Bad Beekeeper Ron's Occasional Blog

Entries for 2008: July through December

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July 2008

Blog? I never liked this word, it seemed intentionally presumptuous when it was contrived by twenty-something geek-ites. But, apparently there are now fifteen million blogs in the internet universe - some of them written by old geeks like me. So, I will blog you. (For those of you hopelessly techno-lost, that means I'll create a web log (blog) - an on-line diary.)

I'll write a little about beekeeping, our Summit Gardens Honey Farm, our lives, our community, and our confused relationship with ancient planet Earth. I hope you'll be forgiving if this blog becomes boring or tedious, but a blog is an on-line personal diary and hearing people talk about their bees can become boring and tedious - even for a beekeeper! Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy this!


August 2008

I've worked with honey bees since I was a kid. I had about 300 hives when I was 18. I was never much good at keeping bees, which is why it was so easy for me to write my book - Bad Beekeeping... I fumbled around the beeyard for years, making a few pounds of honey and seldom making a profit. And that was pretty disappointing because for quite a few years, beekeeping was my only source of grocery money! Eventually, in my early 30s, I went back to school. After commercial beekeeping for 15 years, it seemed getting a university degree in geophysics should be easy. It was, so I became a seismologist and a licensed geophysical engineer. That's how I buy groceries these days. But we still have a few hundred hives of bees here in western Canada.

And there is more. My health is not good - I've got a type of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) which means my body's muscles are shutting down. Strangely (and infinitely fortunately), my variant of ALS is slow - I have a lot of time left to observe the effects of this wretched wasting disease. My colleague and contemporary Stephen Hawking, a British-astrophysicist (I'm a Canadian-geophysicist, so the colleague part is a stretch.), has had this illness for forty years, so it can progress slowly. However, slow or not, it is still a part of my daily life. I get tired (exhausted is more accurate) easily. I can't walk more than a few steps, then my legs quit. My left hand is getting bad - I type (slowly), using my left pointing finger and my right middle finger. But I still drive extremely well - partly a legacy of too many pre-teen hours on a big John Deere tractor and partly because sitting - driving - does not tax my muscles. My reflexes and flexibility are extremely good.

I'll try not to complain too much. Actually, life is pretty good - as you'll discover if you read this beekeeper's blog. I travel a heck of a lot. My wife - Eszter - is from Hungary. So we take our kids (Helen is 2; Daniel 6) to Europe for a few weeks every year to see the grandparents. And my work occasionally gets me out of town. Sometimes I teach geophysics for the Canadian International Development Agency. A few months ago, I was working in Peru (South America) and took a side-trip to Machu Picchu on a day off. I had a lot of unwanted attention - strangers took a lot of pictures of me and my wheelchair. At first I was irritated, but then realized I might be a poster-child for someone's home slideshow. One old geezer from Chicago told me that the photo he tried to sneak would inspire his brother-in-law to make the trip. It wasn't easy, getting glares and being lugged around stone stairways in the Andean mountains, but it was a journey to remember.



(Ron at Machu Picchu Peru)



August 8, 2008

By now you are thinking - OK, this is all nice and quaint... But this is supposed to be a Beekeeper's Blog - so where the heck are the bees? Good point. So let me talk bees for a moment or two. What a frightening year it has been! In March, we started hearing about disasterous wintering results across western Canada. It didn't seem to matter how the bees were prepared in the fall. Some guys put 10,000 hives into huge air-conditioned warehouses; others left fifty million bees out on the open windy prairies. My brother Don moved most of ours to the shelter-belts around the farm, leaving about a third of the colonies out on the neighbours' ranches. Results were about the same for everyone in the west. Roughly two-thirds of the hives of bees prepared for winter in October were not alive by the end of April. Honest beekeeepers (an oxy-moron?) will admit to serious losses from the past year. We, of course, didn't fare as poorly as the average beekeeper.

To make things worse, spring was cold (snow in late-May!) and wet. The bees - including replacement packages - just sort of sat there, refusing to grow. We asked around, and found that honest beekeepers were admitting that their hives were not developing. Of course, our own bees weren't doing as poorly as the average. But we were still nervous. In June, it was cold. July was rainy. Still no honey. The colonies were getting bigger, but slowly. August first - still no honey - and I reminded Don that in 1992 we had 6 inches (15 cm) of snow on August 17 in Calgary, so we could end the year without honey. But then, the temperature jumped up to 90 (32 C), the bees started to burst their boxes, the honey tap turned on, and now our boxes are nearly full. Will it be a great year? Probably not - but the honey flow is still reaching its peak, with a 25-pound (10 kg) per hive day yesterday. At least we will have something to deliver to our customers.

In my next updates, I'll write a lot more about this year's season, our comb honey production, and also about our thoughts on the bee losses.



August 10, 2008

Just when we started to brag about making a modest honey crop, the weather has turned cold and rainy here in Calgary! It was spitting snow (felt like it) Sunday afternoon when the temperature fell to the 40s (below 10C). My guess is the bees retreated to the comfort of their own homes and quit abusing the flowers. I once knew a beekeeper who studiously avoided jinxing the honey flow. "Looks like we won't make any honey this year," he'd say, so as not to offend the honey gods. It usually worked for him. At the end of the season, he was usually glad that he was proved wrong. But he'd be careful not to brag about the number of barrels in his shop, lest his honey house would burn down.


August 12, 2008

So, maybe we won't make any honey this year, after all. Or maybe we will. It's two days later and warm again. Maybe tomorrow the honey flow will resume...


August 13, 2008

The bees are doing what they can, but we seem to be suffering similar bee problems as the bee folks around most of the world - poor wintering, poor build-up. We really haven't seen big strong hives suddenly vacated. But things don't feel quite right, anyway. The cause of the malady which is sometimes called CCD - Colony Collapse Disorder - has not been decisively diagnosed, but some researchers are leaning towards a combination of factors - including environmental stress and viruses - as the root cause of the disappearance of the world's honey bees.

To understand why it is so difficult to nail a culprit, you have to remind yourself of how science works. Researchers try to start with a premise, then test it, then make a conclusion. Some years ago, tracheal mites were blamed for everything from colony collapse symptoms and low honey yields, to solar eclipses. They were the villain of the day. Twenty years later, almost no one looks for tracheal mites and they are no longer blamed for your dog's bad breathe. But when they were the researchers' favourite whipping boy (and the original reason Canada did not allow bees in from the USA) there were lots of funny research projects designed to prove how bad these mites are.

One guy from an Ontario university went down to New York and looked at 39 hives - some with detectable levels of mites, some without. The worst wintering - from his own records - were the hives with apparently no mites - one-third of the "mite-free" bees died over winter. They probably had poor queens or they had starved. Meanwhile, some of the best wintering occured in hives with tracheal mites. Maybe they had more honey than the others, or better queens, or maybe were wrapped better, or more protected from the wind. The final conclusion was printed in Beelines, the official Saskatchewan government bee newsletter, paid for by tax dollars: "Clearly mite infestations increase colony mortality." This was not so apparent to those who bothered to read the actual numbers. These results - that tracheal mites caused big problems - were written up, widely distributed, and cited as an excuse to destroy bee colonies (and beekeepers) - and to interfere with free trade.

Meanwhile, a similar experiment was conducted in northern Saskatchewan. Colonies with tracheal mites were monitored alongside apparently non-infected hives. According to one fellow on the team, the researchers tried to remove personal perceptive bias from their examinations by doing a sophisticated form of "rock-scissors-paper" - they would open a hive, rate it 1, 2, or 3 with fingers behind the back, then together, bring their hand around to show their pick. This way, they wouldn't bias each other's observations. Despite such efforts to make meaningful, scientific observations, these guys didn't see the varroa mites that were crawling around in these test hives by the thousands. (Remember, they were trying to study tracheal mites, so they weren't thinking of looking out for the much, much larger varroa mites - the entire project was ruined by this mistake.) Many who had funded the experiment were greatly disappointed that the results were useless because the researchers had goofed up.

All of this is simply to point out that even very bright people with advanced university degrees can't possibly keep track of all the various factors that effect experimental results. These people are not dumb. The scientist tries to focus his efforts as much as possible, reducing or eliminating external factors. There are at least two ways this might be done. Isolation in a laboratory can control external influences - for example, 'How does diseased brood respond to a particular medication?' In a working bee yard, the disease may be accidentally re-introduced, multiple ailments might interfere with efficacy, variants in response (ie, cleaning-instinct) might be randomly introduced by drifting bees, or more likely, some other - unexpected and unnoticed - factors may influence the results. So, isolation is a good way to focus a study.

The other way a scientist might try to focus his/her results is the use of a huge experimental database where the trick of factorial analysis can best be applied. (If you'd like an easy-to-read background to this mathematical technique to remove variance, read this article which stirs in vodka with statistics.) A huge experimental database might mean the use of thousands of actual living colonies of bees spread over a large geographic area and over a number of seasons. This way, the likelihood that a few skunks, some strong winds, a hot dry spell, or a few bad queens interfere with the experimental results can be correctly considered and compensated. (From our example above, 39 hives simply can't meet this need. Correlations between big populations and high mite levels, or indeed any other results, are meaningless in such small sample populations.)

You can see the inherent problem in each approach - isolation is not real-life. And the real-life experiments (with thousands of hives) are too expensive to be conducted.

Back to the original point of today's blog... We don't know what is wrong with the world's bees. And it is unlikely that science can decisively and unquestionably discover the cause of the deaths of so many bees over the past three years. Especially if the problem is a combination of factors - perhaps some new pathogen in conjunction with older widespread diseases or pests alongside various environmental stresses. In simple words, it might be a new virus in hives with lots of varroa and nosema which are also regularly exposed to farm pesticides and are being moved frequently. I don't know. But beekeepers are trying to reduce their own losses by purchasing and maintaining newer queens from sources not known to have the problem, running smaller apiaries, moving hives less often, keeping bees away from frequently poisoned fields, assuring lots of honey and pollen are always in the hives, replacing old dark combs, and in general keeping bees healthy, happy, and stress-free. Unfortunately, the reality is that even the best beekeepers can't do all the right things all the time and "Colony Collapse Disorder" seems to be effecting even the best beekeepers.


August 15, 2008

Wow! That last entry already earned some responses. Thank you for these - especially the rude comments. No, I am not anti-scientist. I actually am a scientist. I just want people to be aware that science is not easy, results are rarely conclusive, and occasionally hidden agendas are driving both the research and the conclusions. I financially support research personally and I know that some great practical inventions and procedures that help beekeepers every day have come from research studies. Perhaps not the hive tool, veil, smoker, beehive, or extractor - but surely there are some things. You could write to me and tell me. What is it that a beekeeper uses everyday that helps his work and increases his financial return and came from a researcher, not a fellow beekeeper? (Other than medications.) I expect a hundred responses (which I'll post here!) within a week.

We are getting some nice weather here again. The Calgary area has been cold almost all summer, but it is 75 (24C) today and should be even warmer for the next few days. Down in Milo, Alberta, - where our honey farm is - the forecast is for 90s for the next ten days. If it doesn't get too dry, too windy, or too much hotter than 90 (32C), then we might make a good crop after all.

We produce comb honey here in Alberta. We are using a round comb system - it might be the best way in the world to make comb honey, I don't really know. But it works well for us. The round-shaped combs are usually finished nicely - no ugly unsealed corners that used to plague us back when I was a kid (before plastic was discovered) when we used the soft basswood square boxes. It always seemed a bit rude to me - chopping down basswood trees back in Pennsylvania to make the wooden frames to hold the basswood honey we produced.

But these units were often not finished properly (beekeepers used to seal them in little cardboard boxes that hid the corners so customers couldn't see the unfinished edges - here you can view a vintage photo from an old ad). And the wood had to be scraped to get rid of the propolis which the bees had applied to hold the boxes together. Nice healthy stuff - propolis - but it is sticky and grocery shoppers sometimes thought it was dirt. We also used shallow supers with wireless combs and if the combs didn't fall out, didn't twist and warp in the heat, and if we could keep the queen off the combs but still get honey in them, we had a nice chunk of comb honey to sell. Then we cut, drained, and packaged pieces in jars and in plastic trays. All in all, the new system is much easier for the beekeeper - no cutting, no scraping, no unfinished edges (no edges at all, actually). There are some other nice systems (Bee-O-Pac and Hogg Cassettes among them) using plastics and following a sort of similar idea. At least, these all simplify the beekeeper's life and eliminate the cutting and scraping. They are probably just as good. But the Ross Round - and it predecessors - have been in existence since the 1950s!! The commercial beekeeper and philosophy professor, Dr Richard Taylor, wrote a nice review of the product in a 1958 American Bee Journal article, part of which is reprinted here for you. I cut off most of the text, but I like how it starts... Dr Taylor implies few people know what comb honey is anymore - remember, Richard Taylor wrote this 50 years ago!!


Dr. Richard Taylor's 1958 ABJ Article


August 18, 2008

It is hot! At the farm, about 60 miles (100 km) from Calgary, the thermometer topped out at 99 (37C) - that's risky for alfalfa secretion and nectar collection. Being Canadian, our bees prefer cooler temperatures. And water is scarce here, so they have a difficult time finding enough air-conditioner fluids for their homes. (The air-conditioner mechanic-bees retrieve a drop of water from a brook on each flight - strategically placing the cool water on warm wax in the hive where it quickly evaporates, thus cooling the colony. Since beeswax melts at 144 degrees (62C) it is possible that the bees' house will puddle out during a sustained desert heat wave.) Besides distracting a large number of bees to collect water, the dry air may also stress the alfalfa which produces our bees' nectar. Luckily, the roots of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) extend about 15 feet (5 m) down towards the molten core of the earth, so they often find a bit of water even when the topsoil is parched. By the way, the dry air results in 'dry' nectar which results in 'dry' honey - most honey is usually about 18% water, but in our part of sunny southern Alberta, the sere conditions can yield honey with a quarter less water in it. Makes for some beautifully thick food. (Even wild prairie squirrels have been know to scarf our honey!) The arid conditions here also stifle wild flowers and weeds which might yield minor (but less-tasty) mid-summer nectar supplies. So, the honey is pretty homogenously pure lucerne and medicago - both supplying typical water-white, mild, low-moisture Alberta honey.






August 19, 2008

With today's soaring temperatures, some nasty, flying, stinging insects have been spooking the folks living around Calgary. Everyday, I get one or two e-mails urgently demanding my help at extricating innocent humans held hostage by pesky barbed bugs. Not to ceaselessly chide these insect-challenged proleteriats, (I know... some people actually do have sting allergies, others have debilitating phobias.) but from experience, I know that nearly all requests for rescue in our city involve wasps, not honeybees. Since nearly all requests for help begin with a statement of solidarity for the cause of saving the world's bees but end with an appeal to kill these miserable creatures or at least get them out of my backyard, I had to find a nice way to respond to these scared people. Donating help could occupy a lot of my time - and don't forget, I type slowly - so I came up with a simple solution. I have saved a stock response to the queries...


        ...Hello,

           We can give you some practical advice on getting rid of the bugs, 
           but because of CCD and related disorders, 
           beekeepers rarely retrieve honey bees - just too risky.
           If you can send a digital photo of the bugs, we might be able to 
           ID them for you and help you decide what to do
           - the insects as you described them are 99% certainly bumblebees, 
           wasps or hornets, not honey bees. 
           Bumblebees, wasps, and hornets have no value to beekeepers.
           A photo would help us tell you what you might do to get rid of them.

           Regards, 

This works really well. Almost everyone who sends me an e-mail has a digital camera and knows how to send a picture. Here are a few examples of the terrorizing bugs that have been seen recently in or near Calgary. (None of these are honey bees, by the way!)

As indicated earlier, I always answer my assailant with wisdom and kindness. First, I encourage the victim to seek the help of paid professionals. Terminators (technically called buggermators in this industry) have liability insurance (handy if you accidentally ignite someone's house) and some serious pesticides which beekeepers aren't allowed to own. Also, I suggest that if perhaps maybe they can tolerate their bugs for a couple more months, when it freezes the wasps/bumbles may dissipate - or even evaporate. Few people realize that most of these types of insects build temporary nests that disappear over winter and perhaps never form again in the same location. I then usually direct people to one or more web sites: Since most people don't know what type of bug they are up against, this ID reference page is good; however, if it really is a honey bee issue, then Controlling Honey Bees Around the Home is especially good and cautions people not to burn the bees' nest because they might also burn their own house down. You can find many more good sites to recommend if you need to answer similar queries.


August 23, 2008

One of the special things about honeybees is their incredible range around the world. They live everywhere humans live. (With the exception of Antarctica - but it can be argued that humans don't really live there, we're just visiting.) According to the recently cracked honeybee genome sequence, honeybees probably had their ancient homeland in Africa, but they've been in Europe for millions of years, too. And honeybees stayed in these 'natural' locations until just recently. Humans have since carried honeybees to Australia, Asia, and the Americas where - just like humans - they have done very well.

Some purists would argue that honeybees don't belong outside their natural area. In fact, movements have been made to ban honeybees from the best foraging areas in Australia and to eradicate them from Santa Cruz Island, off the southern coast of California. In the case of Santa Cruz, banning the bees was an effort to revert the place to its more primitive pre-colonial environment. Maybe this is a noble experiment, I don't know. The project was started in 1992 and several hundred naturally occurring honeybee swarms were "removed" - my guess is that funding for the project ran out and Africanized bees have since filled the void. It's about 15 miles (24 km) across the Santa Barbara Channel to the North Channel Islands. Oh yes, Africanized bees can fly 25 kms across water! A few years ago, I was contacted by the operator of an offshore drilling rig - 13 miles (21 km) from the African coast. To your left is one of the pictures he sent me of the bees that he saw landing on his oil rig. He was, of course, wondering what to do with the bees. I told him that unless his crew was growing vegetables on the oil platform, these bees would soon become hungry and mean and then starve to death. I also told him they might try to make a break for it and head off to Brazil. Finally, I reluctantly gave him extermination advice - which did not include starting a fire on the rig!

I wonder what became of the project to cleanse Santa Cruz Island of its honeybees? Settlers brought the first bees to the island 125 years ago. I haven't found a recent report regarding the occurence of honeybees there. I'm not making a judgment call here - the island and its neighbours are part of a US National Park today and the effort to investigate native bees in their natural ecosystem is an interesting and likely rewarding project. But in the wrong hands, and extended to its illogical conclusion, we would need to clean North America of its wheat, sheep, cows, horses, chickens, clovers, and - of course - humans, as people didn't start to live here until only 15,000 years ago. As you might guess, I am not in favour of this unsatisfying notion. Carry the idea a bit further, and we humans should all move back to our home continent, get rid of our shoes and socks, live in caves, and die of old age at 40. No thanks.


August 24, 2008

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about the wide distribution of honeybees around the world. When I was a kid on the farm in Pennsylvania, I had the idea that I should go to Iceland to keep bees. I didn't know anything at all about Iceland, except that it has ice. And some volcanoes. When you are 15, that sounds pretty cool. We kept bees on the farm (800 hives at that time) so the thought of heading off to Iceland and starting a honey farm was a logical - if ill-conceived - notion. I wrote to the Iceland embassy in Washington and they sent me some pamphlets on the climate and vegetation on their island. The materials were not too encouraging, but it still didn't seem like a wild idea. However, when I finally visited Iceland many years later, it was apparent that keeping bees commercially would have been pretty tough. The landscape is grassy and the sky is windy. No wonder most farmers raise sheep, not bees, in Iceland.

But there are honeybees on Iceland. An article a few years ago in the American Bee Journal explained how an Icelandic physician had trained in Sweden and learned a bit about bees there. When he returned to Reykjavik, Egill Sigurgersson started up some hives, as you can see to the right. Apparently, a few beekeepers had kept bees in Iceland off and on for a couple of centuries, usually giving up after terrible winter losses. But the Icelandic spirit prevails and now a viable core group of members of an Icelandic Beekeepers' Club pay up to $700 for the bees and equipment needed to get started (everything has to be imported) and have a great time making around 100 pounds (50 kg) per hive of mostly salix (willow varieties) honey. Winter losses are still a big problem (often 80%), but honey is sometimes produced in abundance. Dr Egill Sigurgersson put this page about his honey processing on the net. Dr E's main website is written in graceful poetic Icelandic. I can't read a word of it - but here's the link to his main page, Býflugur, for those of you better than I. (And here's the link to his abbreviated English language page, for those of you not better than I.)


August 26, 2008

If you keep bees, you will eventually hear someone say "Bees don't sting you because they know you." And you will patiently explain that bees don't know you - there are hundreds of thousands living in your boxes, only a few ever actually see you, you only bother the bees for a few minutes a month, and besides, the little critters only live a few weeks. So, scientific research into the recognition ability of honeybees is an intriguing subject for beekeepers.

Bees Recognize People, is a headline sure to attract attention. Livescience.com, a website that displays interesting facts about bugs and other animals, explains that although the bee's brain is 1/20,000 of the human brain, bees can be trained by "showing the bees a series of black-and-white pictures of human faces. The bees got tasty or sour rewards, depending on their performance. The face series is exactly the same one used by psychologists to test human memory." The face images may be exactly the same as used with human volunteers, but I doubt the training session is exactly the same - what would the bee volunteers do with their $5 cash as is customarily offered in these psychological experiments? But Dr Adrian Dyer (La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia) has found that bees can be trained to distinguish between different images of people. This is a little different from recognizing a beekeeper. But it is interesting science as it reveals a bit more about how bees see and remember. "We also discovered that bees can discriminate between blue colours just as well as we can – if they learn to take their time. Once we thought bees could only see 100 colours – in fact their vision is as good as or better than ours," reports Dr Dyer. "Further testing showed that bees formed a long-term memory and were able to recognise the target face two days later." By the way, the photo to the left (from Dyer's project - http://www.sbcs.qmul.ac.uk/news/archive.shtml) indicates what a bee might see if it could describe what it sees.


August 28, 2008

The honey season is about over here in southern Alberta (on Canada's western plains). The prairie provinces are notorious for dastardly weather - this 'summer' is a case in point. We had a cold April, continuing with snow in late May and a very rainy June and July. Lots of rainy weather, but no excess of water. However, moisture was OK. We average 15 inches (40 cm) of rain a year - nearly desert conditions. So wet is nice here. It stayed cool and cloudy throughout most of July and beekeepers found they didn't have any honey on August first - the date that local beekeepers normally have 2/3 of their crop collected. August improved. It became warm. We even had two or three hot days - near 100 F (38 C). So, most beekeepers made at least some honey in our area. I haven't heard, but I would guess results are similarly poor to average among our colleagues across the line in Montana, Idaho, and the Dakotas.

As readers of this blog and my main website know, I can no longer walk very well. I mentioned this on this blog a few weeks ago. So, it is my brother Don who actually runs the farm. Don is semi-retired from a huge greenhouse business he owned in Wisconsin. He does all the work on the bee farm. I just look over his shoulder - especially easy for me when I use my Segway to get around. That puts me a few inches above his head!

A Segway is fairly expensive, but since our property has buildings spread out over a huge area, the wheels help me dash from place to place and the time saved eats the cost. I don't usually use the Segway in the any of our 30 beeyards, just on the farm where we have a few hives, as you can see here. The machine is pretty easy to use, once you get past the initial phase of learning to relax on the little platform. Lean forward, it goes forward. Lean back, it reverses. A slight twist of the hand on the handle bar turns you left or right. All these motions are so subtle that spectators (the Segway attracts many) think the operator isn't even running the machine.

I've used it a lot of places. Here in Calgary, it is welcome at the zoo, the parks, the attractions. In Europe (it flies with the baggage), I've used it to explore Roman ruins, the sea-wall and streets of Dubrovnik, Croatia, and the Giant's Causeway in Ireland (even took it to Apimondia in Dublin!)... I use it often at our second home in Hungary where I can zip into the downtown (about half a mile, or a few hundred meters) in a few minutes. I have not taken it to South America - I think it would attract too much unwanted attention there (i.e., it would be stolen). I tried using it a couple of times in San Diego (California, USA) but I was chased out of Sea World and out of the San Diego Zoo. This despite it is my personal mobility devise and I can't get around alone long distances without it. I think in the case of the USA, liabilty concerns were the excluding factors. I can't really fault the park owners - they have to look out for their shareholders. After George Bush fell off his Segway in 2003, the negative publicity had a bit of a backlash. Yea, I've fallen, too, but that's rare - and my tumbles have no impact on Segway sales. So far, no broken bones.

But what a great invention! It balances with spinning gyroscopes housed under your feet. And it's powered by two separate single-horse electric motors. These motors work completely independently of each other. This way, you can have one wheel going forward and the other in reverse and turn 360 without moving ahead or backing up. Actually, you can turn around in a doorway! And for people like me with limited mobility, it is a great tool. Above, you can see me peaking into hives on our farm near Milo, Alberta.


(Someone said I look a bit like an older, heavier Mr Bean here, what do you think?)

September 3, 2008

We had our first fall frosts yesterday and then again this morning. It wasn't extremely cold - just a few degrees below freezing. Some flowers were damaged. The honey flow is certainly over. Bees are feisty now. Hives with 50,000 or more inhabitants suddenly have three-quarters of the work force unemployed. Imagine being the politician in charge of a mess like that! Political discussion is a murmur here in our household. The Americans have had an exciting - and important - contest going for a few years now. Here in Canada, we might have an election called this fall, too. A big difference is that the election will likely be announced by our Prime Minister on Sunday and the campaign, the voting, and the counting will be over in four weeks. Another big difference is that Canada has a lot less riding on the issue of personality.

With a Parliament, the Prime Minister is really just another one of several hundred legistlators. So, if you live in Nova Scotia or British Columbia, for example, you don't get to vote directly for or against the guy who is presently "in charge." You vote for your local rep, who in turn has a leader. That leader might become the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is just another locally elected member of the parliament. At the moment, Canada's Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) represents my neighbourhood in south-west Calgary. So, I and a few hundred other folks nearby, actually see Mr Harper's name on our ballots when we vote. But when we vote for or against this guy, we are voting on whether we want him to represent our little local district in south-west Calgary. Nowhere on the ballot does it say 'Prime Minister' - it just gives us a list a people - a local liberal, a local socialist, a local green party person, and a conservative - from which to choose for our local Member of Parliament.


Canada's political leaders are warm and friendly towards each other.
Here are Layton, Duceppe, Harper, and Martin chatting it up before the last election.

-------

Dave, U. Calgary '08

As beekeepers, our household tends towards Libertarian. For those of you who don't know, Libertarians might be Conservatives or they might be Liberals. In the USA, they might be Democrats or they might be Republicans - but are usually Independents. They might even be Green Party people. But socialists and communists are not libertarians. The libertarian political philosophy is basically that less government is better government. Power corrupts. Big government yields bigger budgets and always more corruption. So Libertarians want far less government and fewer laws and regulations. This applies to people's private lives as well as to government meddling in business, free trade, and private enterprise. This is why beekeepers are frequently Libertarians.

My 22 year-old son has just left for Ontario. David has been asked to be the campaign manager for a Member of Parliament, a guy who represents a mixed rural and city riding and who is a member of one of the two big political parties here in Canada. I often disagree with my son's politics but the fellow he is working for has broadly libertarian ideals and we are happy, excited, and proud of our son. Best wishes for a successful campaign, David!


-------

A Greenland Fjord

Last time, I said I'd write a bit more about Arctic beekeeping. The idea that humans have successfully spread their honeybee into new areas (along with the cow, sheep, horse, almonds, and apples, and soooo many more things) is - in this libertarian's mind - an absolutely good thing. Don't believe anyone who tries to make you feel guilty about keeping bees in the Americas, in Australia, or any other place that honeybees did not inhabit one thousand years ago. You are part of the solution, not part of the problem. You raise the standard of living and health of everyone. The parts of the world with the most starvation, the most infectious diseases, poverty, and short brutal lifespans are precisely those parts of the world where people do not have access to much beyond their village. No new agriculture. No new ideas. Just short impoverished lives. So if you are a beekeeper, be proud of what you do. Yes, you are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

In Greenland, a huge Arctic island along Canada's east coast (but controlled by Denmark), one of the measures taken to raise the standard of living - and the health and welfare - of the local folks has been the introduction of honeybees. Honeybees did not live in Greenland until just a few decades ago. Lots of other insects - especially mosquitos and blackflies, but also some wasps and bumble bees - thrive in Greenland. But honeybees were unknown until hives were flown in and distributed to villagers. (As a libertarian, I would have preferred that some local business guy or gal would have carted the hives in, set up a small honey shop, and got his neighbours interested (free enterprise and competition!) - the result would be more successful than something run by well-paid bureaucrats. The role of government would have been to stand out of the way!) Back to the story...

Several dozen hives were distributed among the sheep herders and potato farmers of the southern fjords. According to Ole Hertz, the Danish beekeeper who has made this experiment work, winter survival has been improving and crops are sometimes 70 or 80 kg (150 lbs) per hive. Honey is mostly from willow herb (fireweed) and salix varieties (willow trees) with dandelion, purple saxifrage, and arctic thyme. A nice story by Mr Hertz is on the Bees for Development website. Honey has been selling at about $20 a pound ($10/kg) and the twenty families or so involved have better food and a bit of spare cash for boots and shovels and other stuff northerners need.


September 8, 2008

Josh Hofer, Hutterite Beekeeper

We keep bees for comb honey production. We don't extract. For you non-beekeepers (hapless, unfortunate souls!) extract is a word in bee-speak that means 'get all sticky by spinning honey from combs'. Beekeepers load the wax-encrusted honey into extractor machines, the motors rotate the combs, and the honey is slung out. Here's a picture of my friend Joshua Hofer of the James Valley Hutterite Colony near Winnipeg, in Manitoba. Josh kept a few hundred hives of bees on the colony. I'll write a bit more about the Hutterite communities later, but for now, you can see his uncapper, which strips the wax coating off the combs. As I've said, 'extracting' means separating honey from wax and packing the liquid into jars. And it is hard work.

At our company (Summit Gardens Honey Farms Ltd.) we don't extract. We leave the honey in the combs that the bees made it in. We just pop the little combs out of their frames and snap a lid, a label, and a price tag on them. This doesn't imply that our product is inherently better than honey separated from wax. But it is closer to source - no separating, heating, nor filtering. Actually, no touching by human hands nor mechanized equipment at all.

We got interested in comb honey production for a variety of reasons. With comb honey, one avoids extracting and all the equipment that goes with it. Fewer hives are needed to generate an income. The honey boxes are much lighter (This is a big consideration for me - if I have a 'good' day (health-wise, that is - see the entry above) then I can help a little. But usually I'm as useless as a fifth leg on a goat.) But there are down-sides to comb honey production. We had to develop our own markets for the huge quantity we produce. We had to learn to be better beekeepers because comb honey is much harder for the bees to make. There is a fine balance between hives strong enough to build new wax combs and hives swarming to the trees. Our best management trick has been to develop the hives as two-queen colonies - introducing a new, young queen in early May. The hives gain strength more quickly and the young queens generate extra pheromone that helps keep the bees from swarming. At supering time, we squeeze the hive size down to single brood chambers, shifting the extra (older) queen a few steps away in the same beeyard. The set-aside split tends to fill up with honey, even though most of the field bees drift back to the original location. At the original location, the extra population makes a powerhouse hive to which five to eight comb honey supers can eventually be added. I'll write more another time about some of our management procedures. If you are really keen on comb honey production, check our honey farm web site). I'm working occasionally on a book - "Honey Combing" which should be printed in March 2009 and which will have a lot more to say about producing this nice stuff.

Meanwhile, you can see the system here in a little detail - the boxes, combs, and final containers.

Producing Hive, left; Combs in Progress, center; Ready to Ship, right


September 20, 2008

The Terry Fox Run was a couple of weekends ago. My wife Eszter and our little guy Daniel usually get out and run, raising money for cancer research. I don't know if you would have heard of Terry Fox. He was a young guy from British Columbia. Terry got cancer in his teens (in the 1970s), and he lost his right leg. During his recovery on the children's ward, he saw a lot of kids whom he knew weren't going to survive. He said he was inspired by their bravery and he wanted to help those kids. Terry Fox also loved sports - especially running, at which he was once very good. So, he had an idea. He and a friend drove out to Newfoundland in an old van. There, he began a cross-country run, The Marathon of Hope. That was 1980. I followed this on my radio from my honey farm in southern Saskatchewan - he was a young guy running across Canada on one leg, raising money to fight cancer.

That spring and summer I followed his progress across Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario. His stump bled as he pounded the highway, one hop-step after another. His cancer returned. Near Thunderbay there is a huge statue of the man alongside the trans-Canada highway. Almost mid-point across the country - he had run 3339 miles in 143 days, a daily 23-mile marathon. That's how far he went before he was carried home to die in Victoria, B.C. But that summer before his death, Terry Fox raised over three million dollars from the 300,000 Canadians who ran with him, waved at him, or cheered him on from their side of the radio. Now, each year on the anniversary of his last day of running, a Terry Fox Run is held in fifty countries around the world. As a result of his struggle, four hundred million dollars has been donated for cancer research. But the disease isn't beaten yet. There is still work to be done.

I get the occasional e-mail asking me if buckwheat honey - or manuka or 'spruce-tree' or goldenrod - can help cure or prevent cancer. My answer is that anything you can do to improve your health and your immune system may help keep you from getting sick. But honey of any particular flavor or nectar source isn't going to be the 'magic bullet' that dissolves cancer tumors. It is true that people who eat manuka honey have less cancer. But those same folks don't smoke and are often vegetarians who bicycle to their organic garden patch.







October 10, 2008

Our Summit Gardens Honey Farms Ltd is literally wrapped up for the year. Beekeeper Don has retrieved all the honey combs our bees felt indulged to generously supply to their vertical friends. It was a modest crop - not more that 12,000 combs. We are grateful for every finished little honey comb, knowing it took the bees a lot of work to discover the fine nectar that became this honey. However, as farm-people, we are obliged to be disappointed that we didn't have a better crop. Maybe next year? Our numbers for this ending season were roughly as follows: 440 colonies at the height of the season; about 120 support colonies (providing extra bees to the comb honey hives); and, about 320 actual producing hives. From these 320 we were given close to 40 nice, saleable, finished sections of comb honey. You might know that a round honeycomb weighs about 10 or 12 ounces. That means we averaged 30 pounds per hive in this somewhat poor (weather-wise) year. Since Alberta, Canada, has a 185 pound average, this places us close to dead-last in the pounds produced per hive sweepstakes.

Economically, we are as stupid as we look. Or maybe not. Our typical wholesale price is about $6/comb. That yields around $150 per hive from our 400-plus hive base. And this was a poor year here in southern Alberta. Our modest production grants a return which compares well with what a beekeeper who extracts a much bigger crop might make. They need barrels and extractors and big, big trucks, plus more hired help, bigger buildings, and more honey-holding boxes. We do not own an extractor. Our CFIA (and Kosher) inspected shop is huge, but not as huge as these barrel-filling big folks need. Our individual combs containers, lids, and labels ARE very expensive. And it is expensive for us to deal with scores of stores and lots of smallish brokerage sales. So, we haven't struck upon a utopian beekeeping model.

Actual fact is that our farm does not yet 'break even' - this comb honey farm was founded just three years ago. Thirty years ago, I'd had a commercial honey farm, which did well briefly, then did poorly for years. After ten years of that, I was a hobby-bee person. Later, I formed a different business (in geophysics) and used some of its slightly more lucrative return to invest in bees again. Which resulted in three-year-old Summit Gardens Honey Farms Ltd., operated by my brother Don. We do hope, expect, and demand that this little comb honey business will eventually make some money. But not this year.


October 15, 2008

Comb Honey Packing Equipment
Honey is packed! Don (with some help from Erika and David) have packaged all those thousands of round comb honeys. They had a small assembly line and a lot of patience. Packing comb honey is an enterprise so different from extracting honey. Extraction has the advantage of leaving behind reusable combs for the bees to fill another year. Unfortunately, it requires some impressively expensive stainless-steel machinery, pipes, and tanks. Equipment hums, whirls, and screeches while boilers belch steam which melts wax and keeps honey flowing. If you are into factory scenes, a well-run extracting shop is a delight to experience. We don't extract, so unfortunately we have neither the fun of the factory nor the pleasure of watching gorgeous liquid Alberta honey fill tanks, barrels, and trucks.

Our processing equipment is a stainless-steel knife. The knife is there to occasionally trim excess wax off the edges of the combs as they are being labelled. Comb honey isn't processed, nor even necessarily cut. Bees lodge it into the same package from which consumers eventually eat it. So, no boilers, no clanking equipment. Just a bit of relaxing background music. The system involves pulling the finished honey comb frames out of the honey super. Then snapping open the holding frame, cracking out the round section, popping lids on the comb. That's right - it's as easy as snap, crackle, pop! (You were expecting that, weren't you?)

Our shop is federally inspected - a quality useful for entering potential export markets. But inspection will soon be required so that all honey - even non-processed comb honey - will need to originate in a Canadian Federal Inspection Agency (CFIA) approved shop in order to appear in a store. So, we complied with all the federal regulations for our 4000 sq ft packing warehouse. Our Summit Gardens honey is also inspected for Kosher compliance. All these things help us maintain an appropriate standard of quality. I guess we are in this business for the long-haul!


October 18, 2008

Our honey-girl got married today. Erika has worked with bees all her life and genuinely enjoys this gruelling avocation of ours. It was a beautiful wedding on a gorgeous fall weekend.

Erika's husband is a nice young man who makes his living through hard work with his hands and brains. We wonder if the two of them should pursue beekeeping? What do you think? Little money, long hours, frustrating work. Everyone's dream of the good life, eh?

Is there money in honey? A friend quickly answers, 'Oh yeah! Money going out!' and my wife Eszter invented the now timeless expression 'Bees eat money' a phrase that will doubtless title a book I shall eventually write. So, I know better than to hope, expect, or demand that my daughter and her husband - the fresh bride and groom - should someday soon operate a honey bee farm.

I'm sure this must be the dilemma of every farm family. The young couple could move away and make a fortune (not too difficult in Alberta); or, they could stick around with off-farm jobs (and watch the money pour into the farm); or, depend on the farm and live in poverty. Some choices, eh?

I guess we will try to discourage their pursuit of this sticky business. It will have to be their own fault if they end up swimming in a honey tank someday.




October 26, 2008

I flew home from a town called Prince George today. PG is a remote British Columbia city, tucked among the mountains in the center of that province. The BC Honey Producers Association has a nice practice of shifting their annual meetings around to various parts of BC. This gives the task of organizing the conference to a fresh group of folks every year. The local chapter - the Prince George Beekeepers' Association - did a great job of making the meetings work well for everyone. I was definitely an outsider - I am from Alberta - but people were so genuinely nice that I wasn't too nervous about making my appearance at this organization.

I had cause to be a bit nervous. I was an invited speaker, presenting a topic a lot of British Columbia beekeepers would rather not have to consider. I had successfully imported queen honey bees from Chile in the spring of 2008. So I came to discuss how and why I went to South America to get bees for my Canadian business. There are a number of very capable BC queen breeders who would have preferred I offered my dollars to them, rather than to some out-of-country queen breeders. Believe me, that would be my preference, too - if the BC queen breeders supplied bees when my Alberta honey farm needs them. There is/was also concern that some disorder/pest/problem might be carried into Canada from afar.

The logical conclusion of those opposed to importation of bees into Canada is that Canadian beekeepers should buy Canadian. This would make the country self-sufficient and would reduce the possibility of new pests accidentally entering the country. To me, a prairie beekeeper, these advocates living along BC's Pacific coast have a thoughtful and sincere position with respect to honey bee imports. But, unfortunately it is untenable on the western prairies. Here, we need queens in April and May, but BC queen breeders don't have queens available until June or July. And we need many. Last year, Canada imported 250,000 queens. Plus almost 100,000 packages with queens. These bees came from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Chile. Canadian queen breeders barely produced 25,000 queens - about 10 percent of the commercial demand in the country.

During the BC conference dinner banquet, I had the good fortune of sharing a table with BC's Chief Apiary Inspector. Paul van Westendorp is a bright and earnest bee-guy. He seemed to concur with the closed-border advocates, suggesting that we need to get over 'old, traditional ways of doing things' in commercial bee farms. Paul was encouraging us to 'think outside the box' and make a paradigm shift in our practices. He also offered the interesting perspective to all of us gathered at the table that a bee scientist with a salary supplied by the government does not have to let 'bad practices interfere with good judgement' the way commercial beekeepers' judgement is sometimes clouded by the need to survive financially. I have rarely heard this sentiment articulated so clearly before. Probably the next step - though I doubt Paul would favour it - might be the nationalization of all commercial bee farms. This would result in all beekeepers getting a government salary, freeing them from the burden of trying to survive as food producers, rather than trying to do good science.

So why bring bees from Chile instead of BC? I was in Chile and greatly impressed with the high level of skill espoused by beekeepers there. Chile - wedged between the Andes and the Pacific - is isolated and does not have Africanized bees, resistant foulbrood, nor small hive beetles. There are fewer pests in Chile than in BC. But, as mentioned earlier, Canada is not producing hundreds of thousands of queens at the time prairie beekeepers need those queens. At the BC meeting, several folks suggested that the prairie beekeepers simply change their habits - requeen and make/buy new colonies in the summer. In Alberta, we have a really short summer, but it might be possible. The cost would be much greater, but if the quality were high, it might still make business sense.

But I have an idea. The producer of an item should have the product ready when the buyer wants it, not only when it can be most conveniently produced. The buyer is in control - not the seller. So, here's the solution that would enable a closing of the Canadian border. The BC government could build a huge greenhouse over several hundred thousand hectares of farmland along the Fraser River. This greenhouse could hold the winter-time queen breeding business, as long as the ceiling is a hundred meters high so the drones and queens can get their proper exercise. An enormous greenhouse would also have the double benefit of providing rich farmland for Canada's banana, pineapple, and orange growers. Then Canada could truly be independent of agricultural imports!

OK. I jest. And such outlandish comments do little to help the dialog - or so I've been told. But if anyone takes all this too seriously, they shouldn't be a beekeeper because they don't have the stomach for the ups, downs, and inevitable disasters. Get a sense of humour, OK? And don't blow a fuse over any of my comments - you need your energy (and all your fuses) to keep your bees alive! But if constructive advise is sought, maybe I can get serious for half a second... Canadian-produced queen bees are the best in the world for Canada. Prairie beekeepers need these queens in April, not July. So, if I ever have my dream bee-farm running on Salt Spring Island (in Canada's balmy Pacific waters), I would raise queen bees using two-thousand medium-depth three-frame nuc boxes. I'd sell to anyone who wants summer and fall queens, but then around mid-September, I would NOT remove the last round of 6,000 mated queens. Instead, I'd wait until April 20 to cage out. To help these little hives survive the somewhat balmy west-coast winter, a second box of honey above a specially fitted excluder (so queens couldn't mix) would be always be there. By the way, this a technique some queen breeders already use year-round to keep their nucs strong and equalized. The result? Early Canadian queens, which is what we all need.


November 1, 2008

Halloween was yesterday. Beekeepers tend to outfit some of their hapless offspring in fuzzy yellow and black suits. The kids might then trudge door-to-door collecting for UNICEF and the tooth fairy. A couple years ago, Daniel was our resident bee. Next year it might be Helen's turn. Halloween was different forty years ago, when I was a more active participant. We have watched this imported Celtic holiday degenerate from the simple harvest ceremonies of my childhood when we slaughtered an ox and scattered its bones around the yard while we dressed in ghoulish masks to discourage awakened spirits from stealing our souls... Now it is an over-commercialized quasi-semblance of the true meaning of this pagan holiday. No more dancing around the pole while chanting. Instead, we disguise the kids in Wal-Mart's best and then chase them down the street with wheelbarrows to cart away their Mars bars and Slither crisps. I know, the modern way is better for the economy, but somehow I feel something is missing.

My mother-in-law is visiting from Hungary. For her, North American Halloween is an odd cultural experience. In south and central Europe, November first is a dismal remembrance day where folks visit the cemetery with candles and say prayers for the departed. With our November first sugar hangovers, we are in no condition to drive to the graveyard, let alone light matches there. I tried to explain to her how the Halloween tradition goes back 3000 years among the Irish folks, and then was plundered by a pope a thousand years ago when he moved Saints' Day from May to November. In those days, each new day began at sunset. Halloween - the pagan Celtic holiday - was at sunset, now October 31, but in those days, November 1.

We checked the kids' candies for dangerous additives. It occurred to me that the basic ingredients of all these candies and chips are dangerous additives. The safe stuff - apples and homemade granola cookies, for example - were suspicious as they didn't come wrapped from a factory. Much safer to let the kids eat the goo instead. Not to keep waxing nostalgic, but when I was a kid, we cut chunks of comb honey and wrapped them in wax paper, distributing these to the monsters at the door. Luckily, my mother never faced litigation for not using factory-packed goodies.


November 5, 2008

After a two-year battle, the American election was yesterday. The Canadian election, announced in September, was decided last month. In Canada, not much has changed after our vote. But then, we put less than two months' effort into our campaigns, debates, and decisions. Canada has been run by the Conservative Party for a couple of years. It held a minority of the seats in Parliament. This meant (in theory) that if they did something incredibly stupid or unpopular, the other members of Parliament (belonging to three non-aligned parties) could vote against their colleagues, 'toppling' the government, and forcing a new election. The Conservative minority government didn't do anything too stupid so the government never faced a no-confidence vote. The Prime Minister of Canada (leader of the Conservatives) is an intelligent young man who once shared employment with me at a huge multi-national company here in Calgary. Mr Harper thought he could strengthen his position, win a few more seats in Parliament, and have a non-stoppable majority. So he himself toppled his own government. He dissolved Parliament and we had an election five weeks later. The result? Stephen Harper is still Prime Minister of Canada, but the Conservative Party did not win its coveted majority. Canada is still governed by a minority Conservative government (which actually won only 38% of the votes across Canada). So, we may expect a few more years of careful, compromising government and a keen effort from the Conservatives to avoid stupid mistakes that would send us all back to the polls.

In the USA, change swept the nation. Democrats now have strong control of the White House, Senate, and House. This means the new government can make sweeping policy changes with little debate. (Similar to the position of strength the Republicans held when they controlled the Congress and Administration during Bush's first six years.) If stupid or unpopular decisions are made, the American voters can not 'topple' their government. But the airwaves will be full of venom as the opposition prepares for the next scheduled campaign.

I am non-partisan, I don't endorse any of the parties - neither in Canada nor the USA. I see a lot of good characteristics in members of all the various parties. But I also see much that disturbs me among the professional politicians. Cynical though I may be, I always vote. I've lived in Canada for thirty years and haven't missed an election that I was eligible to vote in. Previously, I was an American. But I quit voting in USA elections as soon as I moved to Canada. My last vote in a US presidential race was cast in 1976! I feel strongly that if a person chooses to live in a different country, there is an obligation to learn the customs and habits of their adopted land, and an obligation to forget about the divisive partisanship of their former home. It just bugs me a lot that newcomers will begin a debate in Canada with the prefix, "Back in Kansas, we would..." New Canadians sometimes forget that they are not in Kansas anymore...

I've been known to vote for the Green Party here in Canada, partly because I know they can't win, and partly because I like some of their policies. But if we had a viable Libertarian Party, I might be active in that organization. I suspect most commercial beekeepers favour less government. People often become commercial honey producers because they want to live and work independently. However, one does not need to be a big-time honey farmer to like bees. I've met a few socialists who are fine beekeepers - they see the cooperative spirit of self-sacrifice exemplified in the social structure of the bee colony. Beekeepers run the entire political spectrum - from free-traders to protectionists and right-wingers to lefties. Obviously, it is hard to approach any government with a united message originating from such a disparate crowd.

What do beekeepers demand politically? A definitive answer is impossible. Some beekeepers want government hand-outs when crops are small, but complain about taxes. Some North American beekeepers want restrictions on imported honey and queens, but want to drive Toyotas, pack their honey in Chinese-made plastic containers, and use British bee veils. Most beekeepers dread health and safety inspections, but want to buy safe trucks and extractors. They oppose bee inspectors coming into their apiaries, but want government-paid scientists to find cures for pests and problems. We can't have it both ways. Ultimately, honey production is such a miniscule part of the economy that it is almost impossible to get anyone's attention for honey farmers' plights. Bees, on the other hand, have the attention of environmentalists and ordinary citizens (bees pollinate much of our food). It`s likely that whoever occupies the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington or 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa will want to at least appear honey bee friendly.


November 8, 2008

Honey imports. Almost every beekeeper is opposed to foreign honey entering the country. From the Journal of the European Foundation, we read that Hungarian beekeepers were buzzing mad around Brussels (site of the European Parliament). The Hungarian beekeepers want to limit importation of honey into the EU as they believe the quality of the imported product is poor and honey consumers will be hurt.


	"Hungarian beekeepers have flocked to Brussels for a lobby
	campaign, which may last several months, to demand that the
	EU’s honey directive be changed. The protesters feel Council
	Directive 2001/100/EC leaves EU beekeepers at significant
	disadvantage to foreign honey producers and want stricter
	labelling rules (which would ensure the country of origin was
	easily apparent) to be introduced. A Commission representative
	said there is no current plan to amend the directive."
			- Journal of European Foundation

As I've mentioned earlier, we slide a steep slippery slope when borders are shut to any product. On the other hand, consumer education plus labels that show the country of origin of a product can go a long way towards slowing demand for imported stuff. Legislation is not necessarily required. Put big bright clear Product of Canada labels on the honey container. If a product says "Product of Lower Volta" but is actually from Upper Volta, then the packer has committed fraud and should be hit by a lawsuit from the local beekeepers' union. As things stood until very recently, the "Product of Canada" label was legal if the product were at least 51% Canadian honey. This is a case where the law didn't actually fully protect the producer nor inform the consumer. Both would be in a better position if such misleading laws were abolished entirely. Then, litigation could reveal the fraud and a settlement would prevent future violations. In Canada, our situation is even more complicated by the quality phrase "Canada Number 1 White" which doesn't mean anything at all about origin, it just means the colour and moisture content of the honey meets Canada's best quality standards. Canada Number 1 White can be produced in any part of the world. Again, dropping these archaic label regulations would allow enforcement to drift away from the government and into the hands of attorneys representing wronged consumers.

Ultimately, we have to address the issue of whether the consumer should care if food is produced in another part of the world. Sometimes they should. There are rare - but real - safety issues. For many European consumers, genetically modified foods are a moral issue, and perhaps a health issue. These folks want to know if their foods are grown in countries where GMO is common. For other buyers, there are political issues - in some places in the world, people will not buy American because of the huge government subsidies given to US farmers. Other people will not buy Cuban because foods are produced on land taken from farmers and given to the Communist government. People have the right to accurate product information when they spend their money.

Buy Labels: Ohio, Pakistan, New Zealand, Canadian, Heavenly Honey


November 9, 2008

Kids and Bees. My youngest son - Daniel - likes our bees. When we set up Summit Gardens Honey Farms Ltd., we gave him - and his siblings - preferred shares of stock in the corporation. Somewhat later, we told him he owned part of the honey farm. "Why would I want that?" he asked with the direct naivety of a five year old. Why, indeed? Certainly not to make him wealthy. But he takes his role in the business seriously enough. He helps with the bees. For those readers nervous about small kids working with bees, remember that the highway trips in our truck to the apiaries are statistically more dangerous than junior bee-taming. Anyway, to lighten up this overly-serious bee blog site, here are a few pictures of Daniel, the Bee Trainer.


November 10, 2008

My oldest son,
David, shipped out for 'Nam this morning. I cringe a little over the thought that my boy is flying to Saigon. I was an American in 1972. Too young to be drafted, but old enough to know about the bloody war in Viet Nam. David (a born-in-Canada Canadian) has just accepted a job working with one of the world's largest cement companies. He has a Commerce (Business) Degree from a Canadian university and is expected to coach a native-Vietnamese sales team which conducts its business in English. I'm not sure if that means he will edit their e-mails and their sales' pitch for grammar, but I am guessing the job is something like that. Anyway, he left our house for the Calgary airport at 6 this morning for the start of his 28-hour trip and seven-month journey. I know I shouldn't cringe. The Vietnamese are our friends now, as are the Germans and Japanese. Perhaps David can help these people improve their economy? At least in a small way. And hopefully, he will learn something from their tenacity and industriousness.

Of course I'll try to go see him. It will take about a third of the airmiles I've collected over the past few years. A friend who has been there a few times has offered to meet me and help me get around. For me, it would be quite interesting to see Saigon, the Cu Chi tunnels, and Ha Long Bay. (Especially during the Canadian winter.) But I'd really like to meet a few beekeepers. Viet Nam has a progressive beekeeping environment. And it is one of a few places in the world with Apis dorsata, mellifera, and cerana manipulated by various people for honey and wax production. And its dynamic economy has see beekeeping expand five times in twenty years.

I started searching the internet for stories about Vietnamese beekeeping. Didn't find much. As expected, the great French site Apiservices has a bit about beekeeping in Viet Nam. From Apiservices, I learned that the main honey flows are from exotic trees like rubber, coffee, litchi, longan, tea, jujube, mangrove, and eucalyptus. With an estimated 600,000 colonies, and production in the range of 25 kilograms (80 pounds) per hive, about 15,000 tonnes of honey was exported from Viet Nam last year. This has increased at an amazing pace. From a lengthy analysis of honey production in the central highlands province of Dak Lak, figures indicate colony count in just that one area grew from about 50,000 in 1990 to 190,000 in 2003.

Traditional beekeepers - harvesting from the single-comb Dorsata hives were collecting a kilo or two a year. With the introduction of Apis mellifera a hundred years ago, a viable industry has taken hold, giving employment and/or supplemental income directly to at least 50,000 people. The indirect add-on effect of better nutrition, crop pollination, and greater economic activity has to be quite a bit, too. I did a few calculations on the impact of bee farming for a few countries of the world. Honey and wax sales contribute about fifty million dollars to the Viet economy - that's the equivalent output of 19,300 people at Viet Nam's annual GDP per capita rate of $2600. This is 0.023% of the economy. (That's right, about 23 thousandths of one percent!) For Canada, our bee-farmer equivalency population is just 1950 people - calculated from our average income of $38,600 per person and roughly 75 million dollar honey, wax, and queen-breeding business. Our contribution to Canada's 1.3 trillion dollar economy is 0.0058 percent. In other words, if beekeeping expanded 200 times, it would contribute about one percent to Canada's over-all economy. Personally, I'm in favour of that expansion. I am completing a chart of the world's honey countries and will publish that here soon, along with a few other industries for comparison. These data are significant in assessing the relative national impact and importance of the industry on the economy.



November 12, 2008

WWI Canadian Army Cemetery and Memorial, Belgium

Yesterday was Remembrance Day. I don't recall if it is a public holiday in the USA, but it is a big deal here in Canada. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 was when the first world war ended. We remember the peace with red poppies, assemblies, and speeches. When my oldest son (David) was thirteen, he and I drove around northern Europe, looking for WWI and WWII battlegrounds. We found many of the Canadian icons - Vimy Ridge, Juno Beach, Ypres. One evening in Ypres (in Belgium) we stumbled upon one of the many Canadian cemeteries where over a thousand young souls were interned. As David walked along the hundreds of crosses, turbans, and stars that marked the graves, I watched his silhouette against the setting sun. It was silent and windless in this field on the edge of a sheep pasture. No cars traveled the paved road beside us. No other people in the cemetery. Just me - a middle-aged Canadian/American - and a kid wearing his Canadian Army Cadet beret, saluting the fallen kids under the soil. I turned towards the remnants of a trench and saw the plaque. It was here, at this spot, that the Canadian Army Officer and physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the words...


    In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below...

    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields... 

Ten thousand people visited the Military Museum this year here in Calgary on Remembrance Day. This popularity is partly because Canada has a really active role in Afghanistan. Canada has lost more soldiers (as a proportion of our population) there than even the USA. Actually, our casualty count is twice as high. Though Canada chose not to join the war against Iraq, most Canadians saw the Taliban - which controlled Afghanistan - as responsible for the attacks on the USA in 2001. And most Canadians supported the UN and NATO-backed effort to free Afghanistan from fundamentalism and restore dignity to its people. My brother Don - our beekeeper - took my youngest son Daniel - our beekeeper assistant - on November 12th, the day after remembrance. That day the museum was nearly empty. Don - a Vietnam era vet (served as a sergeant on the DMZ in Korea) - was allowed into the museum free. "But I served with the US Army," Don said. "Doesn't matter. You're a vet, just like me," said the guy at the door. Later Don told me that the museum is an anti-war museum - a collection of sacrifice and tragedy.

David, Canadian Army Cadet (1999); Don, US Army in Korea (1968)


November 15, 2008

Ulee Jackson - Keeping Bees
Ulee Jackson was a Vietnam war-vet beekeeper. OK, I've heard he is maybe not a real person. But before I abandon the war and peace theme that I started on the entry just above, I'd like to mention the Peter Fonda character (Florida's Beekeeper of the Year back in 2000) who was the quiet, courageous, thoughtful, hard-working, typical beekeeper in the film Ulee's Gold.

If you haven't read my web review from 1999, here's your big chance. If you'd rather not jump to another site right now, I'll give you a quick summary: Ulee is a mid-aged beekeeper in north Florida. A lot of bad stuff happens to him. And some good stuff. I guess the last sentence gives away the ending, doesn't it? Actually, it's a great film. I especially like the movie for the many scenes with bees, but some people don't even notice the hives - they think the film is a drama. Those misguided folks follow the plot and watch Fonda, who was nominated for an Oscar in the Ulee Jackson role. With holidays coming, this might be a good gift idea. Not for the beekeeper, but for the beekeeper's family so they can understand the bee addiction a little better.


November 17, 2008

Our Alberta Hives - Hivernating

Yikes! It feels cold today! Forecasters suggested we'd see a balmy plus 16 (around 60 F) today, but it barely bridged freezing. (That's also freezing in Fahrenheit.) At 6:15 this morning, I stepped out of the house, onto our paved driveway and slid back off the ice-encrusted cement. I grabbed the fence and walked in the crusty (but less slippery) snow until I reached the garage where our old family van was parked. Glad we have a garage - as I drove towards the office, I spotted several neighbours chiselling ice from windshields of cars stuck on the street overnight.

Calgary (and Alberta (and Canada)) is a wonderful place to live. Clean, safe, prosperous (especially for non-beekeepers). But, when winter comes, it gets dark, cold, and dangerous. My mother always told us, "Don't ever live anywhere where your skin can freeze after thirty seconds of exposure." She was right, of course, but I wasn't paying attention. So, I ended up in a weather-challenged country. But everything else is great here. And cold temperatures nurture a bit of withdrawal which can be useful. I'm trying to finish another book - Honey Combing - and I find I can write more easily if my seat is planted at a desk rather than resting on a reclining deck chair.

How do the bees like winter? Well, they too are withdrawn, quietly hivernating under layers of insulation and heat-absorbent blackness. Perhaps writing books.


November 19, 2008

We haven't heard much from Vietnam. David sent a few e-mails to let us know he had arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). He bought a smog mask and a helmet. This is gear he needs so he can hitch rides with the ubiquitous taxi-motorbikes manned by boys at each corner. He wrote to tell me that this is how he will commute to work. Walk out to a busy street, look for a kid with an empty seat on his motorbike. Getting to work isn't bad - it's morning, things are tamer, and the destination is a landmark building. Getting home, he writes, is somewhat problematic. His apartment is on a narrow, winding, cluttered avenue. Fortunately, it's not far. One would not want to commute any large distance in this bustling city of seven million on the back of a teenager's belching 2-cycle. His work will take him around the country a bit, so I am hoping he is alert to beehives. When I fly over to see him, my main sight-seeing activity will involve tracking down cerana, dorsata, and mellifera. If I can get a picture of all three on the same flower, I will be able to die a happy man.


November 21, 2008

Observation Hive at the Science Centre

A few days ago, Daniel (our six-year old) and I went to Calgary's Science Centre. Daniel wanted to spin knobs and pull levers - the big attraction for a first grader at a science center. He also had the job of shoving me around in my wheelchair. He did well - up and down ramps and over people's toes for almost three hours. He was likely a pretty tired kid when we finally left, but he didn't complain. I enjoyed the visit - it had been years since I'd been at the Telus World of Science. I wanted to see the honey bee observation hive that my brother Don had set up in Wow Town. This is one of our honey farm's contributions to the City of Calgary.

Observation Hive Information Charts

There is a very strong natural curiosity regarding honeybees in our community. Kids and adults swarm around the science center's hive, tap on the glass, and call out to the queen. If you are a beekeeper, you need to help satisfy that positive interest. Bees get some bad press - mostly because of wasps and hornets which also fly and sting. Don't forget that if a bee showed up in his house, Joe Six-Pack (when he's sober) would swat your bee with a rolled-up sport's magazine. There's a lot of anti-bee animosity to overcome. So, as a beekeeper, never pass up an opportunity to show the good side of our fuzzy friends.

How does one construct an observation hive for public display?
- 1) Safety first. A lot of positive press is wiped out if the glass breaks and kids get stung. If somehow three bees get loose, 60 Minutes will be there in moments to film the ensuing panic.
- 2) Next, have some regard for the bees. They need to have fresh air, lots of food, a queen. I saw an observation hive at a honey stand in Florida. Even though the bees had been dead for some time, the tourists buying honey didn't seem to mind. "Shh!" one Mom shushed her flock, "You'll wake up the bees!" It would have been nicer if the bees were breathing.
- 3) Make the hive observable. After all, there is a reason we call the contraption an observation hive. Keep the glass clean and clear, avoid reflected light.
- 4) Use the opportunity to give some positive information. Don't list the chemical properties of bee venom; put some pollination facts and figures and drawings in and around the display.

My brother Don put a lot of thought and work into designing this observation hive. And he continues to put quite a bit of effort into its maintainence. But we should mention that the staff at the Calgary Science Center has been great! The team is proud of the bees, knows a lot about their natural history, and monitors the hive's health. They let Don know right away if there seem to be any problems.

Don's hive design works well. Don put together some thoughts on building an observation hive for public display locations. If you are a beekeeper and want a few clues on making your own observation hive, you can go to this link...

Telus World of Science Centre in Calgary


November 27, 2008

A Comb of Your Own - should you grow your own comb honey? Over the next few months, I'll sporadically address this mind-numbing question. Every living, breathing, caring human eventually asks, “Should I get some bees?” In most cases, the answer is absolutely not! But for the rare few who can’t resist a higher calling, here are a few pointers to get you sliding down the slippery slope.

Start small. Find a local beekeeper and ask for just one bee. Just one. If you can learn to feed that bee, to give it water and exercise, you may find you begin to love your bee. If you truly love your bee, quit now, don’t go on to the next step. Some people – those with an unnatural affinity to furry creatures – skip this first step, knowing it may lead to too much emotional attachment.

Emotional attachment with bees is unrewarding because bees are wild creatures. Bees that keep humans for pets are never owned nor controlled. The bees find their own food and water. Their human pets just provide a safe, dark, warm box for the bees’ home.

This is one reason that informed animal-rights folks rarely pick on beekeepers. Most vegetarian diets include honey - it is produced from the nectar of flowers. The bees do what they would do in the wild – fly freely, visit flowers, make honey. Good beekeepers might move their hives closer to flowers so the bees have enough to eat and so the bees don’t have to fly so far (this includes migratory beekeeping). Good beekeepers allow their bees to manage themselves, except to protect the bees from the wind and cold and predators. Finally, good beekeepers charge the bees just a little rent for the beekeeper’s services of protection and housing. That rent is taken in the form of excess honey – beyond what the bees need to prosper on their own. In real numbers, a hive of honeybees collects about three hundred pounds of honey and pollen over the course of a year while the beekeeper’s rent (the world-wide average) is about forty pounds.

A Comb of your own?

If you want to make a comb of your own, you will need to be some bee family’s pet human. As such, you will have some extra responsibilities. Give careful consideration to your new role. Being a pet human for a beehive is not for everyone. To prepare yourself, you need to experience as much as you can about bees first. Good advice is to find a local beekeeper from whom you may learn. You might ask around the neighborhood and see if anyone is keeping bees. Sometimes it is hard to get someone to confess to beekeeping as it is historically the realm of the misfit and the outcast. “She’s a bit weird,” they say of the toothless old lady at the end of the twisted dark lane, “She keeps bees.”

I knew a girl in Pennsylvania who had bees. The over-the-fence neighbor hated all bugs and was terrified. Every pestering wasp near his picnic table resulted in an angry complaint to the girl. “Come get you god-derned bees!” People like this rarely move away, but this guy did. The girl decided she’d keep quiet about her bees when the new neighbors moved in. She hid the hives behind shrubs and only worked them when the new neighbors were away. She avoided talking to them. No complaints, no problems from them. After four years, these people also moved. But before they left, they gave her a jar of honey. “Sorry we didn’t get to know you better, but we figured you were afraid of our beehive,” they told the girl.

I'll continue this discussion on hobby-comb-honey beekeeping in future blog entries...


November 30, 2008

Bees without Borders is teaching the world how to beekeep. According to this article in today's New York Times, Andrew Coté and associates have been teaching beekeeping skills to groups of people in economically depressed areas around the globe. Andrew operates a couple hundred hives of bees under the trade name Silvermine Apiary on Manhattan Island and in the greater NYC area. He established Beekeepers Without Borders with the mission to "Educate and train impoverished individuals and communities in beekeeping skills and the value of beekeeping for poverty alleviation."

In 2005, Andrew volunteered with the United States Agency for International Development to help re-develop beekeeping in Iraq. He traveled from Basra to Kirkuk. He found that Iraq's beekeeping was destroyed during the past five years. Before the war, there were 500,000 colonies of bees in the country. Beekeepers freely and safely moved their hives from the citrus trees in the south to irrigated valleys and to the lush highlands in Kurdistan. Today, Iraq has only 20,000 hives left. Beekeepers can't travel and war, smoke, and oil-field fires have destroyed the industry. I can affirm that the Iraqi honey business was once pretty substantial - way back in 1988 I was contacted by phone by an Iraqi broker looking for 100,000 queen bees to sell to Iraqi beekeepers who were expanding their holdings. (I couldn't help the broker.) Iraq is just one of many places that need help restoring or building beekeeping - Beekeepers Without Borders is working on projects from Uganda to Moldova.

	Here is Andrew Coté, speaking to the New York Times:
	    “We may not be able to do much more than lay some ground for the future,” he says. 
		“Slowly, well-tended colonies of pollinators can help bring back devastated areas. 
		And honey is always a miracle. It’s the one food on earth that does not spoil. 
		It can be eaten, sold, traded for just the tiniest edge to survive.”

As a beekeeper, I think anyone who is trying to mix honeybees and the alleviation of poverty is working on something good. If you follow the links for this USA-based group (especially Beekeepers Without Borders), you'll learn more about this organization and might like to help them - they need volunteer beekeepers able to travel, linguists/teachers, and money.


December 6, 2008

Today our friends (these are Cherie and Art, left) at Chinook Honey, a brilliant farm about half an hour south of Calgary, hosted their annual Christmas Honey Festival. There was a great turnout of families enjoying the snow-candle-making, the reindeer, and the chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Not to mention the apiary and meadery tours and the bargains in their honey store! These folks started their commercial honey farm about ten years ago and have been an enormous asset to the beekeeping community as well as to all their neighbours.

I've always admired (even envied) the enormous enthusiasm of the recent convert to any religion, especially beekeeping. Cherie and Art were new to bees a decade ago, and quickly embraced all aspects of the sweet life. They also prove that one does not have to have ten trillion hives of bees to make a success of beekeeping. Their smallish outfit (a few hundred hives) is complemented by expert promotion plus a contagious enthusiasm for all sorts of honey products - from candles to combs. Their Apitherapy web page shows the variety of propolis, pollen, and royal jelly products available at their store while their Chinook Arch Meadery site demonstrates the enjoyable ultimate imbibification of nectar by-products.


These pictures are also from the Christmas Honey Festival...
If you've never made snow candles, the process involves snow, melted beeswax, and a wick. You can probably figure out the details.

Candles in the Snow: Beeswax Solidifying in Snow; Passing the Sniff Test; Finished Product



Meanwhile, in the store, we watched the Swarm Behind the Glass and played some fun bee games. Whoever could buzz the loudest won the biggest prize. Just kidding. There were games, though. I didn't get around to doing the honey tasting (our kids -and I- had to go home for nap-time) but the winner of that event will spend a day in the beeyard with Art and Cherie. I like the "Bee a Beekeeper for a Day" concept. If I could find 220 willing participants and have them show up on consecutive weekdays, our labour issues would be solved. If we could charge each winner a hundred dollars, our cash problems would also be resolved. Of course, Art and Cherie had no such dark motivations - they are simply spreading the joy of beekeeping. (I wonder if there could be a corollary program - I'd go for either "Prime Minister for a Day" or "Rock Star for a Day").


Chinook Honey Store


One more sweet contribution from Cherie and Art at Chinook Honey Farm - World Vision's southern Alberta representative Vanessa Mathews-Hanna, seen here to the right, set up an information centre about how we can help families help themselves all over the world. I like the concept - give people a helping hand, but let them grow on from there. This is the 'teach a person to fish' philosophy, but with one free fishing pole as an added ingredient. By the way, I asked - the mandate of World Vision does not include religious promotion or prothlesizing. They try to work within the context of the local culture. If you'd like to help, a contribution of a hundred dollars will be a Bosnian or Sudanese family or village a hive of bees plus an instructor's time. Sixty more will supply the smoker, gloves, and veil. Or perhaps you'd prefer donating a water buffalo ($700) or a greenhouse ($500).

As World Vision says, An eco-friendly bee business can help a family earn essential income for life. One beehive can produce up to 50 kilos of honey a year. Honey and beeswax can be sold or traded at market so parents can feed, clothe and send their kids to school. And honey's a terrific source of nutrition. "Let someone know how sweet they are with this special gift."


December 18, 2008

It is cold. We almost cancelled pre-Christmas, but Don and Ruth drove up from the farm at Milo, Alberta, despite the despicable sub-Arctic weather. Minus 35 is serious stuff if you have to be outside for more than a few minutes. Winter blizzards are the Prairie's answer to hurricanes. But our visitors made the drive into Calgary and we had a nice dinner and a gift exchange a week before Christmas Day. Our six-year old Daniel's gift to his Uncle Don the Beekeeper was a detailed colour-coded hand-crafted schematic design for an electronic bee (as not shown on the left). He presented the plans which he confidently felt would revolutionize beekeeping. The idea, Daniel explained, was that the electronic bee would wake all the other bees just before sunrise with a vigorous dance. He had other jobs for his electronic bee - including defending the hive against wasps, house-cleaning (the bee has a retractable broom), and spying on the bumblebees. My guess is we are five years away from completion. But I wonder if it would be easier to implant a pre-programmed chip into an existing bee's brain to accomplish much the same result? And which will come first, a genetically-engineered stingless honey bee or a mechanical bee?



December 21, 2008

Losing weight by eating honey? That's what some of the books say. Does it work? For some folks, perhaps. But alas, not I. I gain weight looking at food. But with the holidays upon us, here is a link to How to Lose Weight Using Cinnamon Powder and Honey.


December 22, 2008

According to a website called PlanetSave, a British professor (Francis Ratniek) is genetically engineering a new breed of bee which will be a cleaner bee. "He hopes to reverse the decline of the honeybee by breeding cleaner bees to protect hives from harmful diseases. The cleaner bee is a breed of worker bee that will be genetically programmed to keep hives clean. They will be responsible for removing pupae and larvae from the hives if they are dead or dying." Well, of course, cleaner bees have always been with us, they are not "a breed of worker bee", and the professor is probably not genetically manipulating chromosomes in the modern sense, but probably has a vigorous breeding program going on.
(Also on the PlanetSave webpage: It is noted that 140,000 members of the British Beekeepers' Association marched in London to demand funding for bee research. 140,000 marchers would be pretty impressive - for civil rights or for malaria nets. For beekeepers, it is an impossibility. There were actually a few dozen beekeeper-marchers. Nevertheless, one wants to admire the enthusiasm, if not the accuracy, of the PlanetSave website!)


December 23, 2008

A beekeeper friend sent an e-mail apologizing for tardiness in answering a note I'd sent to her last month. She said she was taking a hiatus from the computer. She claimed she'd been spending too many hours browsing and surfing. So, she shut down her machine for a few weeks. Used the time to remodel a kitchen. And probably to read some books, winterize the garden, and connect with flesh. I admire the girl for this. In my normal routine, I spend my 10 daily working hours glued to workstations that draw seismic wiggles and contoured maps; then several more hours a day writing things about bees and beekeeping that probably no one will ever read. Nevertheless, I'm still behind at the office, with this blog, and with my next book. So, my New Year's Resolution will be to spend more time with my computer and less with my family. (Just kidding, folks!)


December 25, 2008

We had a Red Wagon Christmas. No Wiiiii machines nor fancy flashing gizmos for the kids this Christmas. Daniel's request was for a red wagon. He'd used his first one so much, the engine wore out. So Santa brought a new model of an old (1938) roadmaster red wagon design. But I think Helen will be the one who has the most fun with the wagon until the new old-red rolls down to our farm in Vulcan County in the early spring. There, Daniel has great plans to use it in the garden to harvest rhubarb.

Hope you've all had a red wagon holiday this year, too.








December 26, 2008

Did I mention the snow? Yea, this is our back yard, right here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We have a bit much this year. Living on the semi-arid plains down-slope from the Rockies, we don't expect much snow. Our annual precipitation is less than 40 centimetres (15.7 inches) - and it's even drier out by the honey farm. On top of that, most of the water comes in one big hail storm every July. The snow - although dangerous to the drivers and slippery to the clumsy like me - is a blessing. It keeps Alberta farmland from drifting into Saskatchewan. But it has been cold as well as snowy, and that's an unusual combination here. The temperature has been frozen at about minus twenty (that's minus 5 for Fahrenheit fans) these past few weeks. Maybe we should go somewhere warm for a few days?



December 30, 2008

Maybe we should go to Florida for a couple of weeks? It's supposed to be warm there, isn't it? Our WestJet flight took off this afternoon with Eszter, Helen, Daniel, and I waving goodbye to the snow drifts. But first the auspicious start - the taxi got stuck in the snow on the street near our house and had to be dug out by our neighbours. Unstuck, the driver slid and skid all the way from our southwest Calgary neighbourhood to the northeast Calgary international airport. Past a million fellow Calgarians who were stuck - not just metaphorically - in one of Canada's most dreary winters in memory. So, it's good to lean back in the comfy WestJet seats and watch the snow blow.

I'd booked this flight back in August when jet fuel prices peaked. I'd reserved for the expensive holiday season - not just because I have more money than sense - but we didn't want Daniel to miss too much school. And I'd booked on the only commercial non-stop Calgary to Orlando flight I could find. WestJet. So it cost the four of us a fortune. Enough money to buy 50 beehives from World Vision to distribute to the poor in Bosnia or Ontario or wherever they are needed. I feel somewhat guilty for sometimes being a wasteful consumer. But we turned the thermostat down in our house before we left, so the money saved in heating pretty much pays for the trip. And... two weeks before leaving, I called WestJet to ask if I could gate-check my wheelchair. No problem. Glad to help you. Then I asked if I should cancel the trip and rebook because I'd heard that tickets cost a little less now that oil was down. Sure... Let's see... uh... here we go. We can refund you two thousand six hundred dollars... God Bless WestJet. They gave me a sixty percent discount by letting me cancel and rebook the flights. So, if you've got any travels planned, talk to the good folks at WestJet - they really are the fun airline!



December 31, 2008

So this is Florida. We wake to birds tweeting outside the window. It's only 5 in the morning in Calgary, but the kids have already adjusted to this new time zone. They are awake and chattering in the next room - it is 7 a.m. in Groveland. Soft sunlight is filtering through the blinds. Our first day 'somewhere warm' has begun. We are staying in the home of my brother Dave and his wife Linda. They have given us half their house to spread out kids' toys and books. The space and comfort are a pleasure. And we discover that we can chase Daniel and Helen outside to the ten thousand acre sandbox.

We had arrived in Lake County after dark. We hadn't realized how beautifully spring-like it is here. So, the most surreal experience was after following my brother Dave through his house and then stepping out into the backyard to pick starfruit (carambola). I rubbed sleepies from my eyes - this can't be real - we were surrounded by green trees, green shrubs, green grass. It was so white (and cold) in Calgary yesterday morning.

With this peaceful quiet lakeside setting as inspiration, I wonder why more Floridians aren't writers of novels and keepers of bees. The rustle of the breeze swaying spanish moss in the cypress and the live oak trees, the pleasant mild air. Flowers blooming everywhere. Ah, but this is winter. Florida's brief respite from scorching heat and sweltering humidity. Two decades ago, I had lived here for a few years. Now I try to convince myself that moving back to Canada to stay was a good idea. We will enjoy this break from western Canada's frigid prairies, but we will also be back home long before the tars of Florida's highways get sticky.

I know I am overly optimistic and I will be seduced by comfort and relaxation, but I have hopes of writing another chapter for my honeycombing book. I can see myself settling in on the screened patio, typing a few profound words. Or at least a few profane words for this bee blog.







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