Bad Beekeeper Ron's Occasional Bee Blog

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January 1, 2009

The New Year. It is part of our family tradition that we work on New Year's Day. No hangovers for Mikshas. Through a secure virtual routing, I remotely log on to my computer back in Calgary and shuffle through e-mails. Then, using our private ftp server, I move several complicated maps and seismic lines to my laptop so I can spend a few fun hours digitizing data. My work is never dull and never without challenges. Sometimes it is down-right fascinating. Last year, the Canadian International Development Agency sent me to Peru to teach some aspects of geophysics. It was mostly seismic interpretation work, but better geoscience improves the predictability of earthquakes, so I felt like I was making a tiny contribution to that part of South America. In another project, I've been helping a friend figure out where the first brachiosaurs dinosaur skeleton was discovered in Africa. Armed with satellite photos and maps from a hundred years ago, we tried to place early explorer's locations jotted on simple maps into real-world latitudes and longitudes so scientists in Tanzania can continue the recoveries. My friend - Gerhard Maier - wrote a great book about the dino dig and the impact of the discovery. You can read more about the Tendaguru expeditions in African Dinosaurs Unearthed.

You may know of Dr Richard Taylor as the practical New York beekeeper who wrote The Joys of Beekeeping, a book about producing comb honey. Dr Richard Taylor is also the name of a famous New York (Cornell University) philosopher, a metaphysician. Turns out these two guys are the same person, which confirms one of philosopher Taylor's arguments against polarity (the tendency to interpret things in black/white, either/or; yes/no; with-us/against-us). Yes, you can be smart and be a beekeeper at the same time, at least in Dr Richard Taylor's case.

I had never read any books purporting to describe philosophy and I don't really know what metaphysics is. But my vacation reading book is called Metaphysics and it is by the philosopher-beekeeper, Dr Richard Taylor. I am enjoying his text book immensely. Metaphysics is encouraging me to think about things other than geophysics and bees. In the polarity argument, Taylor even tackles the concepts of 'alive' and 'dead' - describing these as processes, not abrupt moments. What is the moment of death? When the heart stops, the brain stops, or when desire stops? Some cells (hair, nails) divide and grow after "death", so has death occurred? In his discussion on the nature of our relevance, Dr Taylor presents a couple of interesting thoughts. He writes that we all think we live in an important moment (most would say, the most important moment) in the history of the universe. It is our moment. Taylor sees this as an absurdity, suggesting it is much like believing that Akron, Ohio, is the most important place in the universe, if we happen to live there. Further to this, he reminds us that few people ever mourn the seemingly infinite time that has past without us before our birth, so why do we mourn the lost (and equally endless) time that will continue after our demise? Pretty satisfying reading for a vacation book, don't you think? Last year, my reading was Dr Feynman's lecture notes on Quantum Electrodynamics. This year's read is quite a bit easier, as one might expect when the author is a beekeeper.



January 2, 2009

There were twelve of us. Mother, Father, ten kids - David, Don, Larry, Judy, Ron, JoAnn, Fred, June, Jane, Joe. We grew up many and we grew up poor on a small bee and bean farm in western Pennsylvania's rolling hills. The picture, to your right, was taken in 1965 when oldest sibling David (that's him, in the suit!) returned from an apiculture research project at Cornell University for Christmas with the masses. It was the last time all ten of us were together. We scattered quickly. Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Carolina, Wisconsin, California. Canada.

I flew in from Calgary to Orlando, so Jane said she would come over from San Diego. June, from Cincinnati. Larry, North Carolina. Fred, JoAnn, and David were living in Florida. Suddenly, we had a reunion. Seven siblings at one big table - not quite matching 1965, but still quite a sight. Beekeeper Don and Greenhouser Joe couldn't make it. We lost the others years ago. I pondered the diversity - we had Bushites and Obamaites, farmers and physicists, rich and not-yet-rich - all from the same genetic pool and similar environment. So many differences of perspective and manner, yet some commonalities. So far, none of us have done prison time. We haven't been caught drunk driving nor found living on dole. I guess you do learn a few things growing up on a bee farm. We are all a bit ambitious, somewhat independent, and extremely stubborn. All of us ended up business owners and/or managers. So, what does a family get from it's ancestors? In our guess, obviously, it is our odd personality characteristics. Oh, and stunning good looks, too. Obviously.




January 4, 2009
Dave Miksa Family and Johnny Rotten

My brother David raises queen bees. I'm in Florida, staying at David's house, hoping some of his success and skill will leak my way. I can't help but learn a little more about bees from my brother Dave's bee business. David is in his early 60s and started collecting royal jelly and experimenting with queen breeding when he was a pre-teen. This means he has spent a full fifty years in queen breeding. Today, he cages from a few thousand mating nucs in central Florida, and ships queens and queen cells by the hundred thousand from January through November.

David is eccentric and out-spoken - probably one reason he can count Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols as well as many international bee specialists among his chums. He has hosted guests from Nepal, Israel, South America, various parts of Europe... all beekeepers, hoping some of his success is contagious. PBS drafted him to play Otto Plath in their story about the beguiling suicidal poet Sylvia Plath. Discovery Channel has filmed his operation. Even the USDA sometimes listens to him. He has seen many a flashy scientist and bureaucrat fry in the pan (and some have tried, unsuccessfully, to give him a spot of trouble) - but they eventually retire, while he continues and expands his business by supplying the best bees that any beekeeper could possibly buy. It's a family operation, with a hard-working wife (Linda was once awarded beekeeper of the year in Florida) and six kids - some of them beekeeping, too.

But I'm not here to learn about queen breeding, I'm here to thaw out. Calgary is minus 28 with 'gusting snow' this afternoon. It is 27 (80s, in F) here in Lake County, Florida. The maple just ended, but the willow is blooming and bees do well from both here. With strong hives such as David's, drones are already plentiful. He saturates his yards with males of proven lineage. And queen breeding can start as soon as one sees drones roaming around the hive - so David and crew will likely start grafting next week... I'll be back in Canada by then.


Since I'm on the subject, here are a few never-before-published pictures of the first time anyone tried to photograph queens and drones mating. These are never-before-published pictures because I've just scanned them from my brother David's collection of photographs. He took these pictures the summer before he finished Grade 12. He spent that July and August at Cornell University, learning from and working for Roger Morse and Norman Gary, among others.

So, here we have a group of pictures taken by 17-year-old David Miksa, witnessing the documentation of honeybee mating. For those of you who slept through your high school biology class (or who attended schools where the subject wasn't taught) queen mating occurs thusly:

      - virgin queen leaves the hive, flies into the air, 
      - is met by virgin drone bees, 
      - returns home ready to egg-lay.  

At the time of the Bible, the Queen Bee was recognized as the big bee and assumed, of course, to be a King Bee. But in the 1600s, Charles Butler recognized her as a female and wrote a book, Feminine Monarchie, to describe and justify his discovery. Two hundred years later, Huber (Switzerland) and Janscha (Slovenia) independently surmised how honey bee mating occurs. That was in the late 18th century. For the next two hundred years, no one had ever actually seen this happen. So, scientists at Cornell set up the optimistic motion-photography equipment seen in the top picture in 1961. By the way, that's Dr Norman Gary on the right in this photo. Shortly after this experience, Gary (who earned his doctorate at Cornell) headed out to the University of California where he taught entomology with distinction for 35 years.

The second picture shows what happens to the poor queen - she is the center of attention of this ball of drones, all desperately trying to get her phone number. There are actually dozens (maybe a hundred) free-ranging drones in this scene, some possibly visiting from ten kilometres away. By the way, that's a corn field behind the bees - the queen was anchored from the clothes-line near the ground so that the camera could focus and zoom on her and her friends... normally mating takes place way up in the air.

The bottom photo, also taken by David Miksa at Cornell University in 1961, shows a more natural location for the tethered queen. (If being tied to a hundred foot TV tower can be considered natural.) At least she is too far up to have her privacy invaded. I'll probably write a lot more about the trials and tribulations of queens and queen breeding in the spring, but I wanted to share these archival photographs, especially since I am sleeping in the photographer's house tonight. But these old pictures remind me of how little has been discovered and improved upon over the decades with respect to beekeeping and queen breeding.

The fundamentals are still the same. Doolittle taught larvae transfer (grafting) a hundred years ago. It's still done the same way. Maybe the biggest development in bee breeding is maintenance of stock-lines by artificial insemination. This technique, mostly based on anatomy discoveries by Dr Harry Laidlaw, was immortalized by E.B. White's Song of the Queen Bee:

   "Let old geneticists plot and plan, 
   They're stuffy people, to a man; 
   ...love-in-the-air is the thing for me - I'm a bee."

David was an early adapter of artificial insemination of queens. He still uses this system to help maintain pure stock, but his queens-for-sale are almost exclusively free-range mated. High levels of forced drone production help keep matings and offspring genetically acceptable.

My own opinion, shared by many queen breeders, is that the real key to superior queens is superior beekeeping. Not necessarily a particular stock-line, although that might yield a little bonus. Unfortunately, if larva are grafted old, underfed by weak cell-builder hives, and if those little queens are caged before laying and then imprisoned in bank hives for weeks - the results are crap regardless of pedigree. Heritage is not really that big a deal if rearing is incompetent. But poor, mismated, under-developed queens are not always the fault of the queen breeding person. If one lives in a climate that just isn't well-suited to queen raising, it is hard to get good mating flights - or even superior queen cells. Florida has attracted many decent queen breeders over the years because it offers a climate that fosters pollen and nectar plants all winter and has good mating weather almost every day of the year. Little wonder my brother David has been here for almost fifty years.



January 7, 2009

I'm in Lake County, Florida. I used to live here, off-and-on, twenty years ago. I even had a farm - forty acres - in the swamps of Lake County. I wrote quite a bit about Florida, queen breeding, and orange blossom honey in my book Bad Beekeeping. If you don't know the book, it's a how-not-to-keep-bees story about my first ten unsuccessful years as a beekeeper. If something in honey world could go wrong, I was right there in the middle of it. Bad Beekeeping takes place mostly in Saskatchewan, but quite a big chunk of the story is about my time as a Florida beekeeper. I wrote a bit about Lake County, some of the history, some of the culture. I tried to be as accurate as my memory (plus my journals, clippings, and photos) would allow. But I was always a bit nervous about how local folks might take to my story - written by an outsider. So, when I'd received an e-mail from a Lake County fellow who knew some of the people I wrote about and who knew all the history and legends I'd told, I was anxious about what he would say if I sat down to coffee with him. His criticism wouldn't change my book, of course. But I certainly wanted to know the thoughts of a person who had really lived this place in a way I never could.

Over Key Lime pie and coffee at Mascotte's Rainbow Restaurant, I talked with this gentleman about my book. For support (I really didn't know what I might be getting into) I invited my beekeeper nephew, Ted, to join me. What did this fellow think of the book? "Mostly dead-on. But you left out a few good stories." Was he upset with any part of the book? "You told it like you saw it, and you saw it about like it was." That was almost an endorsement, so I accepted that my impressions of Lake County and my telling of the story were not too far off mark. From there, we talked about people I'd known. Few of the local folks had drifted off, but most of the people like me who were there for just a few years, had disappeared. Parts of the swamp were much as I'd remembered it, he told me, but much had changed over the twenty years.



January 8, 2009

Captain Roosevelt. I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, how could I remember Captain Roosevelt? Captain Roosevelt worked at Silver Springs near Ocala, Florida, back in February, 1960, when I floated in one of the park's glass-bottom boats with my father and his parents. I was 5 years old. My father was in Florida scouting for bee yards - somewhere warm he could take his Pennsylvania bees each winter. The Silver Springs attraction was on the way, so Dad treated the four of us to this tour. As the name indicates, the silver springs are pure, clean water bubbling up out of the ground from several dozen meters below the surface of a the Silver River which abruptly starts at the spring. In 1960, we took the glass bottom boat that circled out into the river and we peered down through the clear warm water at gar fish and limestone outcrops. Our guide - and captain of the boat - was Mr Roosevelt.

I returned to Silver Springs with my own small children today. As we neared the dock where the glass bottomed boats waited, I suddenly remembered the name. Captain Roosevelt. Same as the presidents'. So I asked Oscar (that's him in the picture with me) if he'd ever heard of a "Captain Roosevelt" or was I imagining and distorting an ancient memory. "Captain Roosevelt? I sure do know Captain Roosevelt. I married his sister. And he got me my job here, forty years ago." Oscar was almost as astonished as I was. Strange thing, our brain. Stores such odd memories.

Needless to say, we enjoyed the ride on the water, clean and clear as ever, and we spotted gar fish that I'd seen half a century earlier (did they remember me?). We wandered around the gardens at Silver Springs for a few hours, made friends with petting zoo animals and went on a jungle safari.

Since we were able to spend almost two weeks in central Florida, we pulled the kids away from feeding the fish at my brother David's lake house, from playing with Ginger the dog, from squeezing oranges picked in the front yard, and from building and digging in the ten thousand acre sandbox, so the kids could see the real Florida at Gatorland, Disney, and Citrus Tower, too.

Actually, it was I who wanted to take the lift at Clermont's Citrus Tower. I had not been elevated up the 22-storey mausoleum to dead orange trees since 1978, so it was an instructive vantage point to peer out upon the supplanting of grove with home and condo that had taken place here. When it was built in 1956, it truly was a Citrus Tower, but now the view is more of a memorial to the power of the bulldozer. Where once four million orange and grapefruit trees were visible, now you can see a million acres of suburban sprawl. In all of Florida, only about 550,000 acres of citrus remain. The rolling hills distributed around small lakes were once ideal for irrigating trees and for cold-air drainage that reduced severe frosts. This geography is also nicely adapted to cottages. Today, citrus production is a money-losing business and acreage of citrus is at its lowest since the US Department of Agriculture began keeping records. Today's trees are producing fruit worth an average ten cents per pound. And these trees need fertilizer, irrigation, cultivation, pest control, pollination, and harvesting. No wonder, at $10,000 an acre, it's hard not to sell trees into woodpiles.


East and South Views from Citrus Tower: 1960, top; and 2009, bottom


January 13, 2009

We're back. We escaped Florida's beauty and warmth, and fled courtesy WestJest back to cool crisp Calgary. It has suddenly turned mild here in Alberta. The temperature has risen nicely from the numbing minus thirty that we missed while in America's southeast. It is now on the sunny side of zero and almost pleasant. This certainly helps our bees that are wintering on the frozen tundra. Black skirts around their hive boxes catch much heat on days like these. Some of that warmth penetrates inward where the bees' cluster can stretch, wiggle, and reassemble over uneaten patches of raw honey. On the Canadian prairies, mild January weather is a beekeeper's friend.



January 28, 2009

Well, after a week of mild weather, it is frigid again in Canada, so I am thinking about my journey to southeast Asia. My oldest son (that's him in the first photo, below) has been in Vietnam for a few months, doing a language-teaching project. I think he's been having an interesting time, but finds the routine dull and unchallenging. He'd rather be in the army, so he's been talking to the Canadian Forces about a job as a 'Logistics Officer' - a role he's been considering for a few years. I remember when people went into the army and then were sent to Vietnam. This fellow has been to Vietnam, now he's enlisting in the army!

I wrote a bit about Vietnam earlier. And I'll write a bit more about Vietnam later. Meanwhile, the pictures below are David getting ready for his daily cyclo-taxi ride to work; the street pollution, a snapshot from the backseat of the open-air taxi; and, David at the Mekong river delta.




January 30, 2009

Big winds. Hives lost lids. Truck stuck in snow. Bad day for beekeeper. Could be worse.

It could have been worse, but Beekeeper Don has excellent friendships with the neighbouring ranchers and they helped him get unstuck and gave him tractor rides to the more isolated apiaries where he could check on those displaced lids. Though the heavy outer covers were anchored on the wraps, a few lifted off in the 120 kph winds last night, so Don replaced and re-anchored them, this time with three-inch screws. He didn't inspect the hives (it is pretty cold out on the prairies) but he did notice that stores are good and a cleansing flight had occurred during the last warm spell. This is good news as the flights allow the bees to clear out undigested bits of pollen along with nosema spores that may have been accumulating in their tummies.

Bees don't doo-doo inside their nest. Instead, the bees fly outside and let loose whenever the weather is nice. This phenomenon is especially noticeable during mild spells in mid-winter when the bees fly out en masse for relief, creating a bit of "yellow rain" which spots the snow near their hives. In the early 1980s, when people in the Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai and Cambodian highlands suffered from still controversial maladies, Yale research scientists found honeybee droppings may have been the 'chemicals' reported falling on people, making them sick. It is likely that warfare chemicals were the culprit and the harmless bee pooh was discovered at the same time. An interesting description of the controversy surrounding "yellow rain" and bee droppings can be seen in the book When Science Goes Wrong by Simon LeVay.



February 2, 2009

Is Ground Hog Day better than Ground Beef Day? I don't know this and many other things. I do know that Groundhog Day observers in Canada are generally envious of their southern neighbours. The ancient furry four-footed weather bard has something meaningful to tell the folks of Punxsutawney. If the pig doesn't see her shadow, spring is "Almost here..." right? And if the hog sees her shadow, then "Spring won't start for six weeks." Well, here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, if we only had six weeks left of winter (the groundhog's worst case scenario) then we'd all be happy as pigs in honey. Imagine that - flowers blooming here in mid-March instead of mid-May! For the record, it was cloudy today, so I guess spring is "Almost here..." which might mean flowers in June.

When I was a kid growing up in western Pennsylvania, Groundhog Day was a big deal. It didn't hurt that it was also our elementary school principal's birthday. We didn't get the whole day off (unless Feb 2 was on a weekend) but we did participate in many rousing games of 'catch your shadow,' 'catch your friend's shadow,' and of course, 'catch your shadow's shadow' - looking back, I think the teachers used this time for a coffee break. Or maybe they were in the principal's office, cutting cake. Here in western Canada, the day passes with barely a salute. My Grade One Son said that they didn't even draw a picture of a groundhog. He says it was 'business as usual'. I wonder if his school is a bit too serious?



February 10, 2009

Our first casualty of the New Economy? We got a letter today from Deloitte Touche, an accounting firm, advising us that the company that manufactures our cardboard shipping boxes for our packed comb honey has declared bankruptcy. Lucky for us, they weren't holding any of our money when their doors were locked. Our only loss is the plate that stamped our product name, UPC codes, and other details onto the carton.

They made a nice box. We're sorry for the deceased corporation and its 20 or so people who are now freshly unemployed. These people may have a tough time finding new jobs. Hopefully, none will lose their home, but certainly all will spend less money on everything, thus further slowing the economy. The economic free-fall looks dreadful and we are sorry for any of you who are having a tough time making ends meet these days. Honey is still selling at a fair price, but how long will that last if the lists of unemployed grows and grows?

Should you become a beekeeper? Probably not. Not if you are thinking it will ease your money shortages and line your wallet with crisp cash. Not likely. It takes a few hundred dollars to start even a couple of hives. (The minimum recommended number is two. Four colonies would be better, in case one or more are non-productive.) However, if you like bees and the idea of beekeeping appeals to you, then of course give it a cautious go. But remember: Bees eat money.



February 13, 2009

This week's Economist magazine has another great article in its Science and Technology section. It deals with how honey bees are a model for group decisions.

     from The Economist:
     Group decisions are almost invariably better than individual decisions...

        "This is what bees do, and they do it rather well, according to Christian List of the London School of Economics, who has 
         studied group decision-making in humans and animals along with Larissa Conradt of the University of Sussex, in England.

         "In a study reported in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers led by Dr List 
         looked at colonies of honeybees (Apis mellifera), which in late spring or early summer divide once they reach a certain size. 
         The queen goes off with about two-thirds of the worker bees to live in a new home leaving a daughter queen in the nest with the 
         remaining worker bees. Among the bees that depart are scouts that search for the new nest site and report back using a waggle 
         dance to advertise suitable locations. The longer the dance, the better the site. After a while, other scouts start to visit 
         the sites advertised by their compatriots and, on their return, also perform more waggle dances. The process eventually leads 
         to a consensus on the best site and the swarm migrates. The decision is remarkably reliable, with the bees choosing the best 
         site even when there are only small differences between two alternatives.

         "But exactly how do bees reach such a robust consensus? To find out, Dr List and his colleagues made a computer model 
         of the decision-making process. By tinkering around with it they found that computerised bees that were very good at finding 
         nesting sites but did not share their information dramatically slowed down the migration, leaving the swarm homeless and 
         vulnerable. Conversely, computerised bees that blindly followed the waggle dances of others without first checking whether 
         the site was, in fact, as advertised, led to a swift but mistaken decision. The researchers concluded that the ability of bees 
         to identify quickly the best site depends on the interplay of bees’ interdependence in communicating the whereabouts of the 
         best site and their independence in confirming this information."

 

You can read the entire article in your copy of Economist magazine.



February 15, 2009

Honey laundering? I thought the radio news said 'Money laundering', but they were talking about honey. My only experience with honey laundering has involved throwing white work-suits into the washing machine. The honey comes right out, but not the wax and propolis. That's not the news story this week. The news story has belatedly picked up on the work of Pulitzer-winner Andrew Schneider at the Seattle Post who traced transshipments of honey from China to the USA. Chinese honey is subject to big import tariffs as their product is allegedly being sold for less money than it costs to produce. This is called an anti-dumping tariff. So, some Chinese honey is being 'laundered' through third-party countries, especially India, in order to get around the high import duties.

Here's an example of how honey is laundered. According to the Seattle Post, almost a quarter million pounds of Chinese honey were shipped from Hubei Yangzijiang Apiculture Company in Wuhan, China. This honey went to Shanghai but a month later showed up in New Delhi, India, where it was marked 'for re-export' purposes. Indian Customs reports the honey was in steel drums which still contained instructions from the Chinese company saying the load was to be shipped on to Sue Bee Honey - the biggest packer and seller of honey in the USA! Two containers of the honey were reportedly shipped to Norfolk, Virginia, and Jacksonville, Florida - all five containers of honey were then allegedly shipped on to Iowa, home of Sue Bee Honey. (If you are having trouble picturing this wild flow of laundered honey, here's a page with a map!) Those of us who grew up believing that Sue Bee Honey represented American honey producers are a bit disturbed. Sue Honey began as a group of farmers who kept bees in the USA heartland. They created a marketing co-operative to help them sell their superior, domestic honey product. Back in the 1950s, my father was an early producer-member of Sue Bee. If these allegations are true, it seems like a pretty sad mess to me. But, at any rate, the president of Sue Bee Honey says that only about twenty million pounds of the honey they sell was produced by foreign beekeepers, the rest is made by beekeepers in the USA.

Interestingly, Sue Bee Honey Cooperative has been leading a push to get the USA's Food and Drug Administration to adopt a country of origin label. Along with this, enforcement would need to use a rather expensive system developed in some labs that link honey samples to specific geographic locations. But according to the Seattle Post investigative reporter (Andrew Schneider), a scientist at an FDA lab told him that "There are so many other places to spend money for equipment needed for much more dangerous food-safety threats." The bottom line, which we all loose track of from time-to-time, is that honey is essentially safe. Even honey produced in China and other parts of Asia. So all this enforcement has to be approached not so much as a health and safety issue but more as a commercial, economic, and ethical issue. People who prefer to support their neighbours can buy local. The quality and safety of local honey may (or might not) be better than imported honey, but at least you can support your community. If you want to read the complete Seattle Post investigation (along with great background detail and pictures) go to this link: http://seattlepi.com/specials/honey.



February 23, 2009

The days are getting longer. Birds should be singing and flowers should be blossoming, but we are back into the deep freeze again here in Alberta, Canada. Minus 21 for a high today! How do the bees survive this? You can be sure that the bees also noticed the lengthening days. They are trying to produce some brood for replacement bees - if they can generate enough heat in their hives. You know that bees make honey as their energy food. Along with pollen (their protein source), bees gather these foods from flowers. The honey is used to power the bees' flight muscles which give off a tiny bit of heat as this chemical energy is converted into mechanical energy. There can't be a lot of heat in each bee muscle twitch, but all that shivering adds up to a small furnace, warming the center of the bee cluster to a balmy 35 C (96 F) degrees, even when it's minus 21 outside the hive!



February 28, 2009

No leap year this year. But the scientists who annually adjust our clocks have given us an extra 13 seconds. How lucky is that? We used part of this 'found' time watching a movie. A rare treat as we are usually too exhausted to stay awake even a few minutes past the six-year-old's 8 o'clock bedtime. We watched The Secret Life of Bees on Pay-per-View. Someone had earlier tried to read the book, found it awfully depressing, and abandoned the project after a few dozen pages. But we decided to try the movie anyway.

Well, it is a depressing story. 1964. South Carolina. Black women. A lot to feel uncomfortable about. At least the first quarter or so of the book/movie. Not a child's tale. But it does have bees, and they make an early appearance. So, we stayed with the film - especially since the cable company already had our six dollars. Depressing, but redeeming. Not all is hatred and bigotry in 1964 South Carolina - and the women are strong, independent, respected. Even if they are sometimes a bit weird.

But, you are reading a bee blog, so let's move along to the good stuff. The purple honey and the secret lives of all those bees. (Secret life? You never know what's going on just below the cover.) The producers (and obviously author Sue Monk Kidd) know something about bees and artful beekeeping. The bees are well-represented in more than various gratuitous cameo roles. (Aren't you getting a bit tired of all those gratuitous honeybee scenes in movies these days?) The honeybees actually have real jobs, stringing together a tense story that would not have worked had it been the Secret Life of Pigs, for example. It's a good drama, a dark and light story, and ultimately, a tale of hope. Treat yourselves, enjoy this movie - for more than just the bug pictures.

A must-see movie: The Secret Life of Bees



March 25, 2009

We'd like to believe that the quiet beekeeper - working at his hives, packing his honey, sleeping in his home at night - should be exempt from the gruesome and disgusting. The beekeeper has enough tragedy. But a Queensland, Australia, beekeeper was murdered - shot in the back while he slept - by a honey thief. Here's a summary from the UK Telegraph:

          "Alcock was in serious financial trouble and went to Mr Knight's home with the intention of stealing 
            £210,000 worth of his honey, the prosecution said.

           "...he made the decision to kill Mr Knight when he realised he could not steal the honey without 
            waking him.  In his confession he told police: "If Tony was home I was going to have to maim 
            him or hurt him bad if I was going to knock off the honey".
                
           "Alcock was forced to call emergency services after he was trapped under one of the large 
            containers of stolen honey while unloading it from his truck.   Alcock was taken to hospital, 
            where police attending the incident linked Alcock to Mr Knight's death after noticing markings 
            on the barrels that identified them as Mr Knight's property."

Justice? The thief/murderer was sentenced to life in prison today.



April 5, 2009

April Aggie Days is a massive gathering of farmers and ranchers at the Calgary Stampede Roundup Centre. Ranchers, farmers, beekeepers, stampedes, roundups... exciting stuff in the heart of a city of over a million urbanites. School groups by the hundreds are led through the venue, obliging tobacco-chewing cola-swigging rural hosts to expound the virtues of eating real food. The Calgary Beekeepers' Club contributes one of the busiest (certainly buzziest) displays. The Bee Club goes through an annual exercise of nagging members to participate with at least a few hours' time and effort - cowed into an obligatory appearance during the festive weekend. Those who participate usually find the event fun and rewarding.

An oil company - Encana - helps Aggie Days tremendously by sponsoring the event. Adult visitors (tens of thousands) pay five dollars at the door - kids under 12 sneak in for free. Demonstrations include barley milling, sisal-to-rope making, and big plastic cows with glass-lined stomach cavities. The beekeepers bring in honey, extractors, veils, and live bees. The beekeepers' petting zoo is an especially big hit among the kids. In one of the pictures below, you can see the club's vice-president (Don Miksha) allowing a child to ruffle the feathers of a stingless drone.

Bees are a social bug; beekeepers less so. But in every group, there are always a few individuals who enjoy the echo of their own voice vibrating off others' eardrums. The Calgary Bee Club has a few such souls and many other folks who don't like spotlights, but dutifully stand at the beehive demonstration stations and answer queries about bee stings, honey, and pollination. Mostly bee stings.

Maybe your local bee club hosts an open-house or makes an appearance at a function similar to Calgary's Aggie Days. You might not have 50,000 guests (you might not be in a city of a million) but each convert to a bee-friendly attitude moves the globe closer to a human-friendly place. Don't feel inadequate or shy about talking bees - if you work with honeybees you can probably answer all the questions and you will do a fine job of promoting your craft.
Beekeeping Exhibit at Calgary's Aggie Days





April 9, 2009
Charlie the Carpenter, with Bees

WASPS vs BEES. The exciting stories are all over the newspapers - the Obamas have moved some beehives to the back forty. Gotta admit, I'm thrilled. The White House hasn't had bees behind the Rose Garden since Jefferson moved out two hundred years ago. And having bees behind the White House is better than having wasps inside. What does this mean for beekeepers? It can't hurt. These days, with cities passing ordinances against beekeepers, the fact that one might appear at City Hall with newsprint proof that even Washington DC allows beehives will go a long way. And don't forget, Ma and Pa Obama are both lawyers! If attorneys don't fear the wrath of lawsuits caused by semi-domesticated bees dropping yellow rain on the neighbour's Lexus, then maybe we shouldn't either.

The White House bees are actually owned by Charlie the Carpenter , who works at the Obama's temporary home fixing squeaky floor boards and leaky window sills. Charlie (shown on the right carrying a bundle of bees) installed the insects on April 9 somewhere near the Homeland Security kennels.

The publicity for honeybees is priceless. News reports with lots of clever buzz words described bees' sweet contributions to pollination ecosystems. It's a grand thing for the thousands of Michelles in America to learn that bees will help the garden grow while the stinging bugs are merrily humming a few meters (oops, feet ) from children trucked in to pull White House weeds.



April 11, 2009

Meanwhile, spring has almost arrived in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We've had some 15 (60F) degree temperatures. The week ahead is supposed to be sunny and non-stop mid-teens for highs. But we are leaving the bees wrapped for another couple of weeks because it will be cold and snowy again this spring. A few hundred packages are scheduled to arrive in late April and simultaneously (we hope) a few hundred queens from Chile. Meanwhile, our several hundred wintered hives seem to have survived the coldest winter in a decade - but are still living off stored honey and pollen because not a single flower is blossoming here yet!



April 14, 2009

Snow. It's still snowing here in the foothills of the Rockies. The forecast (now disowned by its inventors) described Bermuda, but we have Antarctica again. Glad our hives are still wearing their wind-breakers.



April 17, 2009

If you've got bee equipment to sell, you can consider advertising with bid4bees.co.uk. This is apparently a new on-line auction service for all things related to bees. I got an e-mail from someone named Shaun who says:

    "The site offers its members a comprehensive and easy way, to buy and sell beekeeping supplies and equipment, 
     and also provide useful information and advice on beekeeping and other apicultural related topics.

    "Of course with an online auction site there is no guarantee that people will find the exact item they are 
      looking for. We would therefore like to provide our members with alternative places on the web to find 
     what they are looking for.  bid4bees would like to offer you the opportunity to advertise on it’s homepage.

                  "We offer banner space of 234 x 60 pixels at
                        1month     £100.00
                        3months    £275.00
                        6months    £600.00
                        12months   £800.00"

The site looks clean, well-organized and hopeful. Our best wishes go this ambitious website. If you have a bee supply company, and can spend over a thousand dollars a year, you could get a banner space this big:

It costs a lot of money, time, and energy to maintain a website. *(As I know from bitter experience!) So, we hope Shaun gets some sponsors. Meanwhile, if you register with the site before May 15, 2009, you will have a chance to win a British National Bee Hive - the square-shaped 18.125 x 18.125 inch standard English hive. Not sure if they would ship the equipment to Canada, New Zealand, or Uganda if you register from there!



April 24, 2009

If you have been a law-breaking bee-keeping Minneapolosian, we have great news for you! Beekeeping is now legal in the western twin city! That's right, the ban on managed bee hives kept in apiaries within the city limits of Minneapolis has been lifted. I think this might be a bit of the Obama effect which we described above. With bees obviously allowed in demagogic Washington, D.C., how could libertarian Minneapolis drag her heels? Under a banner heading, Beekeeping legalized in Minneapolis the Star Tribune explains, "Would-be beekeepers on typical city lots will be required to gain consenting signatures from all abutting property owners, plus 80 percent of owners within 100 feet of their property." Oh, by the way, you will also need to "take a class in beekeeping", pay $100 to register as a beekeeper, and then $50 a year to maintain your bee permit. Perhaps Minneapolis isn't as free and easy as Garrison Keillor once described. However, the good news - thanks in big part to councilwoman Diane Hofstede - is that kept bees are legal in Minneapolis!



April 28, 2009

Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, Japanese style. It appears that Japan has been hit by unusually large bee colony losses. According to Natural News.com, the Japanese Beekeeping Association undertook a survey of its 2,500 members and determined that 25 percent of all beekeepers had "experienced sudden losses of honeybees" on some scale. According to Osamu Mamuro, owner of a company that supplies beehives to farmers for pollination purposes, populations of honey bees have dropped drastically. Mamuro expects to have only half his usual number of colonies available this year. The bee shortage is difficult to overcome since Japan stopped the importation of honey bees from Australia, source for 80% of Japan's imported bees. This has bumped up the price of a package of bees (6000 bees and a queen) to 23,000 Yen (about $220 US) for the beekeeper trying to restock hives. This compounds the problem of declining numbers of beehives and beekeepers as fewer people continue to participate in the challenging, demanding, non-profitable business of bees. According to a recent Japan Agriculture survey, strawberries and watermelons were suffering the most from the dearth of bees. Cherries in Yamagata Prefecture, melons in Ibaraki Prefecture and apples in Nagano Prefecture were also cited as lacking sufficient pollinators.



April 28, 2009

Kids from Broward County in South Florida headed over to Africa to teach beekeeping skills to villagers in Agogo, Ghana. Hats off (Veils off?) to these fine young members of the Fort Lauderdale-based Honey Project, according to The South Florida Times.

“Our purpose was to develop a co-op, and develop an export business with the farmers as well. Instead of making a dollar a day, they will not only be able to earn an actual living wage from the honey, they will have their own businesses,” said 18 year-old Clinton Lucien.

The Honey Project is piloted by Nathan Burrell (right), a major sponsor of the organization. The goals include helping people in other parts of the world while teaching entrepreneurial and management skills to young people. The Honey Project is an international economic development project that produces young social entrepreneurs working to alleviate global poverty. The project was created to provide positive opportunities for young people ages 15-24; while addressing the issues of poverty relief, sustainable development and environmental conservation.

It's a good cause. You can help. Visit their site, pledge a few dollars, or buy a case of their Zambian Honey.



May 1, 2009

Our bees arrived! We Canadian drones coordinated with our contacts in Chile (queens) and New Zealand (workers) and combined the bugs on the farm in Vulcan County, Alberta. This bee blog will follow the bugs' progress over the next few weeks, months, and years.



May 16, 2009

We spent a couple of days at the farm. "The farm" as we call the world headquarters for Summit Gardens Honey Farms Ltd. is about an hour south-east of Calgary in the open prairies of Vulcan County, near the village of Milo, Alberta. Three weeks ago, Don installed most of our 300 new packages at this location. Our farm has a lot of space to stagger the hives among the poplars and caraganas. In these pictures, you can see that these hives are placed about a meter apart with entrances of different colours, and settled between the shrubs and trees - all of this reduces drift, i.e. co-mingling of the bees that could lead to unevenly developing colony strength and the spread of diseases and pests. The 300 packages started their Canadian careers here at the farm because it was easy to install these new bees quickly - without the threat of having the equipment stranded behind an April/May snowdrift, so typical for this part of the world. Access is important when you have thousands of buzzers anxious to land.

Having tens of thousands of dollars worth of new bees in the backyard in the early spring also helps us monitor/prevent other obvious issues: theft, vandalism, pesticide spray, marauding bears, and fires. All of these are common problems here in Alberta. These are nasty threats to hives at any time of the year, but especially brutal when the bees are cute, young, and fuzzy.




May 17, 2009

We really do have a farm. Complete with tractor and dirt. Here Don and Dani churn the dirt stuff, hoping to kill weeds and soften rocks so potatoes might grow. Don has given up trying to get mature peppers and tomatoes - those things do OK in pots on the deck, but not in the cold soil of our open fields. Gardening is not for the feint-hearted in this part of the world. We can have a killing frost any morning of any day.

This farm is the place where our comb-honey honey farm has its huge quonset sheds - the honey house, the carpenter's shop, the warehouses. If you could fly over it, the place would look a bit lie this:

Summit Gardens Honey Farms Ltd.



May 17, 2009

One more thing before we leave the farm. Many years ago, an ancient philosopher (and retired US Army Colonel) told me, "Only old men plant trees." He believed in irony - in this case the almost always true fact that people think of planting trees when they are too old to live to see them mature. This gentleman was the one who told me stories of his uncle - as a child then - scratching for worms in the north Alabama clay after the Yankees had stolen every scrap of food left on his grandmother's farm. I think that A.K.S. reads this blog from time to time (he's way past 90 now, but can't stop learning) so I hope he notices this entry. That's my six-year-old planting a tree named Spike.




May 19, 2009

If you are in the central part of the USA reading this (most of our perusers are American - especially mid-Westerners and mid-Atlanticanners) then you'll be surprised to learn that in the middle of May, dandelions are just beginning to blossom here in Alberta. We are quite a distance to the north (southern Alberta, near Calgary, has a latitude about the same as Scotland) so dandelions wait until about 10 a.m. May 25 each year to show maximum bloom. For those of you not enamored by the beauty and utility of the Lion's Tooth (from the French, "dent de lion"), may I remind you that dandelions are the base for an excellent wine, nicely bitter greens, and exotic roots. They are also the honeybees' best friend in mid-spring, yielding quite a bit of honey (which beekeepers leave for the bees to thrive on) and an excellent protein - lipids and fatty acids which the bees absolutely need to raise their brood.




May 21, 2009

Using queens from Chile for our increases, packages, and 2-queen hives, we are seeing better than expected results. Three weeks after installation, the 300 queens from South America have had an attrition rate of less than one percent (we lost 2 of these queens) while the 100 control queens (from Hawaii) are down by 15 percent. Meanwhile, the Chilean queens have been expanding brood nests and generally acting very motherly. We'll see if these initial results are maintained with a decent honey crop.

Wintering results are also finalized, with the 200 Chilean-led colonies from last spring (down to 187 with summer attrition) resulting in 140 good over-wintered hives by mid-May. This is not a particularly good result, but our more-numerous non-Chile hives wintered much more poorly, with about a 65 percent loss from the fall count. However, the non-Chilean queened hives had queens which were mostly two years old, while the South Americans were going into their first winter. As with most beekeeper-led studies, this one was not sufficiently randomized, did not use factorial analysis to limit influences such as queen age differences, food stores, and locations of hives. On the other hand, our work is not sustained by public funds, has to be viewed objectively (we are after money from honey, not proof to back up any doctoral thesis), and our results are probably directionally correct.



May 28, 2009

Ever taught school? I never had the chance. But nearly as nice is the thrill of showing off honeybees to a Grade One class. If you pass the police clearance check (I did!), get permission to address a classroom and book the hour you'll need. Show up with your veils, unlit smoker (Boy, did I get that wrong one time - you live and learn!), gloves, hive sans bees (Probably best NOT to bring bees to the school.), wax, honeycomb, hive tool, and a big stuffed bee.

Little kids are a great audience for all things wiggly, creepy, and crawly. Honeybees have the added fascination of a dangerous stinger. We started today's session at Daniel's school with our veils on and asked the kids to guess what we would be talking about. We used Benny the Bee for anatomy - the huge compound eyes, the body parts. When we determined that Benny was a drone bee and had no stinger, we cautiously removed the headgear. This is a great chance to tell the little muppets that professional beekeepers are always careful around honeybees. Don't act like you are fearless - children tend to imitate the stupidest behaviour. Don't allow even the slightest suggestion that unsupervised six-year-olds might enjoy investigating a beehive after school hours.

At the same time, don't scare the kids. Tell them what they might do if they get stung. Then move on to honey, pollination, queen bees, lazy drones, and happy workers. Try to talk at a child's level, not above their knowledge, but certainly don't talk down to them. Stay enthusiastic. It spreads. Halfway through any kids' bee talk, I always tell them about the bee dance. This is the time you get them to stand up and wiggle in place - slowly for that far away nectar patch, vigorously for the flowers blooming on the bees' doorstep. This will wake up the kids for the last part of your show'n'tell, which might include a FEW pictures. We projected a three minute video clip of Daniel working with the bees, too.

End with questions from the audience, if you dare. The group I had asked some tough ones. "Which flies faster, the worker or the queen?" And "Do bees have a favourite flower?" Whether you think you can keep up with a child's mind or not, don't pass by the opportunity to talk honeybees at the local elementary.



May 30, 2009


Wasp Season! Don't be fooled into hating honey bees by these awful imposters!

We have been receiving lots of e-mail asking that we drop by folks' backyards (in Hampshire, England and Austin, Texas, as well as a few other places) to 'save' the bees that have been harassing occupants of nearby houses. We are in favour of saving bees - after all, that's what we do here. But these invitations usually start off with warm and fuzzy endorsements of the beauty and utility of the honeybee, then quickly disintegrate into scary renditions of the awful power of the "bees' bites". My response has generally been sympathetic and directional. But I know that only one in ten of these urgent appeals involves honeybees. The other cries for help are demanding respite from yellow jackets, wasps, hornets, and bumble bees. Occasionally one of the lesser bees are responsible for the ruckus (sweat bee, alkali, mason, digger bees, ground bees, carpenter bees - there are 20,000 species of bees that don't make honey!).

We are pretty lucky these days that people can easily and quickly send digital pictures of the nuisance bees. So far this year, none have been honeybees. By far, most photos have been Kodak Moments of bumble bees (hundreds of species of these big buzzers) - which are big and frightening, but largely benign.

If you are troubled by wasps such as the one in the photo to your left, here is a great web link with some help. It directs to a site published by the University of Kentucky's entomology department.



June 6, 2009

Gotta love the weather here! It's June 6th, for-cryin-out-loud!, and we're getting enough white stuff to build a snowman. It isn't especially cold, just a few degrees below freezing, and "we really do need the moisture" as all the farmers will quickly remind us. But snow. It's just two weeks from the first day of summer!


Our neighbourhood in Calgary - Snowfall on June 6, 2009


June 14, 2009

Something Personal. Each year we participate in the Calgary ALS Society's main fundraiser event - a run, walk, or push along a 5 kilometre circuit on the southwest side of our city. This year, we collected over $400,000 during the event. Thanks to all the supporters in the battle against this disease. You might know that ALS (also called Lou Gehrig's Disease) is an always fatal disorder where a person's muscles and nerves die, leaving the victim paralyzed within two or three years. About six thousand people are diagnosed with the illness in North American every year. There is no known cause and no cure for the disease. Not yet, anyway.

In the pictures below, we capture some of the 2000 people who participated in the event, called Betty's Run. Among the people supporting us is the glamorous Wendy Crewson, the Canadian actress who performed as the president's wife with Harrison Ford in Air Force One. She's a great lady - we all appreciate her volunteering each year. By the way, in other pictures, that's me, with my wife and my two youngest kids. I can't walk much more than a few metres, so Eszter pushed me in my wheelchair the whole five kilometres!


Calgary Fundraiser for the ALS Society, June 14, 2009


June 17, 2009

Planet Green, Discovery Communication's environment station, announced today that a new series - "Reel Impact" will premier with "The Last Beekeeper" - no, not a 'Fox TV-ish" unreality show where the drones vote the last worker off the hive, but instead a documentary featuring three American beekeepers trying to survive.

According to the promotional release, the film documents the beekeepers' respective pilgrimages, bees and all, to the largest event of the beekeeping year - the massive pollination of California's almonds. The challenges the beekeepers face due to the declining numbers of these essential insects become painfully and poignantly clear. "If all the bees die, what do you have to live for?" asks beekeeper Matt Hutchens.

The film is great pro-bee promo material, but you will probably wish the editing had been done more carefully. One of the many misleading 'facts' stated is that "In 1950 in there were 200,000 beekeepers in the U.S. Today there are less than 1,000." Unfortunately, the film's numbers are way off - the 200,000 is probably the total number of hobby beekeepers plus professionals in 1950, while today's number (1,000) is about a third of the number of commercial beekeepers in business today. There are also presently about 100,000 U.S. hobby beekeepers, so the die-off is not as precipitous as dramatized.

If you'd like to catch a preview of Jeremy Simmon's documentary, you can see it here:



June 19, 2009

It was just announced by Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds that he and his wife, actress Scarlett Johansson, (that's the couple, left) received a hive of bees and a lifetime subscription to a bee journal as their wedding gift from bad-guy actor Samuel L Jackson (that's him, to your right). "Someone came to my door and said, ''I have a gift for you in my trunk from Samuel L Jackson.'' He comes back from the trunk and it's humming an insane degree. And he tells me, ''Mr Jackson would like you to have this beehive.'' So he hands me a couple of beekeeping outfits and a lifetime subscription to the Beekeepers Journal. And the next thing I know, I'm making honey," Contactmusic quoted him as saying.

Reynolds later appeared on David Letterman, talking up bees and beekeeping. Thanks, Ryan!



June 23, 2009

Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Agriculture town Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada - very near the epicentre of beekeeping - has passed a bylaw this evening affecting bees and beekeepers in the City of Bridges. I lived in S'toon for four years when I earned my undergrad degree in Geophysics. I remember how troublesome wasps and hornets and all things vespa could be in that town, so I am not surprised that bees are feeling Big Government's wrath tonight. City Council amended the Animal Control Bylaw so that pesky bees would improve their behavior. Do we really need more laws?? A few signs on the ring road - written in BuzzLingua - warning bees to keep moving on and buzz off would have done the job.



June 28, 2009

Four of us went to the Calgary Airport today. Three got on the plane. I waved good-bye to Eszter, Daniel, and Helen. They are off to Hungary, to see Eszter's parents and Eszter's friends. It will be a lonely and quiet month for me - they return the last day of July. The Calgary-Budapest trek (this time via Amsterdam) takes about 22 hours with connections and waits. But our kids are extremely well-mannered, seasoned travelers. We usually make this trip in April, around Daniel's spring break time. This year, the trip was planned for a month in the summer. That's part of the reason I'm staying in Calgary - I don't want to miss that much work. Taking a summer tour from Canada is always an emotionally mixed experience - our best weather here is mid-summer. On the other hand, school is out and the sands along the Balaton are beckoning.



June 29, 2009

The family arrived in Hungary. Eszter says the kids behaved excellently and the trip was without mishap. Grandma met them at the Budapest airport and they were driving along the freeway enroute to Szeged when Eszter called. It is hot there - about 35 while only 16 here (that's 95F vs 60F), but it was a happy reunion and they were glad to see Europe again.



June 30, 2009

Beekeeping is in the news all over the place. From an Okanogan paper, we learn that beekeeping is experiencing a huge rebirth with 2300 beekeepers caretaking 47,000 hives up in the Peace River country. Those numbers sound more like the totals for all of BC, not just the north. Nor are we sure why a south BC paper would be reporting about north BC bees. Maybe it's the news that sells.

Other papers: Daily Times of Pakistan reports nearly four million dollars worth of honey were exported for the year. Don't scoff, that's a bigger percentage of the GDP there than in OECD countries like Canada. With Canada's two trillion dollar economy, our honey exports are equal to about $25 for every million dollars sloshing around the economy; in Pakistan the ratio is almost twice as big.

And the U.K.'s Norwich Guardian tells us that the North Cheshire Beekeepers have been awarded a 4000 pound grant from the Gannet Foundation for community development. The article didn't indicate any guidelines regarding the spending of the cash, so I went to the bee group's website where I found nothing at all regarding the charitable gift. Maybe I didn't look in the right places. I have never heard of any beekeeping organization receiving such a large grant before. Actually, I never heard of any local bee club getting any money as a grant. If you have, let me know how it was spent, and I'll post the news here.



July 1, 2009

It's Canada Day! And we had an unwelcome guest this morning... Old Jack Frost came into our backyard and left his icy pattern on our deck furniture. Fortunately, he didn't trample on our flowers. I think this was mostly an unfriendly message from Old Lady Nature that we really don't have much control over our beekeeping business. The alfalfa and sweet clover should be blooming, our bees should be gathering honey. Instead, they are huddling for warmth, snuggling in their hollow hive cavities.

Yes, beekeeping is weather dependent. Not only are the honey bees fickle protesters to the wind, clouds, rain, and cold; their nectarizing flowers are susceptible to drought, photosynthetic abuses, and declining soil nutrients. It's surprising the bees make any honey at all. In our case, here in southern Alberta, Canada, the landscape is parched - one of the most scorched springs we've had. Farmers, who are perennially optimistic about everything, are already plowing under their crops.

Oh, Canada - Happy 142nd Birthday!



July 2, 2009

I forgot to recap the busy month of June at our honey farm. Weather-wise, it was cold and dry. But the bee colonies (300 packages and some 220 hives that survived the winter) expanded about normally. This is a huge improvement over the past two springs when the bees developed their populations much too slowly. We blame the 2007 and 2008 losses mainly on the large number of superseded queens from our Hawaiian, Canadian, and New Zealand stock, but the culprit may also have been some sort of Colony Collapse syndrome. Not the frightening big-scale disease we've been hearing about from other beekeepers, but some minor type of bee rapture nevertheless. We suspect our problems from the past two years may be due to Nosema ceranae, which can be treated with Fumagilin. This year, Beekeeper Don (my brother) seems to have diverted potential CCD-ish misbehaviour in our bees via a judicious treatment of Fumagilin-B which we purchased from Medivet Pharmaceutical Ltd. in High River, Alberta. Don applied 2 ounces of Fum-B mixed in feed, lightly sprayed onto the main clusters of the bees (mostly in the evenings) five times. That's right, every one of our 500 plus hives was treated five separate times, each treatment separated by 4 or 5 days, over the month of June.

The frequent Fum-B hosing seems to have paid off (that's one of our typical hives, to your left) - the last (5th) spraying was between June 27 and June 29 and the bees have maintained and developed their populations much, much better than they did during the past two years. (Or maybe something else should be attributed to this stunning success.)

Anyway, as we enter July, we now have colonies that resemble those of the "good old days". We had read the report in Environmental Microbiology by scientists at the Spanish Bee Pathology Laboratory in Marchamalo, who write in their Abstract:

How natural infection by Nosema ceranae causes honeybee colony collapse:

       For first time, we show that natural N. ceranae infection can cause the sudden collapse of bee colonies, 
       establishing a direct correlation between N. ceranae infection and the death of honeybee colonies under 
       field conditions. Signs of colony weakness were not evident until the queen could no longer replace the 
       loss of the infected bees. The long asymptomatic incubation period can explain the absence of evident 
       symptoms prior to colony collapse. Furthermore, our results demonstrate that healthy colonies near to an 
       infected one can also become infected, and that N. ceranae infection can be controlled with a specific 
       antibiotic, fumagillin. Moreover, the administration of 120 mg of fumagillin has proven to eliminate the 
       infection, but it cannot avoid reinfection after 6 months.

Others elaborated on the probable link between Nosema ceranae and colony collapse, so we investigated further. It is pretty ironic - almost funny that Canada does not allow bees from the USA (to pointlessly protect us from varroa and tracheal mites, which are nevertheless ubiquitous here) and yet encouraged beekeepers to bring packages from Australia and New Zealand, the likely source of Nosema ceranae. I personally warned of this threat in 1986 at the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Annual meeting. But our brilliant bureaucrackers closed a safe border and opened a dangerous one. C'est la vie. Sorry for the outburst. Back to Nosema ceranae and our bees.

Interestingly, Nosema ceranae previously occurred only in the Apis ceranae bee -the smallish Asian honey bee, which has a natural habitat in the Himalayas, China, south Asia, and Japan. The Asian bee seems to have been noticed in Australia relatively recently. Irregardless the little bee's range, it is considered the original carrier of Nosema ceranae which has since species-jumped to the beekeepers' pets, Apis mellifera sometime in the last fifteen or twenty years (about the time bees started entering Canada from Oceania - probably another coincidence). The oldest North American honey bee samples assaying Nosema ceranae infection (via DNA testing) date from 1995. Likely this new malady was around for a few years before this sample with its low-level of infection was preserved. But other theories abound regarding the source of North America's infection. It is just speculation that the introduction was from packages to Canada from Australia in the late 1980s. Other theories claim the menace arrived from royal jelly imported into California from China, or perhaps from careless European imports of bees to the USA or Canada. Europe has probably had Nosema ceranae longer than North America, possibly creeping west from Afghanistan.

With all this discussion of the new pest, we have to recognize that Apis ceranae might not even be the cause of Colony Collapse. It could be circumstantial that its recent epidemic levels in honey bees is not related to colony death. Maybe another mechanism weakens the bees and this new pest opportunistically jumps in to eat bee guts. This is the claim from a contrary group of (again) Spanish researchers. You might wish to read - Un estudio de campo en España no demuestra relación entre el Síndrome de Desaparición de Colmenas (SDC = CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder ) y la presencia de Nosema ceranae. I'm not sure we agree with this report here at Summit Gardens Honey in southern Alberta, Canada. Maybe it is coincidental, but our bees responded well to the aggressive regime of Fumagillin treatments. We believe that Fum-B greatly improved the health of our small (500 hive) operation - but only after five light doses, each separated by 4 or 5 days.



July 4, 2009

It has continued to be a cool, dry spring. In some of our honey-producing areas (we have 25 bee yards, about 20 hives in each) there was no rain during May and only a few millimeters in June. The drought stress is showing on the alfalfa and sweet clover, so Beekeeper Don has loaded a few yards onto our trailer and hauled the colonies to the foothills of the Rockies, where it is generally damper.

This is pretty hard work - the hives are in double-deep Langstroth hives and weigh about seventy pounds each. The hives are loaded by hand early in the morning and driven an hour west, then off-loaded in the higher-elevation yards. Cattle ranchers are doing something similar, but cowboys don't have to lift their cows by hand.



July 7, 2009

Our honey farm produces only comb honey. This is a tedious, management-intensive type of beekeeping. At this time of year, about 80% of our hives are reduced from their normal two-storey height into just one relatively empty single box. The queen and much of her brood are placed there. Excess brood is distributed to weaker hives which grow in stature from two brood boxes to four or five or six; or the brood is carried off to other yards. These hives won't be expected to produce any comb honey. The stronger hives have all fifty thousand bees occupying just one standard (10 frame 9-9/16" depth) brood chamber. Comb honey supers (usually two or three) are immediately added. This is a horrendously challenging job and all 500 hives need tending within a week, which means working about 5 apiaries a day. Our bee yards are small by commercial standards - just 20 hives each - for several reasons (disease control, reduced bee-drift, foraging advantages) but a primary advantage is that with labour-intensive management, work flows better in smaller apiaries.


Colonies reduced to single brood chambers with 2 or 3 comb honey supers.


July 16, 2009

The weather has remained poor. It seems that we are constantly complaining about bad weather. We have noticed that the season is delayed about three weeks. In a "normal" year, we expect to see yellow sweet clover blooming about June 15 and honey dribbling in to the hives by the first week of July. This year, mid-July, we still don't have a honey flow. Double troubles - continued drought and cold weather. High today was 16C - that's 60F - after an overnight low of 8. Not honey weather. Certainly not mid-July on the Great Plains weather, either!



July 22, 2009

Swarm season. As you know, bees prefer to swarm in the spring. Typically, swarm season in southern Alberta is from the end of May through June. That's when the weather is mixed, lots of pollen is available, the brood nest is sometimes cramped, and nectar flow (predominantly from dandelion here) is intense, but intermittent. We are getting an intense and intermittent flow now, with variable weather and plentiful pollen. You guessed it - in this much-delayed season, we have been hearing reports from our fellow beefolks about their swarming issues. Well, not to be out-done, our bees are also issuing swarms. Beekeeper Don has been chopping queen cells from those hives with queens still at home, but this delaying tactic is really a vain, if gallant, effort. Once convinced that their congested abode is restricted and the countryside is ripe for colonizing, it is pretty hard to keep the bees at home. We have had the occasional swarming problem in the past - it goes with the territory of trying to make comb honey, which requires cramped living conditions for the bees. But this year is likely to be celebrated as the Year of the Swarm on the Traditional BeeKeepers' Calendar.


One of our wayward colonies.


July 31, 2009

My brother Dave Miksa is a renowned queen breeder, operating in Florida. He apparently raises some of the best queens in the world, selling more than 100,000 queen cells and tens of thousands of live queens all over the USA and into a few other countries. Unfortunately, I don't have any of his popular stock here in Alberta because it is illegal for anyone to bring queens and bees from Florida to Canada. Its been that way for twenty-five years now. In the mid-80s, Florida bees were banned by Canadian bureaucrats because Florida inspectors found tracheal mites. Well, those mites had been found first in Texas, but in Texas the inspectors pleased Canadian officials by killing colonies with observed tracheal mites. This played well in Canada, so Texan bees were imported by the millions to Canada from Texas. Along with undetected mites, of course. And later, California followed the same script - killing all hives found with tracheal mites. More than a few beekeepers were bankrupted through this application of political science.

Florida refused to play along with the farce. For two reasons. Tracheal mites were wide-spread in Europe and considered to be a minor pest there, not worthy of destroying colonies of bees. (Rejecting the cut-off-the-head-to-fix-the-tooth-ache philosophy). The second reason: tracheal mites were already obviously so wide-spread in North America that killing hives that tested positive was almost always directly correlated with the diligence of the inspecting force. Florida had the largest inspection team in North America, so they also had the most finds. Florida agents refused to kill honey bees infected by tracheal mites; this attitude resulted in the embargo of Florida bees. One inspector told me that "if Florida would just play the game, you could bring bees up from there." Well, Florida didn't. And I can't. But Canadians have been able to bring in honey bees from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Hawaii. So we are not without spring-time replacement bees. Meanwhile, bee colonies are no longer killed by inspectors anywhere tracheal mites are found - not even in Canada, where the mite is almost ubiquitous. But Florida bees are still not welcome here. It's one of those residual laws you hear about... In some places, laws are still on the books that require motorists to make loud sounds when approaching horse-drawn carriages. Maybe that's why silent electric cars are being equipped with fake engine noises and air-horns.

I mention my brother Dave because he had a milestone birthday earlier this month. He has done an impressive job of promoting the bee industry and producing a great product. From his appearances on the Discovery Network, NBC's Today Show, and the Sylvia Plath movie through dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, he has done much to keep bees and beekeeping in the public eye. I was briefly interviewed by Heather McPherson of the Orlando Sentinel Star for her piece on Dave's queen breeding business in Lake County, Florida, so I had a chance to comment on his success. Here's an excerpt from this May 2009 article:

           Miksa, 64, grew up on a small honey and potato farm in western Pennsylvania. 
           "We had 50 acres of potatoes and about 800 hives," said his brother Ron, who lives in Calgary. 
           Dave Miksa studied at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin.
          
           "He could have pursued a career as a scientist, but he was more interested in running his own business. 
           And it's paid off," Ron said. "Dave is very independent and outspoken, but he's also been financially 
           successful at breeding queens. And that's why he gets the attention of bureaucrats and scientists."
   

His story was picked up by papers all across America. You can read the full article in the Florida Sentinel, Hartford Courant, Chicago Tribune, and other papers.



August 1, 2009

My brother (Beekeeper Don) sent these photos to me. This is fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), also known as willowherb. We don't hear a lot about the plant any more, but fireweed used to be considered the nicest nectar source for the highest quality honey by a lot of folks. Fireweed is native to North America, and as such is one of the few original sources of honey in our area. The biggest honey producers up here are alfalfa, sweetclover, alsike/dutch/white/mixed clovers, canola, and dandelion. All of these plants were imported to the Americas from distant continents. Locally, few native species supply much nectar for honey bees - that's probably proper as honey bees are also an import from a distant continent.

But fireweed was here before the rest of us. This hardy plant grows in temperate to arctic conditions (it's Yukon's floral emblem) and does well on disturbed soils. In the pictures here, alongside one of our Rocky Mountain Foothills apiaries, the ground was churned a bit for an access road some years ago by a farmer. But more typically, one finds fireweed growing in Canada's northern places where forest or prairie fires have scorched the earth. Although it produces a lovely, low-moisture, water-white honey, it can be a fickle producer of nectar. A friend in Saskatchewan relocated his bees into ten thousand hectares of lush fireweed after a local forest fire paved the way for fireweed colonization. If he had left his bees in the alfalfa field, he would have made honey. Moving them into the willowherb, they lost weight. But others have produced a hundred pounds of gorgeous honey in a week, so the risk was probably worth it. Lucky for us, we don't have to move our bees from this yard to get a hint of fireweed in our honey combs.


Fireweed, or willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) - a nice native honey plant.


August 3, 2009

Well, it's mid-summer. We've had our first hot weather - a high of 34 (93F). Kind of expect all the boxes to be full of honey by now. They are not. It's not that the season is totally dismal. The bees put up a few sections of comb honey. But only a few. We probably have 5000 finished sections on 500 hives. (Well, actually only 300 colonies were given honey supers, the other 200 hives are for moral support.) The bees look great, the skies do not. It looks like rain.



August 8, 2009

The things farmers do for a living! We just got back from a day of fun at the Alberta Sun Maze Farm. The farmers who run the Sun Maze had cut paths into their sunflower fields. We, the tourists, paid a few dollars for the privilege of getting lost on those paths. It was great fun, of course. And a pleasant day - the sun broke through strongly. The rich black soil was a bit tacky from the recent rains, but I could still navigate my Segway along the trails. This gave mobility (which is limited for me), and also positioned my head up above the sunflowers so I could find the way out whenever we had gone astray. We were lucky. We wandered upon an unlucky family from Toronto who had been confused by the maze for three days. They were living on granola bars, muddy water, and of course, sunflower seeds. We briefly considered showing them the way out.

Sunflowers are amazing creatures. Somehow they know where the sun is and they point there little faces sunward. Not all of them. At this farm, a few hapless sun-faces were staring the wrong direction. Probably they'll need remedial sun-classes. But the vast majority of the bright round faces were lost in the yellow sea of anonymity, obediently focused on their orbiting sun god. I wanted to free their spirits. To shout at them, "You don't have to do this! But maybe they do 'have to do this'. Maybe the mindless majority simply can't avoid doing what the neighbour is doing. I'm so glad we humans are constructed of stronger stuff - no Sun Gods for us.


Lost in the Alberta Sunflower Maze


August 14, 2009

My sister Jane is visiting. She's up from San Diego (California, USA) on her annual Calgary adventure. It's great to have her here! She usually drops by for a few days each summer. And usually the weather is pleasant for her. Not this year! August started out hot (for two days it was over 30), then quickly disappointed us again. Now we've had four days of heavy rain. Then a two day break of mild temperatures, then back to four more days of intense rains. We ended up with over 10 centimeters (4 inches) - something of a record for this typically parched month! We cancelled a planned trip up to Banff - too cold, too rainy. Cold? It's August, but Jane (that's her with the coat on, right) was treated to snowflakes this morning! Rain, then snowy rain, then snow. Oh my. What will the bees be thinking? On the bright side, the drought is over.

We love having visitors. Especially Jane - she appreciates being here in Canada and she is a fun person. We'd be glad to have you drop by for a few days too. The trip is not terribly expensive. Jane flew with WestJet, the Calgary-based airline that does almost everything right. A non-stop return (2-way) fare from San Diego is about $300. From Orlando (also non-stop) it's about $500. More good news - Americans don't need a passport to get into Canada. However, if you are thinking of returning to your homeland in the USA, Homeland Security will require that document for inspection on your way back. So, of course, Americans need their passport. Fortunately, it could also double as a personal identity card that you can carry everywhere you go in the USA, too, for those frequent annoying police checkpoints. If you are already Canadian, you probably won't need a passport to visit Alberta. Unless you're visiting from central Canada. Of course.





August 22, 2009

The Okotoks Big Rock. Okotoks is a pleasant town half an hour south of Calgary. Recently it has been in the news as one of the greenest places in North America. Quite a feat for a small city in the shadow of Canada's non-renewable resource capital, my hometown/oiltown Calgary. At least, Canadian Living Magazine and the CBC seem to think Okotoks is coloured green.

But long before becoming a famous solar and recycle town, Okotoks had other renewable resources. Spiritual renewal. The Big Rock occupying a farmer's field just west of Okotoks had been a place of mystery and recharging for the aboriginal community for hundreds of years. If you are a religious person, you might appreciate how some gods transported this hunk of stone to crush an enemy god and otherwise make a point about eternal power. Later the rock attacked the god Napi but bats flew out to defend Napi and they broke the rock in half. Gotta love the bats. If you can't accept supernatural explanations, you might buy the less probable tale that the world's largest glacial erratic was deposited when mile thick ice that covered the prairies melted and deposited this boulder 500 kilometers away from a rocky mountain from which it had been sheared. You would also identify the 540 million year old quartzite from which Big Rock is made.

Regardless of your personal belief systems, the rock feels dramatically misplaced on the open prairie. Worthy a family visit and a bit of gawking.


Okotok's Big Rock


August 22, 2009

Open House at our favourite Honey Spot! Chinook Honey, just west of Okotoks and east of the Big Rock we visited earlier today, held a harvest festival today. We dropped by for some honey ice cream and a few gifts for friends. Had a nice chat with Art, the beekeeper. That's him, to the left. Art concurred that the honey crop is looking a bit short this year, at least up to this moment.

We feel that a bit of hot weather might yet redeem the year's investments in bees and beekeeping labour. But it is getting late in the season. Most years, beekeepers in this part of the world are removing the last honey supers by late August and preparing for the start of our seven months of winter weather. But it is still warm - about 25 today (77F) and we have good moisture after all that cold rain that wrecked the first half of August. I'm thinking we will make a normal honey crop in the next two or three weeks. The bees are healthy and strong and the alfalfa is blooming sweetly.


Chinook Honey Open House


August 23, 2009

Hey, we're getting honey!!! The thermostat just reset to 'August' - it has been in the upper 20's (85F) for a few days now. We had the big rainfalls. The alfalfa and clovers are blooming wildly. The hives have enormous populations. The planets have aligned. The honey flow is on. Yipee!



September 1, 2009


Jim Powers, in 1985
Jim Powers. Waldo McBurney. Maybe you never heard of either of these gentlemen? Beekeepers, both. And both passed away earlier this year. Somehow they both came up in conversations recently, so I was thinking about these
famous beekeepers. I never met Mr McBurney, and I only spoke with Mr Powers two or three times. But both of these people were characters to emulate. They should be mentors - icons - with their pictures posted on classroom walls next to presidents and photos of the Queen of England. Or better, maybe replacing George Washington and Queen Elizabeth the Second.

Jim Powers (1927-2009) was possibly America's greatest commercial beekeeper. Those of us who met him at various bee meetings didn't realize he was a graduate of Harvard Business School, had served the US Army in Japan and was an Air Force Lieutenant in Korea, and later, Jim was a US Foreign Service Officer in Central America - rising to rank of vice-consul in the diplomatic corps. We knew him as the wildly successful and progressive keeper of 30,000 hives of bees spread from his home state of Idaho to Florida, Hawaii, the Dakotas and quite a few points in between. One of my cherished possessions is a letter Jim sent to me when US regulators were misled into killing bee hives with tracheal mites. He was trying to stop the slaughter. I am glad that we both stood on the same side of that contentious, divisive issue. He was a bright man and among the first to realize the folly of the government policy. Jim Powers was liberal minded and progressive in his actions. An example for us all. I was a young man entering my twenties when Mr Powers was at the top of his game: He'd show up at beekeepers' meetings in his suit and polka dot bow tie and would be frequently pulled away to answer questions or to take long distance phone calls. He was quick-witted and had a sense of humour. To me, he was the model of the beekeeper I should try to become. The Idaho Statesman has his obituary here.


Waldo McBurney, in 2007
Waldo McBurney (1902-2009) was America's oldest beekeeper. Two years ago, at age 104, he was recognized with some award indicating that he was the oldest worker in the USA. (As if living to 106 and being healthy enough to work wasn't prize enough...) In 2004, Mr McBurney wrote his autobiography - My First 100 Years - A Look Back From the Finish Line in which he described his secrets to a long healthy life - exercise, attitude, healthy food, and (of course) meaningful work.

At age 102, R. Waldo McBurney was setting international track and field records as a senior athlete, keeping his 100 colonies of bees happy, as well as gardening and traveling. If you'd like to see how Mr McBurney looked and sounded at age 104, you can see him on these two videos: CBS's Assignment America posted this video; and, also on YouTube.




September 7, 2009

The bees are doing well. It feels so odd to admit this. If you've been reading this blog over the past few months, I was griping and complaining about the poor weather and lack of honey constantly. Now I don't know what to say. It doesn't feel right. After fighting disappearing disease syndrome, a very cold summer (snow in June; frost in July), a drought, then two cold wet weeks (with some snowflakes) in early August... we really didn't expect any honey this year. But we are getting some.

We (I, my wife and the 2 extras) hadn't been to the farm for a few weeks. But this Labour Day weekend we drove the hour and half out to see Don and Ruth. There was a potato harvest and an apple collection. (As you might guess, apples are an anomaly at this latitude. These are some sort of tame crab apple, neither too sour nor too bitter, rather small in size. Probably more similar to North America's native crab apple than the stuff we buy at the grocery store, which originated in central Asia.)

As I mentioned, our bees are finally doing well this year. It looks like we will have most of our honey crop from alfalfa and clover that bloomed from late August through September. The long-range forecast is for a month of hot weather still coming. My brother Don - the beekeeper who actually does all the hard physical work with our bees - took me to see a couple of bee yards. I especially like a new yard he found about ten kilometres from the farm. It is safely and secretively placed beside a bank of caragana near a field of over a thousand acres of alfalfa. Today, the bees are thoroughly enjoying this new apiary location. It looks like one of the best of our 30 small bee spots. Because of the nature of comb honey production - with the difficult manipulations and lengthy spells in the bee yard, we limit the colony count to about 20 hives. This helps in a lot of ways - cuts down on hive-to-hive fist fights and malady drift. Here are some pictures from this week in the bee yard - remember, this is September on the prairies. Pretty unusual season!


Makin' Honey in September


September 15, 2009

BBC Teaches Bee Speak. Here's a neat idea. The BBC, in its efforts to encourage and enhance the proper use of Her Majesty's English language, has a "Learning English" series. The program selects current topics, clear-speaking announcers, and records these fun lessons for the general public - especially for new speakers of English. What better subject to talk about than beekeeping? I'm sure you agree. So did the BBC. Listen to Dima and Rebecca with this session: BBC Beekeeping Lesson. Key words include "Dwindling", "Pests", and "Pollinate". Thank you, BBC!



September 18, 2009


Don, in the honey packing shop.
Nearly all the honey is in from the field. The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) has once again inspected our shop during production and packing. This time, five agents arrived. Our farm is one of a few in Canada specializing in comb honey, so it was instructive for the CFIA to see our operation. Unnerving for us. There is always anxiety when one's livelihood is being inspected. And these inspectors were in the shop for four hours. Five people, four hours - that's twenty hours of checking. But we didn't need to be anxious; we should be grateful.

It costs money, time, and effort to keep a food processing plant as sanitary as we keep ours. If messy shops were allowed to proliferate, the lazy dirty beekeeper could provide a cheaper product than we can provide. And, obviously, a potentially less healthy and less safe product. So, despite calling ourselves 'libertarians' and being somewhat opposed to 'government interference' we have to honestly admit that food inspection agencies are helping the clean and conscientious beekeeper/packer as well as protecting the public. We passed the inspection for another year. Our licenses to sell to stores and to export abroad remain in place.

You might be interested to know that traceability and accountability are also part of Canada's inspection requirements. In the highly unlikely event that honey should need to be recalled from stores, the CFIA would need to know which honey it was and where it went. Our records were inspected. We keep track of each yard's honey (supers are marked as they are removed) so individual combs can be marked by date packed and apiary pulled. This also helps us monitor quantity and quality as well as our honey's floral sources (which vary a bit from yard to yard). Comb honey producers have a huge advantage in accountability - producers of extracted honey can't easily keep yards and production dates segregated. For them, everything runs together (after all, it's runny honey) into huge vats where in mixes and then fills anonymous drums. So an entire year's crop of several hundred thousand pounds is usually labeled as a single lot. If that producer's crop had a health quality issue, they would have to recall their entire year's production.



September 23, 2009

Hot. Record breaking, searing, scorching hot. What has happened to our weather? Still no frost down at the farm, but up here, snuggled against the Rockies, Calgary had its killing frost a few mornings ago. However, today, it's 34 C in Cow Town. That's about 92 degrees in the old-fashioned system and probably an all time record for this date for this city. So what do the bees think? I guess they are still thinking summer time.

The bees out near Milo are still hauling in honey. If the flow continues like this until mid-December, we'll have set some good results. Well, actually, we already have some really good results. Thank you weather gods!



September 25, 2009


Chilean Beekeepers Touring: Top, one of our giant bees attacking a visitor; Center, Beekeeper Sebastian Fritsch; Bottom, Sebastian, Ron, Leonardo
An interesting young beekeeper from southern Chile toured our honey farm today. He arrived with a Chilean trade commissioner. Their joint intention was to learn how to be better beekeepers and to promote Chilean queen bee production. They also used the opportunity to inquire about which qualities Canadian queen buyers seek the most. I told them. "Cheap queens." Seriously. I'd rather pay fifty dollars for a queen that will not supersede and will head a good colony than pay ten dollars if there is a chance the queen will go drone layer or be superseded or have unfavourable traits that reduce the hive's success. So, good, expensive queens are ultimately the cheap ones. With delivered spring packages costing over a hundred dollars each here in western Canada, losing twenty percent of (for example) 300 (which is what we have experienced with both Hawaiian and New Zealand origins) costs thousands of dollars. Even if you replace those bummers quickly, the production won't be the same as that from an otherwise normal package headed by a normal queen. We can demand disease-resistant stock bred for harsh winters, but if the queen producer messes up the fundamentals of proper child-rearing (and starts caging poorly mated queens reared from teeny queen cells), the superior blood-line comes to naught. (A lot like royalty in human families, eh?)

The queen breeder who can deliver excellent quality queens and disease resistant, gentle, industrious bees that survive minus forty temperatures and seven month pollen dearths - that gal or guy will have the world as their oyster. We told our visitors this. They were listening.

The top picture, to your right, shows Sebastian being attacked by one of our giant bees. Of course, we suggested that he should breed for hugeness as much as for all the other important traits we need in our bees. Bees this gigantic keep a warm body temperature during the winter better than skinny bees. And, naturally, they haul in honey by the thermos-full. The second photo was shot in one of our better overwintering locations - almost completely surrounded by a dense caragana hedge. And finally, in the bottom picture, that's me in the center, flanked by our Bad Beekeeping Book clutching visitors.

Our visitors were from the far south of Chile. They are in a new area of opening farmland and expanding beekeeping. The Patagonia region. Sebastian Fritsch is the Patagonia Beekeepers Association manager. Historically, it is a rather new group of 50 or so members. I was surprised to learn that the first honey bees were brought into Aisén Province in 1972! I didn't realize there was any part of the domesticated world where honey bees were introduced so recently. When a Chilean government commission first investigated the possibility of apiculture near the bottom of the globe, the researchers predicted that the Aisén area could support 130,000 colonies of bees. In the thirty-five years since, much more agricultural land has opened. It sounded a lot like northern Saskatchewan when I kept bees there, during the late 1970s. At that time, new pastures were being created monthly as farmers widened fields and planted wheat, canola, and alfalfa. The Saskatchewanians were modern-day homesteaders, often hippie folks, enjoying the remoteness and challenges of self-reliance. I am guessing that the farmers of the far south of Chile are not too dissimilar from the north Saskatchewan settlers.

Just a few last notes on Chile. For the past two years, we have imported Chilean queen bees from a breeder in Chile's north, about two hours from Santiago. We have been totally satisfied with that outfit's production. The queens arrived on time, alive, and apparently free of pests. Of three hundred used in 2009, only two did not last the first two months. The others developed excellent colonies. The previous year, we imported only 200 queens with similar results. That year, we found that our colonies headed by the Chileans wintered better than our other colonies. As they say, "Individual results may vary." Maybe we have been two years lucky. Much depends on the diligence of the queen breeder and the climate he/she has to work with. Chile is a very long and skinny country. The climate ranges from the driest desert in the world in the north down to glaciers in the southern mountains. There are a lot of beekeeping variables between these two inhospitable extremes. If you'd .like to learn a bit more about Chilean beekeeping and especially Aisén, you can follow this link.





September 28, 2009

Was he tired? Was the road bad? Did a tire burst? Was he driving too fast? The driver was a teenaged beekeeper, the load was his apiary. So, he might have been tired and driving a bad truck too fast on a bad road. I don't know, but I've been there and done that. All of it, except for the spilling of bees on the highway part. For years, I herded bees from Florida to Saskatchewan - usually alone - with a cargo of 600 or more packages. 4000 kilometres one way in less than three days. I don't know why I never wrecked my truck. I certainly should have - I was chronically tired and I was not an especially sharp diver. Lucky, I guess. And very relieved I never hurt anyone.

This accident happened in Turkey, near the Mediterranean resort of Marmaris. One person was killed; five others hospitalized. The BBC video is dramatic, and sad. Murat Coban, a beekeeper, said: “A friend called and told us of the accident and asked for a team to go and help. We collected ten people and came over in a minibus." There were about 600 hives involved in the accident. The beekeepers who were involved in the crash had been camping in the forests of southern Turkey since spring, taking care of their bugs, and were returning home when they crashed. One of the two teenaged beekeepers in the truck died from crash injuries.



September 29, 2009

Don has removed the last honey boxes. Bees are still gathering nectar - this has been a really, really late season for the prairies of western Canada! And it was lovely to finally get a little honey. OK, more than lovely. Probably a godsend that will keep us fooling around with bees for yet another year.



October 1, 2009

Another inspection. We are participating in a provincial program to monitor levels of varroa and nosema. The inspector, a smart and likeable character named Allen Dick, came to the farm and went with Don to check our bees. Many of you will know Allen - or at least, you may have read his online bee diary. He has had a brilliant beekeeping website running since about 1994. Allen and his wife Ellen were commercial beekeepers operating about 2000 colonies - mostly producing extracted honey, but also quite a lot of comb honey, too. About twenty years ago, when I bought my first Alberta comb honey equipment, I bought the stuff from Allen Dick. Allen is now retired from running too many hives, but he has been giving the province a hand with inspection work. Don was glad to talk to this fellow and see what we could learn about comb honey production and beekeeping in general in southern Alberta.

Don, Allen, and Don's buddy Jacques pulled bees from the brood nests of 24 random hives (selected from 4 apiaries) and wash-tested those bees for varroa. Other samples will be lab-analyzed in Edmonton for nosema. From 7200 bees sampled, they found 39 mites. There were none in any of the hives that began 2009 as packages. The only infected hives were otherwise strong-looking colonies that started the year overwintered. Here are the results:


Varroa Mites Found per 300 Bee Sample.
Packages Overwintered Overwintered Splits
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
5
0
5
0
0
25
0
0
2
2
0
-
0
0
-
0
0
-
-
0
-
-


October 3, 2009

Our primary nectar source here is alfalfa. And it is still blooming. Still yielding some nectar. Alfalfa is a bushy-looking plant that loves sunny dry weather and can grow to a couple of meters in height. You might be more familiar with its tamed versions - with purple flowers and with vegetation kept to a manicured stature. That's the alfalfa grown by dairy farmers and their suppliers in Wisconsin and California. In those - and many other places - alfalfa is often cut before it has much bloom. Not the best scenario for the bees. In your location, you might not even think of alfalfa as much of a honey plant - because of the frequent haircuts and because of some things you might not have thought about. Back in the Pennsylvania - where I spent my childhood - alfalfa did not yield nectar. The soil was broken down Appalachian Precambrian rocks, which are basically granites and therefore acidic. Potatoes do well in acid soils, but clovers and alfalfa suffer. This is one reason Idaho (the potato state) has about a fifty pound honey crop average while next door Montana averages over a hundred pounds per year. Idaho (like southern British Columbia) has acidic soil from ancient basaltic volcanoes and even more ancient Precambrian granites. Montana has rich alkali limestone-based soils derived from the Triassic thrust sheets of the Rockies. That, plus the rain-shadow of the Rocky Mountains, gives Montana's cowboys great soil and weather for growing nice alfalfa and clover crops for their livestock. So, Idaho's honey tends to be from exotics like sunflowers and star thistle. There are, of course, places in Idaho with bright sunshine and lime-rich soils where beekeepers can make some nice alfalfa and clover honey. But these are not the potato-growing area. If you'd like to see a good example of a progressive Idaho honey farm, here is an excellent Idaho beekeeper's web site.

Alfalfa, as we know it out here in western Canada, can produce a lot of nectar per hectare. The honey is water-white. And due to our arid climate, it has a low moisture content. Alfalfa grows wild here - an irresponsible weed sheltering bunnies and birdies, feeding deer and antelope, quenching the palate of bees and butterflies. In contrast to the neatly mowed golf-course-smooth purple hay fields of the east and west coasts, Alberta alfalfa fields are wrangley and irregular. Varying heights. Myriad colours. Often mixed with sweet clover and timothy grass. Due to chronic drought and a short growing season, local ranchers usually cut their hay just once a year. After clipping, the shorter regrowth blooms sweetly until fall frost. (October, this year; some years frost arrives in August here.) Did I mention that alfalfa is not always purple? Here's the proof:


Alberta's Colourful Alfalfa.



October 6, 2009

Tragic news. Beekeeper Bob, a quiet and polite public educator and renowned figure in the world of apiculture... has gone missing. Bob, never known to have disturbed the peace, scolded the general public, nor written a beekeeper's blog, has disappeared into the night. The public has been alerted through intensive media coverage. Beekeeper Bob was last spotted at his workplace at the freshwater fisheries education building in Athens, Texas. He was wearing bee veil, gloves, and whitesuit. This might make him hard to identify as he looks much like all the other plastic-brained North American beekeepers. Nevertheless, if you spot this handsome six-foot tall plastic model of a beekeeper, you are urged to talk him into going home to his family.



October 9, 2009

Winter? In October? We have fall here, not autumn. "Autumn" sounds buoyant, jolly. Evocative of hay rides, pumpkin picks. No autumn in Alberta. Instead, we get "fall" - and boy, does it ever. The leaves fall, the spirit falls, and especially the thermometer falls. The past few days have been frigid by anyone's meager standards - we will have a "high" of minus 7 C (about 20 F) but with the wind, we are feeling minus 20. The temperature actually dropped to minus 19 this morning, over in nearby Banff.

The bees, of course, are not prepared for winter yet. Don has relocated about 200 hives from the open prairie, pulling the hives into the Milo, Alberta, area. He is using a low trailer which can carry about thirty double-storey hives without stacking. He lifts these colonies by hand in the wee hours of the morning (actually, around 5 a.m.) and hauls the hives to wintering spots close to the farm. These wintering spots have better access roads so the hives can be worked in muddy March; and, the locations have good wind shelters surrounding the apiaries. It is hard work for him, lifting seventy kilo (hundred-fifty pound) colonies by hand. But he feels the move will give the bees a major wintering advantage.

I feel cheated. An old cowboy who lives across the gravel from one of our foothills bee yards wrote a song some years ago. One of the lines in the melody goes something like this: "Think I'll go out to Alberta, weather's good there in the fall..." Ian Tyson's tune, Four Strong Winds, was turned gold by Neil Young and a few others. OK, Ian, where's the good weather. In the troubadour's defense, a little later he adds, "...the winds, they sure get cold, way out there." If you don't know the song, here are two choices for you from YouTube - Neil Young's and Ian Tyson's Four Strong Winds (That makes eight strong winds, right?)

Ian Tyson with Sylvia Tyson, Emmy Lou Harris, and Gordon Lightfoot:

And here is Neil Young, singing the same song, but higher:



October 12, 2009

Thanksgiving. Canada has been celebrating the holiday for 450 years now. It all started with Martin Frobisher's first Thanksgiving in 1578 - about 40 years before the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving. This was in North America's second permanent settlement, a village founded by Frobisher in Newfoundland, Canada. Or maybe not. Frobisher's thankful grace is contested. However, by 1604, Samuel de Champlain was holding Jour de l'Action de Grâce in Quebec. But in all cases, American and Canadian, the original North American settlers who moved here from Siberia in the mid-15,000's (BCE) - were already celebrating fall feasts of thanks without European help.

Canadian Thanksgiving is the second Monday of October. It used to be November 6, but an Act of Parliament (1957) moved the day to mid-October. It has different - non-Pilgrim - origins from the American Thanksgiving. That's why it is on a different date. The Americans started off with Thanksgiving celebrated in early November, too, but this was too close to the fixed fall election dates held there. There was apparently just too much confusion. You know, people showing up at the polling station with buckets of KFC drumsticks and cranberries. So, an Act of Congress moved the date to a Thursday closer to Christmas to encourage holiday shopping. Or so we've been told. But perhaps Americans have long held late November as the appropriate feast day of thanks giving. In Canada, it is simply too cold by then. So, we celebrate in October.

Is any of this important? I think so. History matters. So does gratitude. Hope you have had or will soon have a thankful Thanksgiving Day.



October 13, 2009

It is still cold here. After our hot September, this cold October weather has the bees severely confused. It was minus 15 this morning. Today's high won't even begin to resemble anything high. Oh well, it's time for the bees to quit rearing brood and settle down for five months of dormancy. Five months without flowers. What a boring time for the bees. And the beekeepers.



October 16, 2009

A grizzly attack. We were relatively lucky all summer. We had no bear attacks on our hives until now. However,one of our best-protected foothills apiaries was invaded by a known nuisance grizzly lady bear who has been seen in the neighbourhood eating calves and training her twins on the fine art of survival amongst human settlements. Don says the bear dug under our impassable double-layered chain-link fencing. The bear tunnel was two feet deep and four feet wide, according to my brother. The grizzlies were fattening up and it looked to Don like the bears were after grubs (bee larvae and bugs in the ground, under the hives) as they mostly were digging around in the dirt under the boxes they wrecked. During the late fall, a grizzly may consume 45 kg (100 lbs) of food in a single day, allowing gains of about 2 kg in fat per day. Don plans on moving these hives out of bear country.

Three years ago, my brother Don had a serious argument with a brown bear. It happened like this. Don drove into one of our best and oldest apiaries in the foothills of the Rockies. A pleasant place with alfalfa and wild clovers all around. An apiary sheltered by trees with good air drainage to the south. As he approached this yard, driving across a hay meadow, he saw a brown bear sitting among the hives. Don drove close to the animal and blasted his horn, hoping to startle her and get her running. The bear would not startle. So my brother - 100 kilo, 186 cm (that's 6'1" and 220 pounds) - charged out of the truck, yelling and waving his arms. The bear slowly ambled away. But Don figured he couldn't let the bear get away so leisurely, else it would surely return. So he kept chasing it, farther and farther away from the safety of his truck. The bear remained calm, but finally stopped, turned towards Don. Then the bear stood up and grinned. This 250 kilogram brown bear was on two legs, towering two heads over my brother. Don had an 'uh-oh' moment. The bear could have swatted my brother unconscious, but just kept grinning, then slowly turned, returned to its four legged posture, and continued casually away from the apiary.

We have never shot a bear. Our strategy has been to generally avoid the worst of bear country, otherwise we fence the apiaries - usually with electric wires that deliver a startling but non-lethal shock to the animal. As beekeepers, there are things we can do to limit the bears' diets. Keeping our fences in good order; keeping our bee yards clean! Scraps of honey and wax carelessly tossed on the ground while working the bees is a big attraction for any bear. If you are a beekeeper with bear problems, here is a fact sheet posted on the web by smart people at Penn State.

The bee/bear mix has been a recurring theme in popular culture. About eighty years ago (in 1932), Walt Disney created this Silly Symphonies cartoon called The Bears and the Bees. If you are a beekeeper, you'll especially enjoy the scene of the skinny bees gorging at the flowers and flying home bloated. (You'll enjoy the bees' revenge on the mean old grizzly even more.) Watch this clip that I've linked here from YouTube:


 

If you think bear attacks on beehives are a uniquely local phenomenon, you will be surprised by these:

Japan: from Yamada Bee Farm - Bear Attack, July 2009:
"Originally, bears lived deep in the mountains, eating tree sprouts and nuts as well as fish. Recently, however, they have been approaching areas close to villages because they can no longer find sufficient food in the wild. This is due to deforestation and the planting of conifer trees...On the morning of July 10, I rushed to the bee farm of our company in Koshihata located in the northernmost part of the town on receipt of a report from the town office of Kagamino. When I arrived at the bee farm, I immediately felt there was something unusual in the air. Several beehives had been overturned and some of them had been eaten away. Honeybees whose beehives had been damaged were flying about. The scattered honeycomb plates must have contained larvae of bees and honey, but they were eaten together with the honeycomb plates...At the foot of Mt. Izumi, which is the highest mountain in Kagamino Town and at an altitude of about 600 m, the bee farm under the chestnut trees is the most suitable place for honeybees to pass the summer."
Stillwater, Minnesota: from Jim's Bee Blog - Bear Claws Under the Honey House Wall, September 2007:
"I had a visitor last night. A Black Bear (Ursus americanus).
It was trying to break into my honey house. Lucky for me it came up short.
I think my Golden Retriever (Canis lupus familiaris) put the run on him.
My wife heard the dog barking.
A pail of wax cappings was tipped over and a few honey bees (Apis mellifera) were robbing off the cappings, the bear did consume some of the cappings.
My bee yard has a electric fence ( joltus hurtus) around it, and was untouched."
- Jim
Sri Lanka: from The Daily Mirror - Man Attacked by Bear while Honey Hunting, December 2008:
A man was seriously injured on Saturday when a bear attacked him when he had gone to collect bees honey in a forest reserve, police said.
They said the victim had gone to the forest early on Saturday to collect bees honey when the bear had pounced on him, seriously injuring one of his eyes. The bear had withdrawn to the jungle when farmers from the nearby chenas had rushed to the scene after hearing the cries of the victim. Police said the victim who was rushed to the Habarana hospital was later transferred to the Ampara hospital for urgent medical treatment. They said villagers did not heed police warnings asking them not to risk their lives by entering the forest reserve
The Sloth Bear is the most feared non-human animal in Sri Lanka. The 100 kg (220 lb) bear is known to climb trees and endure attacks by swarming bees to reach the honeycombs.
Picture of a Sloth Bear by Lakshman Nadaraja.
Thessaly, Greece: from Patentiaris Bee Blog Hobby Beekeeper Wiped Out by Bears - December 2008:
"My bees are located in Pindos, at the entry of a big gorge that separates the mountains Itamos and Koziakas, which also links the Thessaly with the Ipirous, 18 km west of Trikala.
The bear visited us at 1 km distance from our village, making damage in most of the equipment of five beekeepers - three of whom where professional beekeepers!!!
To me, the amateur, the damage was almost absolute! ! !"


October 22, 2009

Tom Rasberry and his Crazy Ants
Successful beekeeping is impossible. Maybe we should all just quit. Beekeepers have seen American foulbrood become resistant to medications; queens fall to septicemia; bee guts rot out from new variants of nosema; varroa mutants thrive against miticides. Bears, bufo toads, and Japanese wasps want to eat our bees. Sneaky new arrivals like the dirty hive beetles hide in the hives. So why are we surprised now to learn about yet another hive invader? Ants have always loved to attack colonies and steal honey, pollen, and bees for food. But a 'new' ant with the likeable name "Rasberry crazy ant" appears to be having lunch at beekeepers' expense in south Texas.

The Rasberry Crazy Ants. Sounds like a 60s rock band. Not a misspelling. Tom Rasberry is a certified entomologist hired by NASA to exterminate troubling critters invading space suits and other rocketry equipment at the Houston Space Center. He named the ants "Crazy Ants" but the rest of us call them Rasberry Crazy Ants. Tom identified these nuisance ants in 2002. Now they are showing up all over south Texas, infiltrating petrochemical factories and - of course - bee hives.

“Crazy ants’ll eat the baby bees. These ants will come in and lay up to 100 eggs in just this one cell," beekeeper Bill Whittington of Dickinson Texas explained to reporter Alex Sanz from KHOU TV. Scientists have classified the ants as a nuisance, not an actionable pest, which means there is little research and few state and federal resources to stop their spread. And they have spread to over 14 Texas counties - including into Houston. “At this point and time, all the beekeepers can do is actually run from the ants,” Rasberry said. “I believe it’ll probably devastate their businesses in the southern region of the United States in the coming years.” Whittington, who once tended to well over 1,000 bee hives, now he has fewer than 800. “Somebody, somewhere has got to do something to stop them,” Whittington said of the ants. The TV news clip is informative and interesting and available here.



October 25, 2009

"Dear Mariella, I am more interested in bees and reading about beekeeping than in having sex, and it is affecting my marriage." So begins the October 25 note to self-help columnist Mariella Frostrup of the U.K. Guardian newspaper. She responds with knowing wisdom. Curious? Do you similarly suffer? Check out her column yourself.



October 26, 2009

That's a wrap. It's a bit early in the season, but Don has wrapped all the hives in stylish winter outerwear. Why do we cover our hives here? Well, how would you like to be left standing in a field for seven months of miserably cold winter weather - without a coat? It will be minus thirty during the next few months. But worse than that, our part of Canada also has enough winter wind to drive several billion mega-watt turbines. And most of that wind is pointed towards our unfortunate bee hives. So, the winter wrappers are mostly to keep wind from whistling through the boxes. We add a small bit of insulation within the wraps, mostly just over the lids. This keeps some of the heat the bees generate from escaping. You certainly know that warm air rises, so the best heat barrier is placed at the top of the hives. Where does the heat come from inside the hives? Not cozy little fireplaces as you might expect. The colony's winter warmth is supplied by the body heat of the 40,000 bees per hive rubbing their legs and twitching their muscles. The energy for this body heat comes from the honey the bees saved to eat during the winter. This results in a brood nest temperature as warm as Hawaii on a hot afternoon.

This is a new look for us.
Normally, we wrap the hives in groups of 2 or 4 colonies,
as you see in the next picture.
We are experimenting with this chain of hives
as it is a more efficient use of wrapping material.
Although this system increases the drift of bees from hive-to-hive,
at least all the colonies have the advantage of a south view.
More typical.
This is the way we usually wrap the hives.
Each pallet has 4 colonies, two of which face disastrously
north or west towards the birthplace of the cold and wind.
I think the best arrangement for wintering on the open
prairies is to have the bees in groups of two,
each group facing south. The trees for windbreaks are required.


October 27, 2009

According to Fineko Baku's AzerBroadcasting, Azerbaijanianites now have an added layer of protection between themselves and honeybees. "In order to fulfill Points 1.8 and 1.12 of President Ilham Heydar oglu Aliyev's decree, Cabinet Ministers have approved "Rules of placement of beegardens far from medical, educational institutions, schools, colleges and universities, and enterprises in order to protect population." If you are considering Azerbaijanian Beekeeping, be aware that your "bee gardens must be located 1 - 3 km from densely populated places; 5 km from chemical and confectionery enterprises, 1.5 km from medical, educational institutions, schools, colleges and universities, 1 km from the enterprises of cattle-breeding and poultry industry." With 2 million cattle and buffalo and 18 million chickens, this sounds like anti-beekeeping legislation - almost nowhere in the country will bees be legal. I doubt things are much more enlightened where you are.



October 30, 2009

Nosema test results arrived by mail today. Inspectors for the Alberta Provincial Apiculture Department kindly sampled and tested honey bees from a small (but hopefully, representative) collection of bee guts from our bee hives. Nosema cerana is a wicked illness currently implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder, aka "Honey Bee Disappearing Disease". We didn't see any obvious signs of this problem this year, but so many other beekeepers have been suffering huge losses that we have been trying and testing all manner of preventive systems to try to keep our bees healthy. It is hard work and expensive, but we favour the natural routes to healthy bees - including vigorous queens, lots of pollen and natural honey in the hives at all times, small stationary apiaries, no open-drum group feedings, and frequent replacements of old well-used brood frames.

Finally, how did our bees score? Eleven of the twelve amalgamated samples showed ZERO nosema spores. The other sample had a trivial level of nosema. Our excellent results are at least partially due to the techniques outlined just above. But we also used Fumagilin-B, applied at 5 day intervals for a month in the spring. The medication's proven benignity and efficacy have been noted for a long time. I wrote about our application system for Fumagilin-B and the threat of nosema cerana in this earlier blog entry. It seems to have been successful.



October 31, 2009

Halloween. Those of you with over-active memories may recall this entry as being spookingly similar to my blogspot from November 1 of last year. Not much has changed in the past year. Our home-grown goblins are a bit taller. Their costumes are tighter. Beekeepers tend to outfit some of their hapless offspring in fuzzy yellow and black suits. This year we broke with that tradition as the seven year-old doesn't want to be a bee and the three year-old has always been nothing but a princess. A couple years ago, Daniel was our resident bee. (This is he and Erika to the right, Halloween 2003.)

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 Walmart's best and then chase them down the street with wheelbarrows to cart away their Martian wonder bars and Slither crisps. I know, the modern way is better for the economy, but somehow I feel something is missing.

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 drippy 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 12, 2009

Bermuda as a queen-exporting country? Seeking to take advantage of its isolated mid-Atlantic location and mild climate, the territory of Bermuda is investigating queen bee exporting. Bermuda's Environment Minister told Parliament in a Throne Speech: "Bermuda's ideal location in the middle of the ocean has helped its bees stay clear of the natural and man-made threats endangering bees in the US, Canada and Europe." So, the British colony is looking at exporting its queens to Canada, the USA, and Europe.

Bermuda is fortunate to have a good nectar and pollen climate. Bees have been kept in Bermuda since 1616 - that's longer than honeybees have been in the USA or Canada. The 30 part-timers (and one commercial beekeeper) do well enough - averaging about 50 kg/hive/year. At Bermuda's latitude (about equal to North Carolina) spring starts in April with fair honey flows (Wild Viburnum, Sage Bush, Giant Privet) until first honey harvest, in July. Much of Bermuda's 125 pound average crop comes from fall-blooming Brazilian pepperbush. Queens could be produced here, but the season would need to be pushed a little to get the bees ready for export in April and May.

But before we get too excited, we need some facts about Bermuda's geography. The country is made up of the 138 islands - and some of it is beach and some is building. But there should be enough space (if we seriously crowd the country's hotels and resorts) for about 1000 hives of bees. This would be the density of hives in many good honey producing areas. It about equals the distribution of one 50-hive apiary on every square mile. Presently, Bermuda has about 500 colonies, so this would just double the number.

Unfortunately. Yea, there is always a down-side. The agriculture minister (Daniel Hilbirn) points out that "the long-term future of beekeeping in Bermuda is not bright. Sixty thousand residents now crowd on to Bermuda’s 52 sq km (20 square miles). Undeveloped land is quickly disappearing as is cultivated land: reduced to just 122 ha (300 ac), a 90% reduction from early this century. Unfortunately for the bees, nectar-producing plants are less abundant in artificial landscapes. And it is becoming more and more difficult for beekeepers to find suitable sites for their hives."

Still, the pursuit of a queen exporting business in Bermuda is wonderfully intriguing. Any "disease free", isolated country with a mild climate and willing population should be eligible for consideration as a queen-bee exporting locale. Obviously, bureaucrats from around the world would need to fly to Bermuda and spend a few weeks inspecting the place (and the bees). This would be a tedious and challenging task, probably best achieved by working only from perhaps 10 a.m. to maybe noon each day. The balance of the day could be spent assuring the stability of the country's economy by copious applications of foreign currency - derived from taxpayer's coffers, of course. Representatives from the Canadian federal government, and each of the provinces and territories should make separate fact-finding excursions to assure that through multiplicity of data, and independent investigations, Bermuda's bees would be satisfactorily inspected for import into Canada. Obviously, the USA, Europe, and most other regimes would also need to do their own independent assessments.

How many queens could be produced in Bermuda? For a modest fee, even I would be tempted to fly from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to Hamilton, Bermuda, and do a thorough study. But here is my (partially) educated guess: In about four years, Bermuda could export about 10,000 queens per year. But this would take a lot of expansion, a lot apiaries and a lot of skill. And it likely won't happen. But I am hoping for the good people of the islands.






November 15, 2009

An Alberta Salt Lake

We made a long over-due trip to the farm. My brother Don keeps everything running smoothly there. He has harvested all the honey; wrapped all the bees. Honey packing is in full swing. The honey freezer (minus 24 degrees) is humming. Sales are picking up. The business doesn't need my shadow.

But I always enjoy a trip out of town. My seven-year old especially enjoys his adventures at the farm - usually including some combination of wood, nails, fires, and tractors. The drive - a bit more than an hour from Calgary to Milo - takes us past the ranch where the Butch Cassidy's Sundance Kid worked near High River, along the edge of the Frank Lake watershed, past the driveways of a couple of Hutterite colonies, near the Frankburg Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, then over the snowy Buffalo Hills, and finally through the Snake Creek valley to the honey farm.

The journey sounds so picturesque; historical; enticing. But it was mostly bleak, windy, and dry. We'd had a sear spring. However, a wet August - an unusual soaking - saved our bees and our honey farm. But September again scorched the earth and the desiccation resumed. Now - mid-November - we can see the results of the prolonged drought. Frank Lake is almost gone - evaporated; leaving behind a white salty alkali. For Frank Lake to leave us is ominous - the High River Times reported its disappearance once before, on August 17, 1933. That was the parched heart of the depression's dust bowl and with the water went the 25 Mormon families who had settled Frankburg along the eastern edge of the lake. Similarly, ponds, dug-outs, sloughs, and puddles - the blood of Alberta's cattle ranching - were also nearly evaporated along our trail from Calgary to the farm.

What makes a lake turn salty? Basically, it's the balance between rain and evaporation. Here on the western plains, that balance shifts: lakes expand; then contract a few years later. During extended hot dry spells, much water evaporates into the sky, sucking even more water up from the subsurface. Meanwhile, soil minerals dissolved in that rising water are also pulled to the surface by the capillary effect. Obviously these minerals (alkaloids, or salts, here on our very limey alkali prairies) are left behind when the water is vaporized. Sort of a water rapture with the sinful salts left glaring at the skies. Such was the lot of Lot's salty wife, long ago in a similar dreadful environment.

I guess we'll learn more about that if our climate continues to warm. We will be the crusty salts left clinging to a desiccated planet while the pure are lifted to the skies by the vengeful sun. Or something like that.




November 24, 2009

Steve Vai, when not smoking bees.

Because you are reading this bee blog, chances are you've never heard of Steve Vai. Beekeepers and bee enthusiasts are rarely rock music enthusiasts and even less likely to have heard of this Grammy-winning guitarist who is also a long-time beekeeper.

Steve (turning 50, married, 2 kids) doesn't seem to fit the definition of consummate rocker - he's a guy who was friends with Zappa, Johnny Rotten, and Deep Purple's Satriani. Steve was in the news this week, talking bees with Spinner.ca. He sells his honey in on-line auctions with proceeds going to Make a Noise Foundation - a nonprofit charitable 501(c)3 that helps under-privileged youngsters make noises (through music, of course). Visit his page, buy some of his Fire Island Honey, and help Steve help kids.




November 25, 2009

Thinking about Steve Vai, (as you can, too, if you read the entry just above) I was reminded of how people from so many different walks of life, various parts of the globe, and disparate philosophies and experiences have dabbled in beekeeping. Grammy-winning rock guitarist Steve Vai, but also the gentle metaphysicist Richard Taylor, the Vietnamese general (and physician) Le Quy Quynh, Matt Damon, Tolstoy, Aristotle, Lord Baden (founder of the Boy Scouts), President Yushchenko, Sir Edmund Hillary (he kept 1200 hives, even after climbing Everest), and quite a few other characters with similarly diverse backgrounds. There are a few lists on the web, if you'd like to see more members of this non-exclusive club: Duck, Duck, British Beekeepers', Wikipedia, and Bad Beekeeping.




December 17, 2009

Blossoming Banana and its Pollen.

We are back in Calgary, after a quick Mexican holiday. With Calgary's howling minus 40 winds (our friends in Edmonton reported minus 46, without the chill factor!), we could not have picked a better week to escape the prairies. But now, touching down in Canada, our bodies are very reluctantly adjusting to the 60 degree drop (Celsius) in temperature (from 88 to minus 42 Fahrenheit is a 130 degree drop, for those of you with minds still functioning in imperial units). We didn't do any beekeeping in Mexico, just spent time swimming with the sharks. And building sand castles with the kids. We were on the Yucatan Peninsula, an area renowned for its honey surplus. Almost all Yucatan honey is derived from native plants that ooze copious quantities of nectar. Much to the advantage of the 900,000 colonies of bees tended by 20,000 peninsula beekeepers.

Isn't that remarkable? The area evolved without honey bees (which were introduced in 1911), yet supports dozens of species of plants which yield enormous amounts of readily accessible nectar. The European (now Africanized) honey bees produce hundreds of tonnes of honey here. Evolutionary biologists will point out that the nectar plants developed in tandem with a nectar-gathering bee native to southern Mexico and Central America. This non-honey-bee honey-making stingless bee, Apidae Melipona beecheii, had dominated the nectar-procuring niche for millenia and was kept in semi-domestic abodes by the Maya, storing tiny quantities of real honey that the natives used for medicine and food. These bees are still present - they annoyed us after a thunderstorm by eating chunks of our skin when we wouldn't let them drink from our juice mugs. But the number of stingless bees kept in hives and their ancient skilled masters have each dwindled in quantity. Not so much as a result of the introduction of European bees, but rather as a result of the simple economics of aboriginal beekeeping - the beemasters' children make more money in a week of serving drinks at resorts than the beekeepers could earn in a year from their hives. So the hives and the elderly beekeepers are abandoned to age and to die. Melipona still exists, rarer now that they are seldom cared for by their shamans (who knew that the bee was a link to the Spirit World, given to them by the bee god, Ah Muzen Cab), but the bees' blister-sac nests of thick wax comb can still be found in hollow tree trunks in the jungle.

Nectar and pollen sources include various palm species and mangrove. But unique to the area are Dzidzilché (Gymnopodium floribundum), a woody bush producing a tiny pale green flower from March through May; and Tajonal (Viguiera dentata) or “toothleaf goldeneye”, a bright yellow wildflower blooming from December through February.

Even the banana bush yields nectar and pollen - these clinging to the underside of their peculiar dark-coloured flowers, young members of a future banana bunch. As part of our children's education, biology class (shown to your right) consisted partly of recovering pollen from banana blossoms. Pity I hadn't brought our microscope on this expedition.




December 24, 2009

Stats Canada's 2009 honey production numbers have been published in at least one place on the web. Canadian beekeepers produced 64.8 million pounds of honey in 2009 (down slightly from '08) with average hive yields of 115 pounds (116 pounds last year). Alberta was once again the most productive province in the country - we have 10% of the country's beekeepers, but produce 40% of Canada's honey. Good things happen when governments don't hinter, but help, business. Alberta has the best business environment of any province in Canada, and thus the lowest rates of poverty and the highest living standards. It just all seems to work together that way. If you'd like to read Alberta's honey statistics (without my political interference), you can try this web site.

Further to Canada's numbers, we've got just 576,000 colonies of bees and an estimated 6700 beekeepers. Honey sales were worth around $105 million in 2009. This doesn't compare well with Canada's maple syrup business. The trees produce more than the bees - 9.1 million gallons of maple syrup against 5 million gallons of honey. And since maple syrup costs more than honey, the total value of maple syrup ($354 million) was more than three times the value of Canada's honey!




Wishing YOU a Buzzing Happy New Year!!

December 31, 2009

Well, looks like we've survived another year. Who would have thought?

2010. To us old timers, it still sounds like a number from the distant future. A date from a science fiction saga.

"...it was winter, 2010, and Org nudged his space cruiser towards the charred remains of the holosphere, not certain the bioterras had survived the micro-blasts, but knowing that he must find Bayla - even if she was still destined to beam her spaligula towards the B-Bop Galaxy."

2010. That's the way it was supposed to be. But we still lift our honey supers by arm-power, cage queens with bare hands, sort honey combs by eye. Our future is still our past; beekeeping hasn't changed its socks in a hundred years - smokers, extractors, hives, frames - almost identical to what Grandpa's grandfather might have used. Org may continue looking for Bayla, but he'll ignore those pesky beekeepers tending their bee hives with ancient tools. I like it this way.

Happy New Year to you all...














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