spending, we have snipped the courage and funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, resulting in a toothless tiger that barely purrs. It now has neither the manpower nor the regulations to stop the incessant pollution and the persistent destruction defacing the landscape and slaughtering the bees.
The Royal Bee?
English royalty dropped by for tea in New Zealand. You know how hard it is to find that special gift for out-of-town visitors? Well, try entertaining a prince and his family. The Royals probably have everything they need. Probably. So their Kiwi hosts were in a bit of a pickle. A toy maker came forward with an idea. Why not give little George the same thing given to his father, thirty years earlier?
In 1983, Charles, Di, and baby Wills visited NZ. While there, the Governor-General's wife, Lady Norma Beattie, presented a Buzzy Bee Pull-along toy to the family. According to the New Zealand Herald, Lady Beattie's six children had had a wonderful time with their pull-along Buzzy, but had outgrown it, so why not pass the old wooden toy along to the heir to the British Empire? Why not, indeed? Buzzy Bee has been around for 70 years, and undergone only a few minor safety tweaks (no lead paint and smoother corners, for example). William pulled his first Buzzy Bee as a 10-month old. He was photographed from every conceivable angle with his new toy and, according to royal-watcher Miss Amanda Townsend-Blye, "Buzzy became as famous as Prince William - it rose to national icon level and stayed there for years. One couldn't look at a bee without thinking of Prince William. And you know, even at ten months, we all realized handsome Willie would make a great beekeeper some day, just like his dad."
World Apitherapy Day
March 30 is World Apitherapy Day. It is celebrated on this day because it's the birthdate of one of the most important early promoters of happy bee stings - a chap named Filip Terč, whom you see glaring at you adjacent to this sentence. Terč was born in a remote village in western Bohemia but ended up in Maribor, Slovenia, where he worked as a physician. As a young man, he suffered badly from rheumatoid pain until, at age 22, he was accidentally stung by an aggressive pack of irritated honey bees. It changed his life. The pain was gone.
Terč, a diligent young doctor, began a serious study of the effects of BVT (bee venom therapy) and published the first clinical trials of the therapeutic effects of bee stings. His work led to the 1888 publication of “Report on the Peculiar Connection between Bee Stings and Rheumatism” in which he presented the results of his treatment of 680 patients with the collective application of 39,000 stings. 82% showed a complete cure, 15% had a partial recovery, while 3% had no relief from their rheumatoid condition. Although his work was published over a hundred years ago and his results have not been disputed, the medical profession has only recently begun to see the link between rheumatism, auto-immune dysfunctions, and some of the elements of bee venom. With immune disorders ranging from multiple sclerosis to allergies on the rise, the use of apitherapy treatments are finally becoming more accepted and generally more widely available. If you'd like to learn more, there is a great collection of materials at the Bees for Life: World Apitherapy Network website.
"Corporate profits trumping ecological needs," according to the National Farmers Union's own website. That rather provocative statement is from the NFU's Vice President of Policy, Ann Slater. Remembering the days when much of the NFU's musings were simply echoes of agribusiness demands, I find such boldness rather refreshing. And surprising. Ms Slater is responding to the results of the Ontario Bee Health Working Group, which she says is "weighted with representatives of chemical companies and field crop growers" and, she continues, "essentially recommends that the use of neonicotinoid treated seed continue as usual." This, according to the NFU vice president, is a missed opportunity to promote the "use of more ecological farm practices such as complex crop rotations, as well as to show a real commitment to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, which recommends that pesticides be used only when there is a demonstrated pest problem instead of as routine practice." Personally, I don't know if neonicotinoids are responsible for massive bee deaths. Probably not, as our area (southern Alberta) uses them extensively and has not suffered troubling colony collapses while other areas (west coast BC, for just one example) have far less neonic usage, but had the deaths some people associate with this pesticide. Nor has any independent researcher proven an unequivocal link. There have been far worse chemicals used by farmers in the past and I don't want to see a return to those if neonictinoids are banned. However, farm practices need to shift towards IPM systems which can help the farmer (by cutting costs and improving product quality) while reducing agricultural stress on the environment at the same time. And I like the boldness of Ann Slater and the NFU's stand - it is rare to see any farm representative willing to bite the hand that often pays for the donuts at farmers' meetings.
What we don't know
Sometimes I am surprised by what we don't know about bees. You would think we'd have it all figured out by now. I'm not talking about knowing when to wrap or unwrap hives; start grafting queen cells; split hives; or stack supers. These are largely weather-related and we can't predict next week's deep freeze or windy storm. Basic management remains in the realm of art, not science. With years of experience, the beekeeper usually becomes better and better at practicing the art of beekeeping and picking a good time to split, stack, or syrup the bees. Instead, I am talking about basic bee biology - I really thought we already knew bees taste salt with their toes. But that tidbit of knowledge has just now been added to the world's encyclopedias.
Researchers at the University of Toulouse, writing in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, have studied the honey bees' tarsal taste system "through a series of behavioral and electrophysiological" methods. The scientists (mostly from Toulouse, France, but including a team in China) looked at the way bees respond when they step into sweet, salty, or bitter stuff. For bees, the feet can sense salt very, very easily - much more readily than they can taste sweet flavours. There seems to be no ability to taste bitterness through the feet (Hence, they never 'taste the bitterness of de feet').
This is new information. According to lead author Maria Gabriela de Brito Sanchez, "these results provide the first integrative study on tarsal taste detection in the honey bee." So, just like most other insects, bees have flavour buds in their mouth, antennae, and feet. Must be handy, stepping in gooey stuff and knowing whether it's edible. The only tastes I get from my own toes are sort of like old moldy cheese.
Ever wonder why it's called Savings Time? Ben Franklin, America's first inventor/publisher/scientist/statesman/postmaster proposed the idea back in 1760 as a way to save money. You see, his father had been a candle maker so little Ben realized from an early age how expensive it is to light a house at night. Instead of "early to bed and early to rise" making a man wealthy, Ben Franklin figured pushing the clocks ahead could do the same trick without requiring new sleeping habits. So, he invented Savings Time.
It should be easy to remember - "Spring Forward; Fall Back." Easy, unless you are Toronto's part-time mayor and full-time clown. Rob Ford's Twitter-feed mistakenly advised Torontonians last night to set their clocks back instead of ahead. This might be a good plan if you want to fall into Ford's tactless, homophobic, drug and booze-crazed world. The rest of us will spring forward, if you don't mind.
Maybe you are not moving your clocks at all? When I was a beekeeper in southwestern Saskatchewan, I was proudly sticking to Standard Time year-round, just like the rest of the province. Saskatchewan is one of the few northerly places that doesn't bother with Savings Time. It's a cow thing - the cows don't wear wrist watches (or any jewelry or Rob Ford-ish bling) so the cows of Saskatchewan vetoed the idea when it was proposed in legislature back in the old days. Saskatchewan does have a sub-population of timely dissenters: The Hutterites. These good people were among my friends when I was their Honig Mensch, many years ago. But I was cautious not to show up at their huge communal farm during daily prayers, which were offered at 5 - slow time. This Mennonite-type group set their clocks back an hour from the rest of Saskatchewan, so they could coordinate church times with other Hutterite colonies across North America. This also put their clocks at the same time as the Eastern Time Zone, i.e. Toronto Time. (So perhaps Rob Ford was trying to put Toronto on Hutterite time. I think that city's mayor would benefit greatly if he were to spend a year or two on a Hutterite colony - farming, learning to do real work, learning to share, maybe authentically having the "Jesus Moment" he claimed to have had six months ago.)
Saskatchewan is not the only place that keeps its clock fixed but has enclaves of other-time peoples. Arizona does not change to Savings Time when the rest of the United States does. However, within Arizona, the Navajo Nation does move clocks ahead to Savings. However, within the Navajo borders, the Hopi Reservation does not change its clocks. However, living on a ranch in Hopi country is a family where the mother works on the Navajo Reserve, so that house moves its clock. Resulting in a complicated situation where a family's clock is ahead of the neighbours' clocks which are behind a surrounding community which is ahead of a state that is behind a country that moves ahead.
If you are among the shifters, rather than the shiftless, enjoy your extra hour of evening sunlight. It is a gift that will dramatically cut your candle-consumption. If you live near the western edge of your time zone, the savings will really pile up. However, considering Saskatchewan bees have the highest annual per colony honey production in North America (about 180 pounds per hive) we need to consider that keeping the bees on a stable clock has its advantages, too. So maybe let them keep track of their own time.
Well this is a bit unfortunate. It was minus 31 in Calgary this morning, the wind picked up and it felt like minus 50. That's about the same weather whether Fahrenheit or Celsius - the scales meet at -40. So, minus 40 Fahrenheit is also minus 40 Centigrade. Cold in any system. Finger-shattering, lip-splitting cold. Even inside our house - it was 12 degrees in one of our bedrooms this morning. Of course it would have been more uncomfortable had we been camping out this weekend.
Global warming? Just like politics, all weather is local. Yes, we are getting a cold start to March. But it's not even a record for us - it was once -36 C on March 1st. Meanwhile, the southern hemisphere is finishing off one of their hottest summers. The severe droughts, grass fires, and dust-bowl conditions are being exasperated by extreme heat. An article titled "Australian Summer Melts Records," published yesterday by the Australian Associated Press and featured in The Guardian, says records for sustained heat have been brutally burnt. Adelaide, for example, had 5 days in a row of over 42C. They haven't had that before.
Today in Calgary, people didn't stray far from home. Nor did the bees. March is usually the worst month for winter losses in this area. Bees might survive (even queenlessly) for the span from November through late February, possibly eating as little as forty pounds of honey, but then with longer days they become restless. Queenless and weak hives lose population through drifting on mild days while robust survivors suddenly consume vast amounts of winter stores by rearing brood. At about the same time, honey bees which became adults in September or October are approaching their 'Best-Before' date and are expiring. Sometimes dropping like flies. Not sure what this last blast of arctic chill will do to the bees, but it would have been better for everyone if it had turned mild instead of bitterly cold.
As I was watching the CBC evening national news, I was startled to see a piece on beekeeping near Sochi, Russia. The reporter talked about a group of folks called the Adyghe (Ah-dee-gee), or Circassian, people who have lived in the Caucasus Mountains just north of Sochi for thousands of years. They were among the indigenous people pushed further into hiding when the Russians expanded their empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The news piece reported how the natives were left out of the opening ceremonies and left out of the billions spent on infrastructure in Sochi. Instead, the mountain people were given no new roads, no train station, no attention - even though they are just 50 kilometres from the Olympic venue.
Nevertheless, the Circassians hoped the games would draw some tourists up the mountains. With that in mind, they built a beautiful honey museum and shop - bees, honey, and wax have long been part of the culture and trade of these people. The CBC reporter and camera crew drove up to the villages of Bolshoy (Big) Kishmai and Mali (Little) Kishmai and found they were the only visitors. There were no tourists. As safety is a valid concern throughout Russia, and because there is no decent road and no promotion of the Circassian area inside the Sochi Games site, visitors simply did not head up into the hills to learn about the indigenous culture. Or to buy honey. It was pretty depressing to see.
Madonna and Bee?
Andy Warhol proved that the mundane soup can qualifies as art. In some people's eyes. A friend sent to me a link to an E-Bay art sale: Madonna and Bee. I suspect the less I say about this, the more respectful I will be. But what the heck. I've seen a lot of Marys in my travels. They tend to look like the girl in this image. Young, very pale-skinned - just like the European artists who create her. So, this E-Bay special is not atypical. Except perhaps for the bee she is cuddling. And the rather mischievous look on her face. And the halo - certainly not your typical 16th century Madonna halo. Other than that, it's not so different from anything else you've seen.
I don't know anything about the artist of Madonna and Bee. But if he/she is reading this blog entry, please send me a note - and explain yourself! Did you create this lovely print just for the money and fame, or is there a deep philosophical message? Or is this simply a celebration of two of the most beloved characters in western civilization? For the rest of you reading this, I'm sure you want a copy. It's just $5. Plus $2.50 shipping. Mounted in a $60 frame (which you need to supply yourself) you will have an heirloom which future generations will fondly remember you by. Get out your credit card and follow this link!
There are only 10 prints left, so hurry. Unless you'd prefer the Laughing Jesus print, also available on E-Bay.
Tasmania, respected as the last strong-hold for the Devil and as Australia's main apple-picking state, has something new to boast about. Scientists are outfitting 5,000 bees with electronic tracking devices. The glued-on sensors are RFIDs (Radio Frequency Identification Devices) which activate monitor stations whenever the bees buzz by. This makes them similar to the vehicle passes you may have hung on your car's mirror for tollway access, especially in Europe. (I'm not sure if the technology has arrived in North America yet.) But it is nothing like the GPS tracker inside Fido's collar or my slippers. Those actively broadcast location information. That level of technology is still a bit too cumbersome and too expensive to burden either a bee or a beekeeper's budget. So instead, this is a simpler passive program.
The system is a swarm-sensor array, although this doesn't mean the researchers are expecting to track swarms. Rather, it means vast amounts (swarms) of data are amassed at a large number of points the bees might frequent - such as apple orchards, watering holes, sugar refineries. It's a brilliant project. Not much of a fashion statement for the hapless honey bees involved, but a brilliant research project, nevertheless. During the past century, we used to sit by the bee hive and grab a bee by the wings, affix a dab of colour on her thorax, make a few notes in the journal, then run around to the orchards and watering holes with butterfly nets, trying to retrieve a few samples. It worked, but the sample set was certainly not a swarm of 5,000. This new technique, developed by Dr Paulo de Souza of Australia's CSIRO Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, is expected to provide useful data suggesting the way bees interact with the environment, encounter pesticides, and spend free afternoons. The system may even anticipate strategies to combat Colony Collapse Disorder.
According to research leader de Souza, "This is a non-destructive process and the sensors appear to have no impact on the bee's ability to fly and carry out its normal duties." This obviously reduces the perception that some bees are being hurt to help other bees. (Although that last sentence sums up the essence of the bees' communal society.) It is also essential that the monitor not encumber the forager at her chores, else the data might be meaningless. De Souza is probably right thinking the sensors don't interfere with the bees' work. Honey bees are amazing animals. Carrying a backpack would not send the worker off to school nor is she likely to sit at home trying to incorporate the device into her hive's satellite television receiver.
Ground Hog Day
Pork burgers, anyone? Today is Groundhog Day, which makes me think of ground beef, hamburger helper, and ground hog. And the weather. We, of course, are far too sophisticated to depend on a rodent for our long-range forecast, even if the animal's prediction is roughly as accurate as a room filled with big blue computers crunching the weather service's latest data through their most promising algorithms.
Can bees predict weather? There are plenty of stories of beekeepers in the apiary noticing that all the bees are suddenly heading home, none going out to forage. The beekeepers look up and a cyclone or hail storm or lightning ball or wall of water is rushing towards them. That's likely true. The bees probably respond to rapidly dropping barometric pressure by heading for shelter. They don't like being caught in the rain any more than a beekeeper does.
But what about competing with Punxsutawney Phil by making a long-range forecast? Again, I have heard beekeepers claim a tighter broodnest and extra bee glue (propolis) filling cracks between the boxes means a rough winter is ahead. I don't know. A congested broodnest is likely because of a late-season nectar flow while excess propolis means the gummy parts of pines and poplars that secrete resin have been extra active - and the bees have been extra busy hauling the stuff home. Do they sense a tough winter? I'm not sure what clues bees see that we don't. But my mind is open on this one.
There is also the legend that honey bees nest higher up in trees when they anticipate a winter with lots of snow. This one is extremely unlikely because wild bees swarm in the spring, many months before winter snows are expected. And here in western Canada, hives buried under a meter of snow actually survive better with the extra insulation than hives sitting out bare and exposed on the windy prairie.
By the way, the Calgary groundhog (or Richardson's Ground Squirrel, in our case) faced a dark shadow all day. According to the myth, we will have only six more weeks of winter. That places spring near March 20th. No big surprise. That's what the calendar says, too.
Bees Drink Wine, Live Long, Stay Slim
Bees enjoy a bit of red wine. That's something you don't think about everyday. Do insects (specifically bees) enjoy a bit of the grape juice? Researchers in Arizona aren't telling us that honey bees like wine, but they do say bees that have been asked to kick back and have a sip of red wine from time to time will definitely live longer. About 35% longer. Let's see, for a human that would mean forget 82, but think of 106 as the new norm - with your daily shot of resveratrol.
Not only do the bees live longer, according to the research, they also enjoy a sleeker, more slender physique - no more unsightly body fat for the bee that imbibes. Somehow, say the desert state researchers, red wine triggers a "moderation effect" that switches on while the bee is eating. Sort of like being told they have eaten enough. Ok, so you don't think the research that says red wine curbs a bee's appetite and extends its life is directly transferable to humans? Well, apparently the red wine has been working its magic on everything from yeast to mice - all reportedly live longer (and more raucous) lives with a few drops of the Bacchus sauce.
So, should we give our bees a bottle? One of the surest ways to make a bumper crop is to have healthier, longer-lived bees. If you could be sure the bees would live one-third longer lives, I am guessing they would make about 50% more honey since it is the older bees who do the most gathering. And since they would be skinnier, they would fly faster (less air resistance) and more of them could slip in and out the hive entrance at the same time.
Yikes! A new month, a new year, and I haven't made a blog entry in weeks, as someone kindly pointed out today. It is not as if beekeeping takes a holiday in Canada during the winter. Well, actually, it does. But writing this blog shouldn't. I would say that I have been really busy with pressing issues, but then it sounds like this blog is not important. It is, at least to me. The truth is, I have been on another secret mission for the government, similar in urgency to the one that got me noticed by a heavy metal Norwegian rock band that named their group after me (Miksha) - here is the background to that story. Anyway, I'll post every weekend from now on, even if it is nothing much more than a quick note that claims I am still alive. Sort of like this one.