Chapter 4: The Land of Rape and Honey...
Bees go through stages. Emerge, grow, change. Typically these are slowly evolving stages. From fuzzy baby bees that scrub and clean, to nurse bees that feed the young, to attendants that cater to their queen. Most of these changes are caused by hormones, stimulated by age and nutrition. These changes are usually gradual. For example, the bee doesn't suddenly drop house duties and become a forager. She engages in learning, recreational activity - play flight. The bee stands at the entrance of the hive, feeling the fresh air, the warm sunshine. She takes short little flights, swooping around the apiary like a kid on a first bicycle. Wobbly at first, then moving smoothly, quickly, with purpose.
My colonies were getting stronger. In two months, their populations grew from ten thousand to fifty. Fifty thousand bees packed into two boxes. I had three hundred and twenty of these hives. Sixteen million bees. They worked willow when it bloomed in April, dandelions in May, goat's beard, Russian olive, and caragana in June. Now the clovers were starting to bloom, but not yet yielding nectar.
Three hundred hives is not a lot. Not for someone who has no other means of support. It takes about a thousand hives to make beekeeping a real business. But three hundred were enough for my first year in a new country. I could learn a little about the climate, gain some experience in Canadian beekeeping. But I would need more bees the following year.
I still owned some hives in the United States. Those bees were in Wisconsin for the summer. In November, I would haul them from Wisconsin to Florida. I spent my winters in the south, making a little honey from the orange groves and raising new bees and queens. My plan was to raise extra bees in Florida and bring them up to Saskatchewan. I hoped to use my American bees to make orange blossom honey, then put them into cages with new queens. The citrus bloom ended in March or early April, so I could remove the extra bees that finished making honey in Florida, put them in cages, drive three thousand miles, drop the packages of bees into my equipment on the Canadian prairie. To make all this work, I would need more equipment - more boxes and honeycombs. And I would need to figure out how late in the spring I could bring bees to southern Saskatchewan and still harvest a good crop...
***It was time for me to begin the drive from the short grass prairie of southwest Saskatchewan north to Tisdale. The day before leaving, I assembled new boxes for the hives, hammering inch and a quarter nails into pine boards. I worked late into the night, trying to finish five hundred new boxes before the bees would need space to hold new honey. I quit working before midnight, then slept four hours.
I began driving in the morning dawn, the dull red horizon to my right. I drove north from Val Marie towards Swift Current. I had adjusted my seat belt and the mirror. Turned on the CBC. I gazed ahead into long shadows. Suddenly a floppy-eared deer stood on the highway, eyes blinded by my headlights. I slammed on my brakes, was almost stopped when the radiator grill of my Dodge wrinkled into the animal. I had not gone twenty kilometres from home and I had hit a mule deer. But, apparently, little damage was done to doe or truck. The animal staggered backwards; suddenly awake. I, too, was suddenly awake. I climbed out of the truck. The deer and I stood feet apart, each wondering why the other had chosen this moment, this place to meet. The deer was disgusted by my rudeness. She staggered to the road's edge, jumped across the ditch and vanished into predawn darkness. She left me standing, shaken, beneath the stars, the rising sun, against the headlights of my truck.
There were no more accidents as I drove from Val Marie to Swift Current. But I kept thinking about the rare coincidence that could bring two creatures together. We had a hundred kilometres of isolation to share; a half dozen hours of night to hide from one another. Yet, we met. Another unlikely meeting would happen at this same spot, nine years later. It would not be so innocent.
It was after five when I by-passed Swift Current, picking up the nearly deserted Trans-Canada Highway, east towards Regina, reaching the capital in three hours. A loop road around Regina helped me miss what Saskatchewan calls an eight o'clock rush hour. North of Regina, on the road to Tisdale, stood a Husky truck stop. My first stop since the deer. I stretched, ate pancakes and bacon and eggs. Drank coffee. I paid three dollars for breakfast, ten for gasoline, and drove on.
The scenery changed. Trees. I missed the forests of the east. Here, in the Saskatchewan parkland, groves of poplar trees separated farms. The trees had a soft spring glow, baby green leaves quaked in the slight morning breeze. The grass was tall, thick, dark. The lush land rolled gently. Farmers seeded huge fields of black soil. The fertile black earth of the parkland, far north of Val Marie, supports a wide variety of crops. The dirt around Val Marie was pale brown, except in a few places along the river. Southwest Saskatchewan was hot and dry; the soil brown and weak. Not suitable for much other than wheat. Only the fertile river valley supported alfalfa and clover.
Much of the rich earth north of Regina sprouted small plants that looked like cabbages. Rapeseed, canola. Canola produces tiny black seeds that millers crush into cooking oil. For a month each summer, ten million acres of canola brandish yellow nectar-producing flowers. During the 1970's, ten thousand tonnes of honey came from the rapeseed blossoms on the Canadian prairies. But a hundred times as much honey was lost because there were not enough bees in the country to visit all the flowers. Wasted food. Each year, millions of pounds of honey dripped out of those flowers to the ground, evaporated into the air, forever gone.
An hour north of Regina, the ground turned black as tar. And looked as thick and heavy. Farm houses and farm yards shone with cleanliness. New trucks and big tractors parked themselves proudly on paved driveways near quonset sheds. This was clearly a wealthier place than Val Marie. Many years earlier, my father had taken me to Ohio to deliver tomatoes we had picked on our Pennsylvania farm. I noticed big houses and new cars. As he drove along, my father pointed to the black soil. "People here are no better or smarter than the people where we live. Except they happened to live here, where the soil is better. When you see nice houses, study the land. It's not the people who made themselves rich. Their land. Their land did it for them..."
***Back in Big River, Earl introduced me to Clive Fetterman. At the time I was getting started in the honey business in southern Saskatchewan, this young beekeeper was also starting. Clive worked with his father in the north, near Blaine Lake. Clive was kind, generous, soft-spoken, polite. Earl told me that Clive worked slowly, carefully, diligently.
It was the perfect little things about Clive that were particularly nauseating. Some time later, I helped him with his bees. He wore a pith helmet and wire veil for six hours. At the end of the day, he took off the hat and revealed perfect hair. Worse, he did not sweat. Cool, calm, non-sticky. He could work in his father's honey shop all day, extract twenty barrels of honey, and his clothing would be completely clean. No dripping wax and honey coated his uniform. No dirt, dead bees, nor tree twigs clung to his khakis. If Clive had any faults at all, he hid them from people like me. So, it frustrated me immensely that he and his father could make a nice living messing with a few hives of bees, working only six days a week, and walking - not running - as they worked.
Clive had come up from Blaine Lake in the morning to deliver honey to the IGA. We sat in Rex's, eating rice, looking at Cowan Lake, talking about beekeeping. Clive handed me a religious pamphlet, a little tract of Bible verses, born-again stuff, which I did not keep for long. He wanted to talk about it, I steered our conversation towards beekeeping.
Clive asked how much honey a beekeeper in the States might produce from a hive of bees. In Saskatchewan, with the huge fields of canola and alfalfa, the long sunny summer days, and the healthy, new soil, flowers were abundant and secreted much nectar. Bees were scarce and had much more food than almost anywhere else on earth. So, Saskatchewan hives of bees made two or three hundred pounds of honey a year.
I answered Clive's question. "In the States? About fifty or sixty pounds." Then I explained about geography, climate, and how a lot of the hives are not kept for honey, but are used only to pollinate crops. Other beekeepers raise queens for sale, they do not make honey from their hives. Averaged together, all these things result in the States having a much smaller average honey crop. About thirty percent of a Saskatchewan crop.
I thought my new friend understood. "Yes, maybe, Ron," Clive said. Clive stirred sugar into his coffee, bent his neat hair forward. "But my guess is that Americans don't make as much honey as Canadians do for another reason. Bad beekeeping. You guys just don't know how to keep bees as well as we do. It's not geography, it's bad beekeeping, don't you think?"
At about the same time, some American beekeepers journeyed through western Canada, looking at honey farms and beehives. They told me that they were surprised the Canadian colonies of bees were so weak at the start of the year. I explained that the colonies always look bad at the start of the season - they had survived eight months without fresh pollen or nectar and the bees were only starting to become active. These were smart Americans from California, they could understand what I said, but could not appreciate it. "If we kept bees that poorly, we'd go broke," they concluded. "If Canadians kept bees as expertly as Americans have to keep bees in order to survive, they'd really be making some big crops." They shook their heads.
"Bad beekeeping," the shorter gentleman said, "is keeping you guys behind."
The words from Clive stung as did those of the touring Americans. They both manifested a truth. But it was not a truth about beekeeping at all. It was one of those broader truths about how we need to see ourselves and how we see our neighbours. How we go through life making judgments about each other based on things we know little about; how we live our lives comparing our insides to other peoples' outsides. It was a lesson I hadn't fully learned and didn't have time to discuss with my new friend Clive. I had to head on to Saskatoon. My brother Joe was waiting at the airport...
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