January 1, 2010
Welcome to this new decade. If you are one of the dozens who have been following my Beekeeper's Home Pages since it started in October, 1995, welcome to our 15th continuous year on the web. Chances are, this is the year we will get our one millionth viewer (seriously) - it sure is nice to have lived this long and to have made this tiny contibution to society's rather dismal concern for the honey bee. I'm not a bee scientist, nor even much of a beekeeper. But I have been getting stung for about 50 years now, so I have some things to say. But please don't explode your smoker from the rantings and ravings I serve on these pages. Keep cool in your bee veil. Not even I believe everything I write or report on - and I'm pretty gullible. I just hope that some of my drivel will inspire some occasional thought about honey bees.
My main beekeeper's page is called The Beekeepers' Home Pages which has a name that goes back to the early days of the internet. In the early 1990s, when I started to learn html coding, almost everybody's website was called a "Home Page" - so I thought that's what you have to name the product. When my site was launched, there were only two other websites in the world dedicated to beekeeping - the American Adam Finkelstein was probably the first and Allen Dick's honeyworld.com site was likely second, though I'm not sure because our Beekeepers' Home Pages was already on the net when I discovered his wonderful site. Surprisingly, both Allen and I are in Alberta, Canada. What are the odds that the first bee sites in the world would have developed (independently) in the same neighbourhood? My site was originally associated with Compuserve, one of the few providers available at the time (at least for those of us who are not computer geeks). In early 2009, Compuserve died and took our web address with them. Fourteen years of building links and connections to our address vanished. Our site fell from Number One on Google's search engines to something far less desirable. I didn't know Compuserve was going out of business (maybe they didn't either) but I had already started making plans for alternative services, which obviously I had to quickly implement! Now we have clawed our way back up to Google's front page when you search for "beekeeping" pages. A huge advantage in our site and service change is we no longer have a cumbersome 35-character Compuserve address. The new address (badbeekeeping.com) is named after my first book (and my beekeeping skills).
I've decided to try to be a better informed beekeeper this year. Instead of making up all my facts and figures, I've been considering doing some research before I publish. No, just kidding - that would be too much work! OK. I'm tangential again. I really do keep up. My favourite magazines are Bee Culture, American Bee Journal, Hivelights, BeeScene, Alberta Bee News, and, of course, the Economist. Go to these sources and some of the many exceptional books published in the past few years for real facts and figures. On my websites you will mostly get ideas, opinions, and entertainment... and a few stories that no one else wanted to deal with!
January 1, 2010Found in one of this year's Holiday Crackers: Q: Savez-vous comment les abeilles communiquent entre elles? R: Par E-miel.
January 5, 2010
Summit Gardens Honey Traditional Wooden Section Dr CC Miller, Assembling 1880s - Cut Glass Rings From Dr Richard Taylor - 1958 ABJ Round Comb, Freed of the Rings Hungary's Pohl Rounds
Our bees make comb honey in round sections. It's not a new idea - these round things have been 'around' since at least the 1880s. The round comb honey sections that our Summit Gardens Honey Farms famously produces is now considered the "normal" way to make and sell bits of comb honey. We like round sections for a number of reasons - honey produced in sections is totally unprocessed, unfiltered, un-everything bad, even un-touched by human hands. It is exactly the way the bees intended to give it to us. From honey and wax are given both of the noble gifts Jonathan Swift said bees provide to man - "Sweetness and Light". So, it has intrinsic beauty and it tastes good. From a practical point of view, making honey in round plastic allows the bees to produce a more complete and more standard-weight comb. With the old-fashioned square comb, corners were typically unfinished and weights varied quite a bit between combs offered for sale.
Long before we came along, honey was always harvested in the comb. In the very old days, honey was cut out in chunks and eaten with the wax, brood, and bees; or, squeezed, pressed, or otherwise danced upon by the bare feet of village maidens until liquid honey was achieved. (Until the dismal honey extractor was invented in central Europe, about 1865, and disrupted this grand tradition.) Nevertheless, for non-runny honey, sections became the standard. They tended to be encased in wood and they were generally rectangular (and usually square, 11 cm on each side). But the round idea also existed way back then - for a hundred years, people have been allowing their bees to produce sections of round comb honey inside the hive, first inside glass rings, then with plastics.
But before the invention of round sections, comb honey usually occupied little wooden square boxes. Those square boxes were invented in 1857 by JS Harbison, a beekeeper from western Pennsylvania who settled in San Diego, California. JS Harbison developed a fabulous honey business, shipping sections of comb honey by the train car load west from California to New York City. His square wooden little boxes of comb honey caught on across America, then the world. Soon, all serious makers of comb honey sections used a form of the Harbison box. About this time, another beekeeper from western Pennsylvania - CC Miller - entered the comb honey world. CC, as he was usually called, was a physician who decided to become a beekeeper, moved to Illinois, and set records for production through his brilliant skills with honey bees. He wrote much about comb honey beekeeping, especially in his classic - 50 Years Among the Bees - where he gave much practical advice mixed in his chatty memoir. If you are considering comb honey beekeeping, his is a great story, though many of his 1910 suggestions are now out of date. By the way, you can download his complete book in PDF format for free, here.
Wood was the 'traditional' material for comb honey section production. At first, the dainty boxes were nailed together from skinny boards. An almost impossible job. Then, in 1879, James Forncrook figured out a way to bend one long soft piece of wood into a square by notching grooves where the beekeeper needed to fold the wood. But such wood had to be soft, pliable, bendable – able to wrap around the wax foundation and house the comb of honey. The best tree for this use in North America is a native deciduous beauty called Basswood, aka Linden, or Tilia americana. When wooden comb honey squares were being filled by the millions early last century, old-growth basswoods were being felled by the thousands. To add salt to the wound, this same tree provided much of the whitest, most pleasant honey filling those boxes. To me, as a child growing up in a family producing basswood honey in the east, it seemed rude. So, today we are using recyclable plastics instead.
Back in the late 1880s, the apiculture journals carried stories and even drawings (left) of round comb sections being filled in the hives. In an 1889 article, T. Bonner Chambers suggested slicing glass jars into what seems to have been a precursor of the modern round section's rings. According to Dr Richard Taylor, "Chambers suggested getting round glass sections by somehow slicing up glass jars and inserting these slices in wooden frames, four per frame. His drawing for this idea bears such a striking resemblance to the modern circular section one wonders whether that might have been where the modern invention really came from." The idea was there, but the glass tended to break while slicing and in those days no one had the vision to mass produce the rings and ship them out to beekeepers. But is Richard Taylor's guess correct, is this early experiment really where the round section invention really came from?
We won't know the answer to that, of course. The gentleman who receives the credit for the modern invention, a retired physician from (get ready) western Pennsylvania designed the round section device which he called Cobanas in 1954. Dr Wladyslaw Zbikowski (1896-1977) was born in Beaver Falls, PA, but educated in Russia and Poland. He started keeping bees in 1953, after retiring from medicine. Dr Zbikowski made the modern plastic round section the very next year. So, the modern plastic rounds have been with us for almost sixty years! Incredible. Dr Richard Taylor again: "It was a retired physician and hobby beekeeper (Dr Wladyslaw Zbikowski) who invented the modern circular section in the early 1950s. In 1956, and for the next twenty years, I went about proclaiming the merits of these still relatively unknown circular sections. Dr Zbikowski had revolutionized comb honey production with what he called Cobana Sections."
In the American Bee Journal photo from 1958 seen to your left, Richard Taylor introduced the Cobana section to the masses of beekeepers. Taylor says that Dr Z, the inventor of the modern circular comb, was not a promoter. Not much is known about Dr Z. I have tried to track his family. I can't even find a photograph of the elusive Dr Z. What type of physician was he? Why did he study in Europe? How did he get the round comb idea? My research led me to Dr Mark Zbikowski who grew up in Detroit (where the beekeeper Dr Z spent his last years). Mark Zbikowski graduated from Harvard, started Microsoft with Bill Gates and invented DOS. So, I figured he is a pretty bright guy and might be related to the bright guy who was a retired physician and inventor of the round combs - and has the same last name. Mark was intrigued when I wrote to him and he answered my questions the same day, but no, Mark Zbikowski is not related to Dr Wladyslaw Zbikowski. If anyone reading this blog knows anything more about Dr Z the beekeeper, please send me a note!
Dr Richard Taylor is the most famous modern promoter of comb honey production. He latched on to Dr Z's idea two years after its creation and he talked round combs at every meeting he attended. His popular books, The Joys of Beekeeping and The Comb Honey Book are practical guides to making comb honey. They only obliquely touch upon his metaphysics philosophy. (In 1963, Dr Taylor wrote Metaphysics which is still used as an introductory university text.) Taylor especially liked that rounds have the advantage over traditional wooden sections - they conform with the bees' manner of comb building and thus, without corners to fill, result in a superior product. The philosopher went on to advocate the merits of circular sections for the next 20 years. There were several other round comb systems available to beekeepers in the late 1970s - perusing the bee journals one finds three competing companies all making interchangeable products for beekeepers. At a 1976 bee meeting in Ohio, the retired architect, Tom Ross was present and interested in the system that Richard Taylor was illustrating. Tom renamed the round combs "Ross Rounds" and filed for a patent to US rights in September 1978.
Because of the extremely high cost of Ross Round equipment, Better Bee describes a method of using the Ross Round frames without rings. Instead, the honey is cut out "with a small thin kerf paring knife" and dropped into a less expensive plastic container. Better Bee sells this container and offers instructions on their Better Bee website. A friend of mine, Francisco Rey, sent a photo of honey produced using this abbreviated Ross Round technique. I don't recommend producing comb honey this way - packaging time and energy and fuss and mess are greatly increased. And the poor comb bleeds its honey out everywhere, making drips at the grocery store more likely. Finally, of course, you can't claim that the cut sections of honey are "untouched" by humans. If you want to slice comb honey and put it into your own containers, you probably should use unwired shallow frames and cut the honey out.
The Ross Round patent expired years ago, in September 1998. Meanwhile, several other comb systems have come on the market, including the John Hogg Halfcomb Cassette (1982) and the Bee-O-Pac Comb Honey System. These systems try to further reduce the amount of beekeeper labour required to make a section of honey. The Hogg comb is a self-contained unit with a wax-coated, hexagonal imprinted base that comb is built on. When completed by the bees, a cover is added and it is market ready. Personally, I have never used this method. It sounds easy. The catch may be that the bees are a bit reluctant to draw out the comb in the Hogg device. But I don't know this. I have heard - and read - mixed reviews from beekeepers. Success probably varies with the honey season (intensity of flow) and colony condition, but in this regard all comb honey production is fickle. If you'd like to give the Hogg Halfcomb a try, supplies are available and Bee Behavior.com has wonderful colony management tips for making this honey section.
Other round comb systems have also been developed. There is the 7-ounce round for sale out of New Zealand. In Europe, beekeeper and entrepeneur Oszkar Pohl promoted his Rund Pohl and sold the system extensively. All the earlier elements are there, dating all the way back to the glass ring design of the 1880s: circular rings placed in honey supers with wax foundation inserted between the rings. Pohl's modifications included a slightly smaller comb. There is a lot of information about Pohl's business on his website. From these pages, Pohl Oszkár Méhészmester (Beemaster Oscar Pohl) clearly explains how to assemble his equipment and how to manage your bees to make a good crop of round comb honey. But you'll have to be able to read Hungarian to really get the most out of his explanations. Pohl has quite a few great illustrations on his website, however, including the photo with the girl to your left.
I’m not a fan of plastic – wood smells and tastes much better; marble is more elegant. But I wouldn’t use a wooden and marble DVD player for my movies or for a water bottle – for some things, plastic is simply better. We are going to continue making round sections - it's a great product, and no other honey has a more exquisite look.
January 8, 2010
I received an e-mail today from a new organization, "Apiaries and Bees for Communities" which is headquartered in Calgary. I live in Calgary. The fact that an interesting new group crept into my backyard without me even knowing is almost as interesting as the new organization itself. (Well, to me it is interesting. To the rest of you, it just means I'm getting old and out of touch.) I exchanged e-mails with the organizer - Eliese Watson. Ms Watson has honourable ambitions for her group:- Developing a Co-op with mutually maintained hives in Community Gardens; - Planning a Speaker's Evening for the organization; - Hosting a Beekeeping Course for City Beekeepers; - Building Bee-friendly Gardens; - Holding a beehive-building workshop, focusing on top-bar hives; - Offering a course and information on neighbourly relations with non-beekeepers; - Looking for donations of good clean beekeeping equipment; - Looking for financial sponsors/donors.
Certainly the Calgary Beekeepers' Association wants to help, according to the e-mail I received from CBA member, Bill Turner. Anyone else may write to Eliese at her e-mail and certainly check out her extensive website.
Hearing from energetic young people excited about bees is a great omen for a good beekeeping year. I hope the spark and energy last and some great things happen for city beekeeping! Our own Summit Gardens Honey will offer support in a few ways, too.
January 20, 2010
"Bees are the modern-day canary in the coal mine," according to the Calgary Herald in a feature article today. For those of you too young to know from experience (and that would be all of us), coal miners used to carry caged canaries into the coal mines. If odourless poisonous gases were encountered (which was fairly frequently) the canary died a few minutes before the humans would expire, which means when the birds quit singing, it's time to bail out. That was in the old days - before PETA and before mining companies realized it was cheaper to replace miners than to buy new birds. Anyway, the Calgary Herald article begins with the statement "Over the past three years, more than 50 billion honeybees have died." It is not stated if these are global, national, or American figures, but it is implied that 50 billion bees have gone away and are not coming back again. Assuming honey bees were lost at a rate of 15 billion bugs per year, that's about 300,000 colonies of bees a year. So, it is probably a slightly exaggerated North American statistic. Abroad - in countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, beekeeping expanded at about the same rate. I don't want to kill the new canary theory, but the North American bee number decline (from 8 million colonies in 1920 to 4 million in 1970) was dramatic even in the old days - and due mostly to economics, not environment. The latter is particularly reflected in the fact that the number of people owning bees fell from 1.2 million to maybe 100,000 in the USA today. A ninety percent drop.
Nevertheless, something smells bad. Could it be the 2.3 billion kilograms of pesticides the Herald says are dumped on vegetables globally each year? More from our local paper, the Calgary Herald:"Many of them are neonicitinoids, a nerve poison that prevents acetylcholine from allowing neurons to communicate with each other and muscle tissue. In humans, it would trigger Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Imidacloprid (one form of neonicitinoids) is manufactured by Bayer under the trade names of Gaucho and Pancho. It killed millions of bees in France before eventually being banned in that nation, yet it's still used widely throughout North America. In 2008, researchers from Penn State found 43 different pesticides in a Pennsylvania apple orchard. Many farmers combine or stack their chemicals to reduce applications costs, however stacking chemicals is known to increase toxicity levels in some cases by 1,000-fold."
What is really happening? I think there are a lot of reasons hive counts have dropped so much in North America. Part of it is the long-term trend away from subsistence farming to agro-business. Even though our colony count is a quarter of what it was a century ago, honey production is not off nearly as much. Farms - including bee farms - are much larger and much more efficient. But recently, with the global temperatures going up and chemical pollutants falling down, I think we should point fingers at our sumptuous life-style. Want a Hummer and a wall-screen Sony at high-volume during family dinners? There is a price.
Meanwhile, in a totally unrelated story, the Washington Post reports that Alaska's Senator and hobby fisherman Lisa Murkowski (at your right, holding the fish) withdrew her amendment to cripple the Clear Air Act when it was discovered she had ghost authors for her addendum. I'm confused. Don't all the senators have help writing their bills? Her two helpers (Jeffrey R. Holmstead and Roger R. Martella, Jr.) are lobbyists employed by energy and forestry giants - maybe in some sort of co-op work program? Ms Murkowski is obviously a busy lady, keeping an eye on those pesky Russians lined up along the Alaskan coast and simultaneously fighting various clean air and environmental protection bills.
The Fish that Got Caught
((photo courtesy fishosaur.com)
How could she possibly find time to write her own amendments? She's busy. Researching, writing, and fishing are time-consuming and expensive - to help defray some of her expenses, Ms Murkowski is also listed as the largest recipient of any US Senator for cash from utility companies, again according to the Washington Post. By the way, here are the exact words of Ms Murkowski's proposal, as submitted in the "Purpose" of the amendment: "To prohibit the use of funds ...to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant subject." It looks like the amendment's writers did their homework... The air naturally contains about one percent carbon dioxide, so it is really quite in line not to treat it as a pollutant. But unfortunately, the bill goes on to suggest that more is better. Anyone for a Hummie?
January 23 to February 8, 2010
Ron and Andreas Schuck Rodrigo's Queen Cell Graft Jane and Ron - Finding the Chilean Queen Rodrigo, Carlos Leinenweber, Ron The Reys: Francisco, Roscio, Alejandra
I am flying. It is about four hours from Calgary to Toronto. By the time my wheelchair reaches Toronto's International Departures where the huge 767 is waiting, it is last call for Santiago, Chile. But I make it, find I am blessed with a window view and an empty seat next to it. So I restlessly drift off to sleep and spend over half of the ten hour flight away from the world. On the ground again, a taxi takes me downtown. All the travel guides will tell you not to spend more than two days in Santiago. But I have scheduled nine days for the town and its surrounding region. And seven days for the coastal areas.
From Calgary to Chile takes about a day. The jet-lag, only 4 hours, is nevertheless noticeable. When I Skype my seven-year-old, he tells me the sun is setting in Calgary. I'm a bit confused because the sun is just setting here, too, at nine in the evening (and quite a bit east of Calgary), but then I remember I have left mid-winter and arrived in mid-summer. It certainly is summer here, complete with long days and late sunsets. Thirty Celsius this evening. Santiago is a pleasant city. Wealthy, well-mannered, clean, calm. Safe. Unlike Peru, which I like a lot, Chile is a developed country and similar to, say, Croatia, Portugal, or other small seaside European countries. Many of Santiago's five million inhabitants have escaped to the coast for summer holidays. This is quite a relief as the people who vacation out of town are also the same folks who drive cars in the city. It hasn't rained for five months, isn't windy, and mountains surround this town, so stale smoggy air envelopes the streets and obscures the Andes. It would be much worse if the extra cars were still on the highways this week. But it is endurable, and after a day of sleep - mostly to repair my wrecked muscles - I'll be meeting some beekeepers.
Rodrigo, whom I'd met via Facebook, takes me an hour south of Santiago to see Andreas Schuck, owner/operator of Swiss Apiaries - Colmenares Suizos. I learn a lot about Chilean beekeeping, queen breeding, and foundation-making from Andreas and from his assistant, Fransisca. Colmenares Suizos has been operating for about thirty years. Andreas, a Swiss-Chilean, runs about 4000 hives on a neat, tidy farm with citrus, avocados, palms, cacti, or bougainvillea gracing every view. The beekeepers help me understand the nature of Chilean beekeeping, some of the problems, some of the advantages. I am on a particular quest - trying to introduce a special product to Chile - and Andreas helps me a lot. He also suggests that I meet with one of Chile's largest beekeeper/exporters. Andreas sets up a meeting for me, and I travel on. My exporter meeting is important and successful and I am encouraged with the prospects Chile and its beekeeping may provide for the future. And I see an interesting way to become involved in the progress here.
The next day, Rodrigo hauls me an hour north of town to an avocado plantation, a place where Rodrigo is the expert hired to oversee about fifty colonies permanently set on the farm by the plantation's owners. These bees are here for pollination only - ideally 50 hives should be placed on 10 hectares. This place has 200 hectares of trees. At a rate of 2 honey bee colonies per hectare (about one hive/acre) the bees' pollination increases yield by 500 percent. So, obviously, bee pollination in avocado groves is big business. I see a lot of this over the next couple of weeks. Except for some scattered shock bloom, pollination season is over (spring started in October) but the bees are still gathering enough nectar to get a shake from the combs. And Rodrigo identifies pollen as possibly from avocado. But the season is late here in central Chile. Most commercial beekeepers have moved their hives south to gather wild Ulmo honey; or they have driven up into the southern foothills to gather bosque (forest) honey, which is the dark honeydew gathered by bees from tree-sucking denizens of the conifer forests. Not my favourite flavour, but as organic and free of GMO as any honey could be on the earth. This is another advantage I come to recognize here - most of Chile's honey is from organic sources and free of genetic modification and most of Chile's beekeepers are aware of the quality of their product. They are willing to work hard to maintain their Chilean advantage.
Over the next week, I meet several more beekeepers. During my second week, I am joined by my sister Jane, an executive working in San Diego, California. She has a blast here. She agrees: Chile is safe, clean, and slightly exotic. And the wines are great. We both met with Rodrigo at his apiary where he has begun a small queen breeding business. We have perched among eucalyptus trees above the quarry where Rodrigo has his mating nucs. We watched as he examined his cell production. Although surrounded by enormous trees and wild flowers, there are not enough nectar producing plants mid-summer here, so Rodrigo mixes some feed for his bees. But he has a nice collection of mating nucs, enough drones in his hives, and some good takes on his cell grafting. I suspect he will be successful as a queen producer.
Still in Villa Alemana (literally, German-town), we stopped at Carlos Leinenweber's AgroApicultura Centre and saw his modern warehouse, sales floor, and viewed an excellent video of his operation. He also raises queens and sells a lot of frames, combs, foundation, and the Italian extracting line - Lega. Leinenweber also packs an array of excellent honey for grocers inside Chile. I showed him my equipment and he agreed that my product would do well in Chile - even expressed his interest in distributing it to his neighbouring beekeepers.
Carlos Leinenweber's AgroApicultura:
Among our more memorable meetings is lunch with Francisco Rey and his daughters at their bee farm. They treated us to a fish fry, tomatoes, potato salad, and the best avocados I've ever eaten. Francisco's Apicultura is our usual source for the few hundred queens we use each spring in our Alberta operation. In previous blog entries, I have written much about Francisco's queens and how well they have served our operation here in Alberta. In particular, we began importing Francisco's queens after disappointing results from Canadian, Hawaiian, New Zealand, and Australian queens were encountered by ourselves and our neighbours. The Rey's queens haven't failed us. Acceptance rates were great the past two years - up to six weeks later, over 95% of his queens were doing well for us. We never had results like that from any producer, except for the queens we once produced in Florida and brought to our Saskatchewan operation, years ago. This need not imply too much about the quality of Chilean queen breeders or Chilean genetic bee stock compared with those encountered elsewhere. But it speaks volumes regarding Chile's climate and Chile's business culture. One simply can't get enough high-quality early queens in wet cold spring climates nor can one produce really high quality queens if a factory queen-farm is mass producing without attention to drones and without giving the queens enough time to lay their first eggs. So far, Chilean queen-production has resembled hand-crafting more than mass assembly. Hope it stays that way.
Here's a link to some pictures of this week's trip to Chile; and here is a link to a story I'd written about beekeeping in Chile after an earlier expedition. The story was first printed in the Canadian Honey Council's Hivelights as a favour to Canadian beekeepers who were looking for a better source of early-season queen bees. Canada produces some excellent queens, but those who need them early and are looking for sources with fewer diseases and problems should consider Chilean queens. Canada doesn't have the early spring heat, pollen, and drone populations. And over the years, Canadian queen breeders haven't been able to supply much more than ten percent of the commercial demand required (commercial, of course means sold from beekeeper-to-beekeeper, I'm excluding owner-grown queens and swarms. But you knew that!)
Some notes about Chile and Chilean beekeeping: 1. Chile has fewer beekeeping diseases and pests than Canada - no hive beetles, no European foulbrood, no resistant AFB; 2. Chilean beekeeping has not suffered from Colony Collapse Disorder; 3. Chile, surrounded by ocean and mountains, is isolated and (so far) free of Africanized genetic stock; 4. Chile is safe, clean, efficient, but with a pleasant Latin Culture. Like Germany chilling out; 5. Chile is a lot like California - except Chile has fewer people and nicer people! ;>)
February 13, 2010
Technically, bees are considered livestock, "but because we don't specifically say 'bees' on the bylaw, it's a bit vague," says Bill Bruce, animal by-law enforcement agent for the City of Calgary, according to an article today in the Calgary Herald. The article was mostly about the keeping of chickens and other 'livestock' within our city limits. But various members of the Calgary and District Beekeepers' Association were interviewed as well. Member Jim Rogers, a hobbyist with two hives in the city, said no one has complained about his bees, but he does take the time to teach his neighbours about them (and he gives them some honey). The keeping of bees in our city of a million will probably become less vague and more legal as time goes on - Calgary's Apiaries and Bees for Communities is actively encouraging backlot beekeepers. Bee by-laws usually fall into a fuzzy area. But any such ban is counter-productive: Bees will live in a city - in about the same numbers - with or without beekeepers because nature fills the niche with creatures that can exploit the available resources. Banning kept bees - which are usually gentler and better-mannered - would make way for wilder, more aggressive bees.
The real target of the current by-law dispute centers around the CLUCK organization (CLUCK? Calgary Liberated Urban Chicken Klub!) These folks keep one or two or half a dozen chicks in the backyard. The birds eat bugs and give wholesome eggs. But they are strictly forbidden in our sophisticated city. Speaking of sophisticated... it's too bad the Calgary Stampede will have to go without any livestock this year. It used to be great fun to take the kids down to the grounds to see the sheep and pigs. And chickens. But it will be even more fun watching the cowboys race around the track, their chuck wagons pulled by Pit Bulls and Rottweilers (legal animals, of course).
February 19, 2010
Vietnamese Ceramic Bee
Vietnam's honey industry is growing faster than beekeepers can cut and trim trees into equipment. In 1996, Vietnam had 7000 hives of bees. Today, there are over a million colonies - requiring about fifteen million board feet of exotic lumber for the supers and hive bodies. As a result, some rare lumber is endangered as logging is expanding to provide enough wood for the extra millions of supers and tens of millions of frames those hives require in the country. The wood - sao, peckwood, ca chit and cam xe - is rare, but durable enough to last a long time in southeast Asia's hot humid outdoor conditions. In the Vietnamese report Safeguarding the Forests from a Bee Explosion, Dang Ngoc Chuong, a Saigon entrepeneur, is featured for his work developing recycled alternatives to the rare wood for beehives. His plastic-based hives are bug-proof, rot-proof, and cost 190,000 doung (about $10 US) so they are both an affordable alternative to the rare lumbers and a smart choice. By the way, that's a ceramic bee I photographed last year just outside Hanoi. Probably perfect for a plastic hive?
There are some parallels with the slaughter of American old-growth basswood trees which provided soft pliable lumber to make wooden honey comb sections in the old days. Old-growth basswoods were felled by the thousands to provide the disposable little wooden cartons which encircled millions of little comb honey sections, back around 1900. One reason we started to use plastics in our comb sections.
Cam Xe Lumber
February 26, 2010
Earthquake. Last week, I asked my friend Rodrigo what would happen to Chile's beehives - perched up on stilts - if there would be a big earthquake. I'd felt tremors for a few days, and I knew there had not been a big shake in Chile for years. As a geophysicist, I guess I'm inordinately tuned in to the earthquake frequency. Or infrequency, as has been the case along Chile's Pacific coast. (It had been 50 years since the last 'big one'.) I escaped the 2010 earthquake - by a few days - and now the lithosphere is settling (though the earth's axis has tilted a bit more) for a while. This was one of the most powerful seismic events in our lives, but we can take a deep breath and be glad that the destruction was limited. Deaths - and there were hundreds - would have been in the tens of thousands in a poorer, less careful country. But Chile has led the way in designing shake-proof homes and towers. Older buildings - built without codes in earlier centuries - were damaged and downed. But Santiago was barely affected. Modern buildings are standing tall.
Hives Kept on Anti-Ant Stands
But what of the bees? Most Chilean hives are sit high on greased stilts to prevent ants from invading the bee nests. Some beekeepers secure their hives with hooks and ties so they can't fall to the ground. Such was the safety-conscious choice of the owner of the apiary shown in the photo to your right. But not all beekeepers do things this carefully. My guess is that a lot of apiaries ended up on the ground and a lot of beekeepers spent days picking up and cleaning up. Undoubtedly, a lot of wrecked equipment and dead bees resulted from this nightmare.
And what about the wine cellars? Even more disastrous than a few thousand unkempt hives (at least in the minds of some consumers) are the shattered Chilean wine bottles. According to an article in the Santiago Times, at least 125 million litres of wine bottles were shattered. That's 12% of Chile's annual billion litres of production. With these comments on bees and wines, I don't mean to trivialize the deaths and destruction caused by this whopper of an earthquake (8.8 is almost as high as the scale goes). Some have asked, "What can I do to help?" Chile is a relatively wealthy country. You should send your dollars to Haiti, but you might want to buy Chilean products and travel to the place. This will help the Chileans more than anything else.
March 5, 2010
Two years ago, there were 12,000 colonies of honey bees on Vancouver Island. Today, there are 2,000. All the rest have died. Vancouver Island is likely the mildest part of Canada - palm trees (of a sort) can be seen around Victoria and Nanaimo. I always thought it could be a Canadian queen-breeder's paradise, but I never made the move out to the Pacific island to prove this theory wrong. Others have, though.
A Bee Breeder's Paradise?
Sol Nowitz, a skilled queen breeder who uses artificial insemination to maintain the purity of his Canadian genetic stock, was stung with the loss of 255 of his 275 hives over the past two winters. That's more than a 90% death rate. In the Globe and Mail, Sol Nowitz, owner of Jinglepot Apiaries in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, said bees imported from the southern hemisphere "lack the genetic resistance to cold and disease they need for long-term survival in Canada." We have not found this to be true. And Jinglepot's disastrous results (featuring some mating-controlled, selected Canadian stock) does not bode well for those wanting to use 'genetically superior' local Canadian stock. In fact, these are among the worst wintering results we've heard from anywhere. And this from an isolation zone in perhaps the mildest place in all of Canada!
According to Earth Files, "Beekeepers all over Vancouver Island are experiencing up to 90% die-offs of their honey bees...while American beekeepers since January have seen at least 30% of their healthy honey bees trucked to California for almond pollination die mysteriously..." We are not surprised that the over-stressed, shaken, transported USA colonies crammed into crowded apiaries in the foul spring climate of almond groves would give up on life; but the Canadian bees of Vancouver Island were isolated, less-stressed, and supposedly chosen for their superior, adapted-to-Canada genetic stock. We have suggested for years that the closed-border, isolated communes mentality won't work. The Vancouver Island wintering results may be the proof.
Many Vancouver Island beekeepers lost nearly all of their bees over the winter. The Nanaimo News Bulletin reports: Steve Mitchell, owner of Bee Haven Farms in the Cowichan Valley, has a single colony left after managing 18 before winter. “Our best hope is to have easy access to stocks with strong queen bees,” said Mitchell. “If that happened, a guy like Sol would be able to distribute healthy stocks quite quickly. But right now we are having to import from Chile.” A good choice - Chilean colonies have fewer pests and diseases than Canadian hives.
So, Vancouver Island beekeepers are bringing bees in from other areas, including Chile. This begs two questions:
1) Why couldn't the bee breeders of Vancouver Island supply their local market (more specifically, why are less than 10% of all commercially sold Canadian queens bred in Canada?)
2) Why were those operators with purely Canadian stock (i.e., the breeders and artificial inseminators) hit so much worse than other beekeepers?
The answers are complicated, but don't bode well for those who would like to practice isolationist politics and keep Canada barricaded and barred from the free passage of honey bees. Vancouver Island has conducted the quintessential failed experiment - it "has been quarantined as a separate bee-breeding district since the early 1990s, meaning it can’t import replacement bees from other parts of Canada," according to the Times Colonist. Until now.
March 9, 2010
Our bees have survived one of Canada prairie's worst winters in memory. The miserable cold started early. By mid-December, it was minus 35 here in Alberta. A couple hours north of us, Edmonton, Alberta, saw a record minus 48 Celsius (about minus 55 F) in December. Our area - southern Alberta - usually enjoys several nice mild breaks within the cold winter. (We were reminded of this recently because of the 2010 Olympics... when the 1988 Winter Olympics were held here in Calgary, several of those days were so far above freezing that the ski slopes were sloppy and unusable. In fact, for two days - during the '88 Olympics - it was warmer in Calgary than on Florida's Miami Beach. But not this winter! We had no warm breaks for over three months!) Normally, winter-time chinooks (warm snow-eating winds, named after the Chinook natives) devour our snow drifts and allow the bees a mid-winter cleansing flight. Not this year. No such luck. To compound our anxiety, the honey season was really late last year - autumn honey was plugging the brood nest. We were gravely concerned that a lack of young winter bees would follow the lack of fall brood. On the other hand, there was plenty of honey for winter feed and we didn't have to feed the bees anything extra.
The Bees Thrive!
My brother - Beekeeper Don - has started the spring inspections and so far has reported 8% of our hives are lost. This is not a particularly poor result for our prairie location. Of course, some of the yards are still snow-bound and inaccessible - the death toll may end up higher. Or perhaps not. But we always witness spring dwindle in late March and early April. (The first free-range pollen (crocus, then willow) doesn't enter the hives here until the third week of April.) We expect some spring loss, always. But we will also have plenty of hives with swarming fever heading to the trees on the late May dandelion if we don't split them, so we should be able to make up any winter losses through organic growth.
You can see from the photos to your left that our hives are kept well-insulated against the wind and cold. This was the first year that we experimented with some long rows of hives, seen in the second picture. We noticed that one of this area's local beekeepers - a better beekeeper than we are - has been using this system for years, so we finally decided to give it a try. I was solidly against the idea. I figured the bees would be too inclined to drift and perhaps would winter too warmly. But these bees represent our best wintering this year. I think the coloured entrance reducers helped.
What did we do right? First, we were lucky. Maybe next year, we'll have tragic results. But we'd like to think that a number of factors have mitigated potentially dismal results. Leading winter killers of honey bees: disease, cold exposure, failed queens, lack of honey. Each of these may be complicated. Diseases in combination (say nosema plus varroa); honey mislocated (under the brood nest in late-winter); or queen failure (honey-bound brood nest, or simply a poor layer) all may be a bit difficult for the novice to appreciate.
We did our best to reduce all these potential pitfalls. We kept problems like nosema and varroa well under control. You might have read last year's entries on this bee blog about our treatments and the results. Another thing we try to do - we believe in keeping the bees in new wax. The hive to your left is typical - about half the frames are new. This reduces spores, diseases, fungi, and who knows what else lurks in ugly old frames. Replace frames regularly. Throw out the old, throw in the new. One more thing. Virtually all our queens are new, first year ladies. And they are all Chilean. Yes, contrary to the nasty stories some people want to promote (likely for totally altruistic reasons) queen bees from the southern hemisphere really do survive Canadian winters.
We are relieved that our wintering was apparently so tolerable. With the tragic results from Vancouver Island fresh in the news, we faced our first bee visit with trepidation. Who can afford to buy a lot of replacement packages? Most beekeepers can not. We are dreadfully sorry for the huge losses facing Canada's west coast beekeepers. I can't imagine opening box after box and finding everything dead. It must be an incredibly depressing ordeal. The hives would be a mess to clean up. Then the beekeeper would need to talk to a banker and hope he could swing a loan for packages. These days, no one can afford such added expenses. We have been fortunate not to have borrowed from any bankers, but even without debts and interest payments, beekeeping has not been profitable.
March 11, 2010
A major news magazine has something to say about Colony Collapse Disorder. Perhaps the most unbiased political and economic news in the world is printed on the pages of the Economist. The magazine attempts to fairly and accurately present news and the editorial positions it derives. Compared to an entertainment 'news' organization with a political agenda which seeks viewers through banalities and titillation, the Economist is erudite and informed. So what's with this week's mini-piece on California's disappearing honey bees? Factually, there seem to be no mistakes in the material presented. But unfortunately, the newsbrief, titled with the quirky Vitamin Bee highlights a nutrition supplement for honey bees and almost reads a tiny bit like an infomercial.
The article clearly illuminates the almond pollination industry: 80% of the world's almonds produced by 7000 California growers dependent on "the most vital workers in the orchards" - 1.4 million colonies transported from as far as Maine, Florida, and the Carolinas. The article then describes Colony Collapse Disorder whose "cause may be mobile-telephony radiation, viruses, fungi, mites and pesticides—or none of the above." And suggests that the real culprit may be honey bee nutrition. We certainly agree that nutrition is a likely compounding factor in CCD, especially in areas where vast monoculture is practiced and bees are limited in the variety of pollen sources available to them.
The Economist article begins and ends with Dr Gordon Wardell's important research on nutrition, finally telling us that "He owns a patent for MegaBee, which he says looks like cookie dough. He puts a bit of this into the hives, blocking the bees’ entrance so that they have to chomp their way through it. As part of his new job, Mr Wardell is working with beekeepers across the country to supplement bee diets everywhere." You might want to read the entire article and learn more about MegaBee, also known as "The Tucson Bee Diet" and available across the USA through Dadants and other suppliers. After the Economist's promotion, you'd better order now as the stuff will likely be in short supply this spring.
March 12, 2010
Beekeeper John Gibeau
Presenting in Calgary March 26
Apiaries and Bees for Communities, a busy activist group recently organized (by Eliese Watson) here in Calgary is quickly responding to the keen interest in beekeeping among Calgary's gardeners. The A.B.C. held a successful (sold-out) first-level course for thirty enthusiasts in early March. All reports indicate that the two-day learning event was well-taught and well-received.
Now the ABC organization is presenting An Evening of Urban Beekeeping featuring John Gibeau, one of British Columbia's smartest and most progressive beekeepers. I was lucky to meet John a couple of years ago when I presented to the Prince George BC beekeepers' annual meeting - I learned a lot from this urban keeper of 1500 hives who pollinates BC blueberries, teaches bee culture, and helps Vancouver's film industry when bees are needed.
John Gibeau also owns The Honeybee Centre, which houses a popular honey bee visitor centre. Mr Gibeau, a south mainland British Columbia beekeeper, does almost everything right - encouraging new beekeepers, supporting urban beekeeping, and running a large and very successful honey farm and pollination business.
An Evening of Urban Beekeeping is free and open to the public. The venue is a meeting room at the Calgary Zoo. If you can possibly attend this meeting, I don't think you will be disappointed. If I make it there, I'll post a report. I'm sure I'll learn something.
March 14, 2010
Louise Steiner writes to us:"As I was walking on a Santa Monica, California, sidewalk
I came across this unusual
but wonderful bit of cement art
that said Bees Rule
...How right they are."
March 14, 2010
Clocks sprung ahead. Who will tell the bees? Does anyone stop to think of the environmental damage caused by the loss of an hour overnight? The bees will try to leave an hour too early, return home an hour too late. This can not be good. I see death and destruction. The end of civilization. Or maybe not. According to the book Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time by Michael Downing, it was New York City's Wall Street traders who lobbied for the time shift so that trading hours would overlap a bit with the London Stock Exchange. (See? Death and Destruction.) Farmers have typically opposed the clock cranking (farmers are usually opposed to everything) and in some ag-areas (Saskatchewan, for example) the idea has never caught on.
March 17, 2010
Each recent St Patrick's Day, I have been reminded of the 2005 Dublin Apimondia. It was such a treat to finally attend an international bee meeting - the one in Ireland was great! The sheer number of exhibits and displays was overwhelming. Almost every European beekeeper and bee scientist with a budget was in attendence. And some, like us, arrived from a little farther afield to learn about Ireland's beekeepers and beekeeping. I have a brief page about Ireland's 2005 Apimondia Meeting here.
We rented three cars - sequentially - at the Dublin airport. The first was too small for the four of us. The second caught on fire (before I drove off the airport grounds) but the third was just right. I put over a thousand kilometres on the wheels, heading north to Ballycastle and the Giant's Causeway (it had been a childhood dream to see these basaltic honeycomb-shaped columns); then I piloted west and south to the Atlantic ledges near Galway, then Kilkenny, and of course, the Rock of Cashel. According to the site's guide, St. Patrick arrived in Cashel in AD 432 and at this spot baptized King Aengus, who became Ireland’s first Christian ruler. During the baptism, St Patrick stabbed his pointed cross into the ground (likely for drama) and performed the king's redemption. After the ceremony, St Pat realized he'd stabbed not the ground, but King Aengus' foot. Asked why he didn't complain, the king said simply that he thought it was all part of the program.
From the Rock of Cashel, it was back to Dublin for the Apimondia conference where I met some great people - our friends Willi and Ursula Baumgartner (of Medivet Pharmaceuticals), Dawn Fegan and Kim Flottum (of Bee Culture magazine), and John Phipps, (editor of the Beekeepers' Quarterly). Also, at the meeting, I was delighted to learn that our website - www.badbeekeeping.com - had won the bronze medal for beekeeping sites. Apimondia. Bronze. Nice.
Ireland is quite an interesting island. And I'm always intrigued by the tenacity of beekeepers who pursue beekeeping - sometimes professionally - in impossible places. Ireland almost qualifies as such. We visited in August. Every second day was cold and rainy. Between showers, the bees somehow found dry heather blossoms and sucked up some nectar. On a cold day at a queen breeding station near the Galtee Mountains, a bee expert sliced off a chunk of tasty comb and let us sample it. Exquisite stuff! Ireland has hundreds of enthusiastic beekeepers. Most are organized into one of the 45 member clubs comprising the Irish Beekeeping Federation - a great starting point if you'd like to learn more about beekeeping in Ireland.
2005 Dublin Apimondia Meeting; Mating Nuc of Irish Native Dark Bees; author Ron, editor John Phipps, publisher Jeremy Burbidge
March 17, 2010
Dinner with Julie. Lovely idea. It's a blog, written by Calgary's Julie Van Rosendaal. This morning, Julie (a regular contributor on the CBC's Eyeopener) radio show talked enthusiastically about comb honey. Summit Gardens' comb honey, actually. It was nice to hear the great comments from a food expert who had taken the time to educate herself about bees, beekeepers, beekeeping, and the plights therein. But especially, her energetic enthusiasm about comb honey was contagious. Good press is better than bad press is better than no press. Thanks for the press.
March 21, 2010
Linear Bee Blogging. I've been asked why this Bee Blog 'runs backwards' - in other words, why does it run in linear-time instead of backwards-time as other blogs do. I made that decision a couple of years ago when I started this. Mine isn't the most popular blog in the world (who reads about bees, anyway?) and a lot of readers look at this page only every month or two, so it is less disorientating to read about the bees in normal-time order. (First the bees swarm, then the beekeeper catches the swarm - not the other way around.) The way this blog is currently designed, you start at the top of the page and read through a few months of beekeeping in normal order. In the unlikely event that this site becomes irrepressibly popular, I might change the order to match blog-readers expectations. At this moment, I am trying to match beekeepers' expectations.
March 25, 2010
New York City liberated. Freedom, at last, for beekeepers. No more closet beekeeping. Beekeeping allowed. Congrats to all those who fought the law and won. For those of you paranoidly (Is this even a word??) fretting about your loss of personal liberty - the constant encroachment of government into the affairs of the common man - beekeeping is now legal in the Big Apple. ...but you still can't light a bee smoker without a permit.
April 9, 2010
Bee Veil. White Suit. High Fashion. According to Mick Jagger's girl friend, a beekeeper who designed the popular new outfit, beekeepers no longer need to feel alienated at dinner parties if they've run out of time to change from their work clothes. Of course, the outfit conceals the face for those hard-to-be-pretty days: "Joy Behar sees the getup as something she can wear on days when not looking her best. 'You know what? The days that I don't wear makeup, I'm wearing that hat,' Behar said."
Bee Veil Fashion
April 10, 2010
Two dollars, so well spent. California residents are getting more than their two dollars' worth at the Chico Museum on Salem Street. That's the price of admission to see The Secret World of Bees and The Richard Marple Beekeeping History and Art Collection which opens today and runs through December. Items from 81-year-old Richard Marple's private collection include "honey labels from across the United States... there will be bee-themed political cartoons from the 1900s, lithographs of bee anatomy, song sheets referencing bees, and fine art with bees as subjects," according to the Chico Enterprise Record. The retired Berkeley musician and side-line beekeeper has donated his extensive beekeeping collection to the Far West Heritage Association.
April 13, 2010
European Beekeeping. Interesting. In many ways, it is real beekeeping as opposed to our more typical 'honey farming - agribusiness' endeavours. I'm back in Hungary for a few days again. It's been cool and rainy here, so I won't be seeing any beehives on this quick trip. If you'd like a little European beekeeping refresher, here's a piece from a magazine article I wrote a few years ago - it appeared in both American Bee Journal and the Canadian Honey Council's Hivelights. In the piece, I interview a beekeeping monk, a beekeeping physician, and a little-old-lady honey vendor - and there are some interesting photos. If you have time to read the story, you'll learn a lot about beekeeping in central Europe.
This trip, Eszter has taken me to see a beekeeper here in the south city of Szeged. We descend a small set of cement steps to a slightly-below-grade honey sales and office area. I am lucky - the beekeeper, Ferenc Szepesi, is here. Normally, he would be in the field, but it has been raining. Eszter interprets for us - beyond a few simple pleasantries, my Hungarian is hopeless.
How does one run a thriving beekeeping enterprise with fewer than a hundred colonies of bees? Ferenc told us. He isn't interested in numbers of colonies, but rather numbers of bees in each colony. Instead of splitting hives into the thousands, this family business keeps fewer, but more powerful, colonies. They work their small number of hives hard.
Here's part of the Szepesi beekeeping schedule: - Location 1. (On the map, right) The bees winter in southern Hungary. Early in the spring, an overwintered variety of canola blossoms here, a bit different from the Canadian canola which is sewn in May and blossoms in July. Most years, some canola honey is produced by the Szepesi family. (Hungary has half a million acres of winter canola.) - Location 2. After canola honey harvest, the bees are trucked a hundred kilometres north, into central Hungary, at the edge of the flattest part of the plains. In that area, the bees are within flight of acacia (black locust, or Robinia pseudoacacia. - Location 3. In a couple of weeks these trees are finished flowering, but the same species occurs another hundred kilometres north, in the hills along the Slovakian border. The bees continue to collect more of the beautiful, mild, white nectar. - Location 2. When the second acacia is finished and honey removed, the bees are moved back to central Hungary where milkweed and various wild flowers and trees (chestnut, linden/lime/basswood) produce the summer crop. - Location 1. After this harvest, the bees are moved back onto the vast Hungarian puszta (prairie) of the south part of the country. They usually produce sunflower honey, the last crop harvested for the year. Later nectar flows (goldenrod, aster) supply the only winter feed these bees get. In the spring, canola blossom restarts the cycle. 1. Szeged Area; 2. Central Plains; 3. Northern Hills
(Some of the Honey Areas of Hungary)
Moving colonies - by hand - four times a year is pretty hard work. But inclement weather often results in failure for one or more of the crops. With this migratory pattern, the family can average at least 60 kilograms (125 lbs) of honey per hive per year. Honey here sells for 1200 Forints/Kg - about $3/pound at the honey shops in bulk customer-supplied containers. Specialty honeys - honey with garlic, honey with ginger, fruit and honey blends, chunk-comb, pollen, royal jelly products - bring much more. The Szepesi family owns three retail outlets. I don't know if they buy much honey for resale, but they do offer small bottles of orange blossom and eucalyptus - sources unavailable in Hungary's temperate climate. Along with a few queens, wax foundation, and various unique products (such as an olive-oil/honey/wax concoction sold to spa saunas) this family has a nice production and retail business. You can learn more about Szepesi Honey at http://www.szepesimeheszet.hu.
Entrance to Szepesi's Main Offices; Ron and Ferenc Szepesi;
Hungarian Honey Bear; Varietal Honeys (notice the chunk comb)
April 17, 2010
Eyjafjallajokull - photo by Árni Friðriksson
Volcano ash has grounded us here in Hungary. Quite a reminder of how puny the human race really is. Sure, we can throw a lot of garbage around. And maybe even change the planet's weather systems (which will probably self-correct - after we are gone). A hole in the ground (Eyjafjallajokull volcano covers less than one ten-millionth of the earth's surface) has dusted up airlines and tourist businesses and disrupted the lives of millions. Compared to this volcano and the Haitian, Chilean, Turkish, and Chinese earthquakes, our endeavours are rather trivial. But not unimportant to us. Especially those of us who make our living studying and working with earth sciences (my day job is geophysics) and farming (beekeeping).
What will this Icelandic volcano do to the climate - and more importantly, to beekeeping? Much depends on the volcano. If she were to shut down this week, the effect will be negligible. Maybe a bit more rain in Europe (due to the dust forming water-droplet nuclei); but if the volcano erupts for 2 years (as it did in the early nineteenth Century) there would be a temporary cooling effect to the planet. The worst weather-impacting volcano in recent history was the Icelandic volcano Laki, which violently spewed fourteen cubic kilometers of magma as ash its during 1783-1784. This did change the northern hemisphere's climate, reducing temperatures by up to 3 degrees. In Iceland 25 percent of the people died. In other parts of Europe, thousands of deaths were recorded due to poisoning and cold. A good discussion of the facts and past events is on Andrew Hooper's blog. Meanwhile, scientists are debating the possible effects of the volcano's ash - the total amount of tephra discharged this week has been over 140 million cubic metres. Even if you aren't good with math, you can appreciate this is a pretty big number. So, are we in for a 'nuclear winter' or business-as-usual? Unless the volcano remains active for months or coughs up a lot more phlegm, it is probably going to be beekeeping as usual.
By the way, after three hours on the phone - using almost-free Skype, not a cell phone - we were able to reschedule our KLM flights from Budapest through Amsterdam to Calgary for Friday, April 23. We are thinking that a few trans-Atlantic test flights will have been completed by then; and, the airports should have caught up with some of the backlog. Of course, in the interim, the volcano might belch again and keep us here another month.
April 22, 2010
Einstein and Miksha Family
Using some of our bonus time here in Hungary, we went looking for Professor Alberta Einstein. Einstein traveled a lot through the old Hungarian Empire (and his wife Mileva Maric was born in Novi Sad, a few kilometres down the road from here). But his attachment to this town of Szeged is tenuous. However, we did find Dr Einstein on his bicycle at the Academy of Science's courtyard. He's shorter than I'd remembered.
I am a huge fan of Professor Einstein - having our photograph taken alongside him is an honour I'll long cherish. Maybe he was the greatest scientist who ever lived. Personally, I'd vote for Newton - inventor of calculus, theoretician and experimenter of all things physics. However, Einstein certainly had the greater scientific imagination. Popular science tends to dramatize, often focusing on trivial or titilating aspects of a scientist or his ideas. This occasionally shifts us away from the deeper message. For example, most people know that Einstein had trouble with elementary arithmetic in grammar school. But Einstein's mathematics was amazing - his early formulations to explain the photovoltaic effect (for which he won the 1921 Nobel Prize) were required study in my third-year geophysics courses. It wasn't easy math to grasp. And his quirky creativity allowed him to throw away the prevailing notions of the fixed, rigid universe and replace it with the theory that space bends, time slows, and mass increases as one maneuvers through the cosmos - gravity and mass can thus be described as a fat man eating a hamburger while walking on mattresses. And, of course, Einstein gave us the formula that showed mass is energy - unlocking atomic power. Until Einstein, there was no theory to explain what kept the sun from burning out. Just over a hundred years ago, we assumed the sun was somehow burning coal to produce heat and light for us.
But what did Einstein know about bees? He didn't have to be a beekeeper, a bee scientist, or even a honey lover to be widely quoted for anything he might say about bees. Or about anything else. Albert Einstein was undeniably smart, so even his musings about cotton fields and boll weevils have become the thing of legend. And what did Einstein say about honeybees? Depending on the source, you will find one or another version of this speculation: ‘if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years to live’. Is it true? Personally, I think it is more-or-less true. But not for the reason most people assume. Bees contribute a lot to our food. The nicest food - honey, berries, veggies, nuts - are bee-made or bee-pollinated. But we'd survive a lot longer than four years without these niceities. Instead, our demise would be related to whatever phenomenon could be responsible for killing off 20,000 species of bees, scattered among six continents, and numbering individually in the trillions. Anything - pollution, radiation, cosmic collisions - that could kill those bees would kill humans, too. In a lot less than Einstein's four years.
April 23, 2010
A little more about Einstein's disappearing bees. Some months ago, I argued that honeybees (and beekeepers) are disappearing in North America mostly due to economics and government interference. Pollution, disease, and stress are certainly real factors, too. But government restrictions (the mounds of paperwork required to register a honey shop; the interference with free trade and movement of bees and bee assistants across borders) and economics (why would anyone keep bees when they can make much more money as a lawyer?) are the real issues. I feel supported in this contention when I read papers such as the one recently written by Marcelo Aizen and Lawrence Harder. They suggest that globally, the number of kept honeybee colonies has been increasing. True, in Europe and North America, colony counts are down, but in Asia, Africa, and South America there are more kept hives than ever. Mostly due to economics. Honey farms still prosper in Vietnam and Peru, for example.
In a related paper by Aizen and Harder, Global Stock of Domestic Bees, the authors point out that in the USA hive counts "have declined relatively consistently" at a rate of about 1.8% per year - since 1961! Meanwhile, worldwide the number of managed honeybee colonies increased 45% over those years - and continues to increase today. Their figures are the results of analysis of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization data.
April 23, 2010
Packaging label laws! Some new-ish guidelines were enacted regarding honey labeling. With several thousand jurisdictions in the world, there is a major mess with honey labels. Recently, some USA states have insisted on place of origin labels. Other places in the world require nectar source, incidence of genetic modification, or presence of pollens clearly labeled. Sometimes labels must have metric, or imperial (USA units), or maybe both. In Canada, we need a bilingual nutrition label - French and English. But can you imagine the nightmare facing a company selling packaged food in central Europe? The label below is from a cereal box parked on a shelf in our house here in Hungary. It lists ingredients in Estonian, Czech, Hungarian, Latvian, and Lithuanian.
Multi-multi-lingual Food Labels (Look closely - you'll see everything repeated in FIVE languages!)
April 25, 2010
We enjoyed the extra 'volcano days' in Hungary. With flights canceled, we waited for the basaltic and andesite volcano ash to clear. While waiting, we were safe and comfortable at our home in Hungary - we were luckier than most travelers. But today we're back in Canada. It's cold here in Calgary. Bees are still not gathering much pollen - just a little from willow and crocus. We could use some bright, warm, sunny afternoons. The weather has been erratic - mild and cold. Pretty difficult on the bees.
May 1, 2010
May Day. Today is International Workers' Day.
Here are some thoughts in support of the workers of the world...
Each hive has one queen; 200 drones; 50,000 workers.
After the queen begins her egg-laying career, she will likely never see a flower again in her life. In fact, she won't even see sunshine. She will be trapped in a dark cavity. She will be an egg-laying machine, fed a bland white food, guided by workers from empty cell to empty cell where she will be expected to drop egg after egg - perhaps 2000 a day. And if she fails (from age or illness) to keep the pace, she will be deposed in a palace coup.
The two hundred drones - the male bees of the hive - cower in the shadows of the hive. They know that at the first sign of frost, inclement weather, or other colony stresses, drones are slowly starved by the workers, then (if they are still alive) they are pulled from the hive and dumped in the cold grass. If they try to re-enter the hive, the workers will strip the drone of his wings and legs. But if the weather is pleasant, the drone may be tolerated. But then he is expected to fly out of the hive on a mating trip. If he is successful and finds a queen, the mating event will kill him - part of his body explodes and his carcass drops to the ground.
Meanwhile, fifty thousand worker bees in the hive have a much different existence. The young worker engages in a few days of play flight, a fun period in the child's life when it can freely roam around the airspace outside the hive, learning the colony's location and earning her flight badge. Afterward, the worker is the only bee to stop and smell the flowers - to visit the various sweetly scented, brightly coloured natural depositories of nectar. To be a bee and enjoy it, one would want to be a worker. So workers of the world, unite in celebration and enjoy your day!
From Langstroth's Hive and the Honey Bee - 1853 Wood Engravement
May 4, 2010
Hawaii doesn't need this news. According to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, Aethina tumida - also known as the small hive beetle - has been detected near Hilo on the big island. This is ugly news. North American beekeepers have been surviving with the nasty dirty creature for over ten years since its discovery in South Carolina in 1996. Beekeepers survived an earlier Beatles Invasion, but this one is a real big pain in the hive. More treatments, more procedures, more trouble. Unchecked, the hive beetle can kill colonies. Even under control, the little monsters cost time, money, and effort. And can make a mess of equipment.
Hive Beetle's Larval Mess!
(SHB has been found in Hawaii)
This news is on top of varroa mites which have been found on Oahu and Hilo in the past two years. According to Volcano Island Honey Company "The Varroa Mite is spreading rapidly on the Big Island, and beekeepers are scrambling to learn how to manage and control the destructive pest." Definitely trouble in paradise.
Here in Canada, the small hive beetle has been found on at least a couple of occasions - 2002 and 2008 in Manitoba, for example - apparently from packages imported from Australia. Our climate doesn't allow the beetle to become well established and infestations probably die out on the western Prairies. Small hive beetles may become a more entrenched problem in the east. The six finds near the USA border in Quebec may be the result of cross-border shopping. Or the mites crawled past Homeland Security.
The photo to your right is courtesy Brushy Mountain Bee Farm - see their Small Hive Beetle recommendations. You will learn that beekeepers are using a combination of two chemical treatments to control the bug - Checkmite and GardStar. Checkmite inside the hive to kill the beetles, GardStar in the bug's breeding-ground soil outside the hive.
May 5, 2010
We are having stable weather today.
Today's high temperature was plus one.
The low was minus one.
That's pretty stable - a two degree variance in 24 hours.
The sky - which spat a bit of snow and rain at us - has been cloudy. This is dysentery weather for bees. Not nice at all. Our hives have enough food, not quite enough pollen, but the bees are telling us that they'd like to fly around a bit. But the forecast is not pleasant - tomorrow it may reach plus six.
May 10, 2010
Have you heard of the Robo-Suit? Japanese scientists are responding to the problem of creaky-boned farmers in their country by designing muscle suits that can be worn over the farmer's khakis. Apparently, two-thirds of Japan's farmers are over the age of 65. And much Japanese agriculture operates on small-scale, hand-tended estates. Not so many big tractors there. If the farmer reaches down to pluck a carrot, the exoskeleton provides back support. If the farmer holds a heavy load, the exoskeleton can straighten, strengthen, and support legs. Grape picking farmers are provided upright posture. One prototype has eight motors, multiple motion sensors and voice recognition software that allows the user to give it commands. When the machine recognizes that a load is becoming too heavy or muscles are getting too tired, it compensates for the human’s strength with its metal and plastic frame.
I want one. Bee hive honey boxes often weigh 40 kilos (over 80 pounds). And the average beekeeper's age is now over 60. This exoskeleton-robo-suit would find a ready market in the army of honey-harvesters in North America. Imagine working through an apiary in half the time at a third the effort. The farmer's friend will go on sale in Japan this fall for a million yen (about 7000 pounds sterling) per suit, but the price is expected to quickly drop to about $5000.
May 12, 2010
From the Calgary Herald: This Week's Must Have: Comb Honey.
Seriously. This week's must have food is Summit Garden's Comb Honey.
Thanks for liking the good stuff!
Testers Taste Summit Gardens Honey Combs
May 15, 2010
A nice lady from a magazine called me a few weeks ago, asked for an interview, set up a video session, and published an article about my beekeeping in Avenue Magazine. The magazine was published today, complete with a mini-movie on the magazines website. If you are not familiar with the glossy mag, it is an urban periodical - mostly distributed to downtown denizens. I contributed about three hours of my time, feeling that any publicity about honey bees is worth my effort.
Bad Beekeeper Ron Interviewed by Avenue Magazine
The reporter, photographer, and videographer were great - dedicated professionals of their craft. The result is a bit different from an ordinary interview - the people who really did all the work are not seen or heard. Instead, the entire story and the entire video simply feature me in my tiring, boring voice.
Don't be turned off by the prospect of listening to my tiring, boring voice... the hours of interviews were distilled to just three minutes of video. On Avenue's print pages, you will a dozen or so lines of pithy text. Sound bytes and word bites. I hope you enjoy this - at least (perhaps) find it interesting. Especially when you see which bits of bites were chosen by the editors for the final cuts. Some of the focus in on my escapades as a five-year-old and on my antics with my smoker. You'll see what I'm talking about.
May 17, 2010
Cold again. Our weather has been really strange this spring. We had a few mild days. But since April 1, only 11 of the past 50 days have reached 20 C (68F), we've had frost almost every morning. And our average temperature over the past 8 weeks has been 7.4 C (about 45 F). Not good spring weather for our bees!
May 18, 2010
Willy Baumgartner with one of his last inventions -
an Oxalic Acid dispenser to fight mites.
The beekeeping industry has lost one of its greatest supporters. Willy Baumgartner, founder of Medivet Pharmaceuticals Ltd. and developer of the improved Fumagilin-B medicine for honey bees, died May 18 after a lengthy illness. Willy was 82 years old. Willy Baumgartner was a Swiss-educated chemist who immigrated into Canada when he was in his twenties. After a successful career in Ontario with a pharmaceutical company, Willy moved west to Calgary in 1980. He established Medivet - an enterprise making a variety of veterinary medicines mostly for cattle and horses. Soon his High River, Alberta, company began to specialize in pharmaceuticals for honey bees.
Until age 50, Willy didn't know about bees or beekeepers. But his veterinary supply business was getting requests for better medicines for honey bees. Like most people, back in 1980, Willy had no idea that honey bees could get sick and would need pharmaceuticals. While he was supplying medicine for horses, beekeepers started to ask for the same medicines for their bees. As a careful pharmacist, he knew that beekeepers shouldn't be dumping horse medicine into their bee hives. But, at that time, Willy didn't know the habits of beekeepers. As he found out, we can be pretty sloppy. So, Willy tested the materials, figured out the right dosage for a colony of bees, found a way to keep the medicines active at different temperatures and in different qualities of water. And Willy taught and encouraged beekeepers to treat bee medicines... like medicines. Willy said, “A small mistake with any drug can harm bees and the entire beekeeping industry. Too little or too much medicine can cause disease resistance, kill bees, or worse, contaminate honey. A lot of our work has involved getting dosage and delivery systems right for the beekeeper."
One of his first achievements was improving oxytetracyclines so they would maintain their efficacy in the rather alkali water common on the western prairies. He worked out dosages, reminding beekeepers that "a hivetool is not a measuring device." Willy Baumgartner's greatest pharmaceutical accomplishment was improving the delivery of fumagillin products for honey bees. Developed by Abbott Laboratories researchers in the early 1950s as a medicine for people, it was found to be more effective as a honey bee treatment against nosema. But the material clumped in water, wasn't stable for long, and was difficult to deliver to honey bees in the right dosage. Willy solved these issues, creating Fumagilin-B and making it available at an affordable price to beekeepers. The medicine is the only effective treatment against nosema, which has been widely implicated as a leading cause of colony collapse disorder. It can be said that Willy's work has saved the lives of hundreds of millions of honey bees around the world.
Willy began understanding bees and beekeeping. He and Ursula - his wife and business partner - enjoyed traveling to dozens of beekeeping gatherings: the local Calgary Beekeepers' Club, provincial meetings across Canada, international meetings in the USA and farther afield. They were regulars at Apimondia meetings and were major supporters of Vancouver's Apimondia 99. In 2007 he received an achievement award from the Alberta Beekeepers Association; and, in 2009 he became an honorary member of the Alberta Honey Producers Co-op.
Adony Melathopoulos, of the Beaverlodge Research Farm, says, "There was no better supporter of beekeeping research in Canada than Willy Baumgartner's Medivet Company". His business donated tens of thousands of dollars to research - all without any expectations or restrictions.
A tireless innovator, he developed machines and methods to safely distribute oxalic acid into hives to fight mites, regimes for safe tetracycline and fumagillin treatments, and procedures for proper pharmaceutical use in beehives. But he also strongly believed that beekeepers need more than antibiotics, acaricides, and fumagillin products to be successful. At every opportunity, he promoted integrated management approaches to beekeeping. Willy especially advised beekeepers to reduce stress in their beehives by keeping strong, well-provisioned colonies with young queens in well-situated apiaries. Willy said he would be happiest if his business could close because that would mean all bee diseases were cured.
Willy Baumgartner was a warm and generous person; a friend to all who knew him. My wife and I joined Ursula and Willy at Stage West Theatre, hosted them at our home for dinner, and enjoyed a fantastic fondue that Willy made for us at their home overlooking the Rockies just south of Calgary. We'd seen Willy and Ursula at beekeepers' meetings in Calgary and at the Apimondia in Ireland. Willy was a keen traveler, champion Jass player, skier, shooter, amateur actor, and great supporter of the Swiss cultural Society. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.
May 20, 2010
British Beekeepers have been agonizing over cash sponsorship deals with pesticide manufacturers because of concerns that the chemicals may be harmful to bees. According to UK's Times, "The 135-year-old [beekeeping] charity endorses four pesticides — synthetic pyrethroids — used to combat the varroa mite that is linked to the collapse of colonies. In return, for the past 12 years the association has received £17,500 a year from Bayer Crop Sciences and Syngenta. This relationship angered many members and some left the association. Phil Chandler, a writer and beekeeper from Devon, set up a rival campaign, Biobees, to promote chemical-free beekeeping."
The British Beekeepers Association has 17,000 members. It is seeking alternative funding sources to help its annual £250,000 budget. Tim Lovett, public affairs director for the BBKA, says: “We have always taken a pragmatic approach to the use of pesticides and to ensure proper stewardship of the products. But we have not endorsed the newer compounds called neonicotonoids and have called for more research on their safety. We are therefore now budgeting to ensure that we have no dependence at all on payments for product endorsement and we anticipate funding from the two chemical companies will end.”
May 20, 2010
I spent a couple of days amongst the bees. My brother Don is presently the farm's beekeeper - he is responsible for keeping the bees healthy, making splits, and generally managing the outfit. But it was great for me to see the bees. My home is over an hour from the farm - and I have to spend most of my time in an office in the big city. So it was wonderful to finally get a couple of days out in Vulcan County. Since I have a motor-neurone disease, I can't walk easily and can't carry much of anything, so my job was mostly unelected supervisor. And occasional hive opener. The real workers today were my 26-year-old daughter Erika, her husband Justin, and our great friend Jacques. As a team, we worked through the bees in a couple of days.
Apple trees, dandelions, and caragana hedges are all blossoming nicely. Bees are hauling huge wads of bright pollen and quite a bit of fresh nectar is sparkling in the frames. However, unfortunately, the bees don't look very good. They haven't been doing well at all. Quite a few hives fill two deeps. But in the latter weeks of May, they should all fill two deep chambers. At least half our hives barely cover a single box and some look worse. I think the problem is the cool, wet, windy, dark, dismal, gray, dank, disappointing weather. I don't think the bees have had two days of 20 degree (68F) weather. Frost almost every morning. Snow in the higher elevations - in fact, there are huge banks of snow in the Buffalo Hills, not far from the farm. Our colonies should be plugged with pollen; dripping with nectar. They should be swarming. But alas, many hives are feeble caricatures of normality.
Nevertheless, we were able to make a few dozen splits, preventing the best hives from swarming and replacing our 15% winter losses. If disease is not rampant amongst your bees, I also recommend physical location hive swaps to keep bees out of trees and improve the strength of your weaker colonies. It is simple. If you find a colony barely covering a couple of frames (but seemingly possessing a good queen), you can lift the hive and carry it to the spot where you have a much too strong hives - one that might soon want to swarm. Take that strong hive back to the weak one's location. As the field bees return with nectar and pollen, they mostly end up in their old familiar location, thus boosting the strength of the poor hive. At the same time, the sudden loss of many field bees reduces the chances of the formerly over-populated hive swarming. Some caveats: don't do this if either hive has any disease; also, make sure the previously over-strong hive still has enough bees to cover its brood. Obviously be cautious doing this trick if the weather is expected to turn quite cold - the previously strong hive may no longer have the bees to cluster over an expanded brood nest. In such a case (if you are experienced and adventurous) you might move a frame or two of brood with the bees.
So, you must think I have the farmer's disorder - complaining about the weather and blaming failures on cloudy skies and wind. That's nicer than blaming any problems on beekeeper failure. Somehow, eventually, the weather pulls through for us. The fruit, dandelion, and caragana blossom period is extended due to the cool weather and the rain is almost always welcome on southern Alberta's normally parched prairies. Below are a few photos of our recent fun in the shade of the veils. Maybe things are not as bad as I described.
Jacques, Justin, Erika;
In and Around the Bees of Vulcan County
May 26, 2010
One of Ontario's most progressive beekeepers died today. Charles Charlie-Bee Parker was only 64 years old. He started his honey and pollination business after watching a television show about bees when he was 13. Fifty years later, his Niagara Peninsula area bee farm had 6500 hives of bees. His bees pollinated blueberries in Quebec and New Brunswick, fruit in the south Ontario area, and made tonnes of honey. Charlie's biggest beekeeping struggle was maintaining the large numbers of colonies required for pollination by the berry farmers year after year. A few years back, Charlie lost 90 percent of his hives. Another year, his losses were close to two-thirds. He had a remedy for his problem - wintering hives in Florida - but international politics wouldn't allow it. According to his friend, Florida queen breeder David Miksa, "One of Charlie's goals was to open the border and winter his bees in the Florida/Georgia area. He did not make it." His huge business will continue to operate, satisfying the demands of eastern Canadian fruit growers. He will be much missed by his family and friends.
June 2, 2010
Today is my daughter's birthday. Fifteen years ago, when Erika was a little girl, she was a fan of bees and bears. So this news item reminds me of her privileged role in viewing nature's balanced struggle between those two adversaries. Here's the news story: In Macedonia, Zoran Kiseloski appeared in court as the chief prosecution witness in a case against a brown bear accused of stealing honey. According to the UK's Times, it wasn't the mild-mannered Winnie, but a rough and tumble thief instead. The court was told that the bear had been stealing honey from the hives of beekeeper Kiseloski, who said he had bought a generator and flooded his apiary with light and sound to scare the sticky-fingered animal away. He hooked up a sound system and blasted music out at its highest volume - well, a form of noise loosely described as 'music' by fans of central European Turbo Rock. “I tried to distract him with lights and music because I heard bears are afraid of that," said the annoyed beekeeper. Illuminated and resonating to the syncopathic turbo-rock beat, the bear plundered and pillaged anyway. According to the prosecution it "dishonestly misappropriated a great quantity of honey". The court found the bear guilty. The lawyer for Mr Kiseloski asked for a compensation order to be made. As the bear didn’t have an owner, the court instructed the state to pay $3000.
Erika: Today's Birthday Girl
Lest you think it a bit odd that a bear would be convicted in a European court of law, other animals have been prosecuted there before. Around 1510, a pack of rats was put on trial for eating a barley crop in Autun, France. Sadakat Kadri writes in The Trial about ingenious arguments used by Bartholomew Chassenée, the rats’ lawyer, to try to get them acquitted. He got one adjournment because the trumpets used to summon the rats to court didn’t bring all of them there, and no one should be tried in their absence. When the court tried to start the trial later (with some rats still absent), Chassenée asked for a further adjournment, noting the ancient principle that no defendant was required to risk life or limb in getting to court, and that his rat clients couldn’t attend because their route to court was beset by the dangers of cats and dogs. He won another postponement. Eventually, though, the rats were banished but only after many had been able to flee the court’s jurisdiction because of their clever lawyer.
June 7, 2010
An anonymous bee-friendly donor has just given Penn State University $250,000 to set up the Lorenzo L. Langstroth Graduate Fellowship in Entomology which will fund research (preferentially) in apiculture and other buggy sciences. Langstroth, a Pennsylvania-born beekeeper 'discovered' bee-space, designed the modern functional beehive, and popularized the concept and utility of his bee box through his bee-classic The Hive and the Honey Bee (1853). The gift to the university helps celebrate the 200th anniversary of LL Langstroth's timely birth.
June 11, 2010
An alleged sticky-fingered thief seems to have been caught in a sting by police who have more than a case of hives after comb-ing the neighbourhood around Putnam County in north Florida and finding thousands of dollars worth of stolen bee stuff. According to this Crescent City story, deputies said the Putnam County resident stole jars containing honey, hives containing bees and farm equipment worth thousands of dollars from competitors in rural St. Johns County.
June 13, 2010
Motor Neuron Disease. Also called ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig's (in America), is a devastating incurable illness which usually kills within three years. I have had a slowly progressing variant of motor neuron disease for ten years. My external symptoms are almost identical to ALS, but for me the progression is roughly ten times slower than normal. Why? How the heck would I know? But I do know that I am a luck guy. Any adult - of any nationality and social or cultural background and any lifestyle - can get the disease. There are no advance warnings and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it or prevent it. But we are hoping to change this.
Each year, the Alberta ALS Society has a fund raiser - called Betty's Run. It is a great event. And it raises a lot of money for motor neuron research (almost $400,000 this year!) and for practical devices for assisted living (beds, power-chairs, vans) which are loaned to people with ALS. This year, 3000 people walked and ran as part of their pledge to bring awareness and donations to the cause here in Calgary. I neither walked nor ran. I rolled.
So, what does today's blog entry have to do with bees? Nothing. Really.
Fund Raiser for ALS Research
- Ron, Eszter, and two of our kids.
Support ALS/Motor Neuron Research
June 15, 2010
Bad Beekeeping. I've been alerted - by unnamed sources - that my title as the world's consummate Bad Beekeeper may be threatened. This could collapse my entire Bad Beekeeping empire. At risk are my book (Bad Beekeeping); those Bad Beekeeping T-shirts I was designing; my Bad Beekeeping website; and even this Bad Beekeeper's Bad Beekeeping web blog - all are threatened!
Left - Ron's 2004 book; Right - Bill's 2010 book.
Buy both, of course.
The new boy on the block is a certain Mr Bill Turnbull (not to be mistaken for Mr Bill Turnbull, beekeeper and former Toronto resident). This particular Mr Bill Turnbull is of a country variously called Britain, the United Kingdom, and sometimes even England. Mr Bill Turnbull, a self-described Bad Beekeeper, has just written a fine book, which he calls The Bad Beekeepers Club, published in May 2010 - and (my sources say) Bill has begun to call himself 'the Bad Beekeeper'. Hey, isn't that my moniker? Can't he get his own cognomen? Bad Beekeeper - King of Bad Beekeeping - is what all my friends have called me for years. So, I am concerned. Surely Bill Turnbull - a popular TV personality in London and probably other places - knew he was giving his book a title perilously close to my (more accurately) titled popular book, Bad Beekeeping. (Which was published in 2004, by the way!) Unless he is a truly dreadfully and unforgivably bad beekeeper, then Bill certainly encountered my book during his research for his book. Perchance he encountered my memoir and subconsciously (or even unconsciously) thought "What a delightful title for a memoir!"
I guess this hurts about the same way as when a Norwegian rock band (in the picture, to your right) ran off with my last name. It's true. The metal band Miksha - according to an early version of their website - was apparently so desperate for a great-sounding name that they called themselves Miksha in honour of the "beekeeper military-genius who used bee-derived poisons in Vietnam and then wrote about it in Bad Beekeeping." Of course not all of their story about me (Miksha) is true. At first I was a bit miffed at their theft of my name. Then I noticed a neat thing. As tattooed and pierced Norwegian metallic-rock enthusiasts searched the web for Miksha music, they discovered my book and spent their twenty-five bucks on my memoir instead. Maybe by accident, but a sale's a sale. I saw a nice marketing uptick. Maybe the same will happen as folks try to buy Bill Turnbull's Bad Beekeeper Club book.
Which book should you buy? Bad Beekeeping or The Bad Beekeepers Club? Should you purchase Turnbull's memoir, described by Little, Brown Books as a "charming account of how he stumbled into the mysterious world of beekeeping" or should you buy my book? Bill, again quoting the Little, Brown Books press release "was stung twice on the head". I've had a few more than that, so my cognitive function is likely even more impaired. And Bill (from the UK) is probably descended of a family that has at least some members who commanded the English language for twenty generations; I am a first-generation English-mother-tonguer. Hey, my people are still struggling with the grammar! (For example, Bill's book is called The Bad Beekeepers Club - I would have mistakenly placed an apostrophe after Beekeepers, rather than omitting it.) Point is, my guess is that Bill Turnbull has the better book, complete with superior grammar. But you should be the judge of that. Therefore, may I suggest you buy both of our books and make your own decision?
By the way, I haven't yet read Bill's book, but I certainly will. Maybe I am mentioned as the world's leading Bad Beekeeper and all will be forgiven. (By the way, Bill, if you are reading this - my latest book is called Bees Eat Money... I'd also like to claim title to Bees Eat More Money, The Bees Eat Money Club, and a variety of permutations. Just in case you're thinking of your sequel, too.)
June 17, 2010
The Calgary Sun sent a reporter to our farm. Renato - bright, energetic, and tons of fun and charm - is the adventurer for Adventures with Renato. This fellow has unabashedly downed beer, thrown rocks, played chess, and belly-laughed. And now he's doing bees.
As it is still spring in western Canada (and probably will be until fall), we asked Renato to help us find queen bees in the hives. A sort of 'Where's Waldo Game?' for beekeepers. We did eventually find Her Majesty among her 40,000 subjects. To prepare for the video take, I smoked all the hives in the entire apiary about fifteen minutes before the interview and gave Renaldo a new one-piece bee suit. We had a brief conversation about how to move, act, and walk among the hives. The filming involved just a few retakes and a practice run for Renaldo. You can view the video which we have linked here. On the linked video, the bees follow a brief advertisement placed by Sun newspapers. The star of the show is Renaldo, not Ron, but you will get to see me, my nor son-in-law (new beekeeper) Jason. You will also get to see a wee bit of our farm. Nucs were previously pulled from these hives, so strength is still in recovery.
We've been trying to promote beekeeping here in the Calgary area. It's not hard. Nor expensive. If you are apiculturally active, you will find local news organizations are keen to tell your story for you. The benefits are great - increased honey sales, more apiary locations, friendlier zoning bylaws. But you need to be professional and helpful to the newspapers and televison folks who may be conveying your message. Here are a few little suggestions for dealing with the media:
1) News folk have their own schedule. They are always in a rush. Even an ageless story like bees has to be booked, reported/filmed, edited, and released within hours. So when media calls and says, "Can we talk/video?" they mean now - not tomorrow when the weather will be better. Never say, "I'll get back to you..." - they will be gone by the time you get back to them.
2) News folk are usually brave folk - but dress them up properly around the hives. The 6 o'clock news girl will not look better with a swollen eye.
3) Bees are fascinating enough without your brags, pontification, or pretension. Don't mention the time you were stung 500 times in one afternoon - hobby beekeepers may loose their locations due to your boasts.
4) Honey is healthy enough without your brags, pontification, or pretension. Sure, it occasionally cures influenza, leprosy, and hair lice - but to insist that honey is a cure-all is misleading and may border on fraud - or at least it will sound like quackery.
5) Stay with the reporters' script - if they are after bee stings and MS or CCD, don't keep coming back to pollination. It will be edited out and you will be wasting everyone's time.
6) Be sure you say what you want to say - practice, or at least write out a few key points before meeting the reporter. You won't have an opportunity to correct what you said later. This is a one-shot chance. No take-backs, no re-takes.
7) Be sure the reporter has follow-up contact information. E-mail, phone - land line and cell. Rarely there may be a question during the edit phase - though reporters tend to drop material they don't understand. Another reason to keep the message brief and clear. However, in the odd case that they may need to clarify a point, be sure you can be reached at the number you gave them.
June 20, 2010
On the Alberta prairies, our spring has been cold and wet. Today, after a morning low of 7C (about 45F), we may see 18 or 19 for a high (66F). The bees have been weak and struggling for months. I doubt they will need supers until August. This week, record rainfalls washed out the TransCanada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Rail. Parts of Medicine Hat are under water - as is much of nearby Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. So, we have moisture.
We trekked to Lethbridge today so our 8-year-old could compete in the provincial gymnastics. (He did well.) Along the way, we saw dozens of fields like the one in the photo below. The Oldman River was at flood stage with roads along the valley closed. Two hundred houses were flooded due to the 180 mm (8 inches) of rain and overflowing streams. Farmers are not expected to get on their fields for weeks - some crops will need replanting; other fields (especially in wetter Saskatchewan) will likely be inaccessible until fall.
One beekeeper lost hundreds of hives along the South Saskatchewan River. They tried to save their hives, but the river rose quickly - to 3 metres over the tops of their colonies - it became dangerous for them to drag the boxes to higher ground. Our own bees were not flooded, but were mostly stuck inside their hives, gathering a bit of pollen between rainshowers, but generally feeling miserably cold and not developing into normal early summer colonies. It is not looking good here in the boggy soggy south of Alberta, Canada.
Alberta's 2010 Flooded Fields; Oldman River over its Banks
June 25, 2010
Touch or Don't Touch? Beekeepers seems to exist in three flavours: either Hyperactive or Inactive, with a tiny minority of Inbetweeners. Hyperactive Beekeepers love ripping off the roof and digging long and deep into the hive while the bees get irritated, robbing commences, and the queen gets squished. The Inactive Beekeeper (also known as the 'Let-Alone-Beekeeper') may have trouble pulling the lid off the hives. Probably it is glued down with inches of propolis and cross-webbed wax. Such a mess is rarely broken loose. When it is, the bees may be pretty irritated - reinforcing the idea that the bees are best left alone. What's best for the bees? Some of my friends "Love messin' with the bees." whether the bees want that sort of love or not. This is the beekeeping that squishes queens and demoralizes hives. On the other hand, not examining the bees has its own price to pay.
Can you be a non-intrusive Hyperactive beekeeper? The BBC is reporting on a tool to help us - Honeybees: 3D images reveal life inside a live hive. According to the claim, "Scientists have devised a new way to peer into the inner workings of a live honeybee colony, without disturbing the insects inside. The technique, known as Diagnostic Radioentomology (DR), scans a beehive, taking a series of 3D images. This reveals in real-time how many bees are inside, where they are, and gives clues as to what they are doing." This technology might bridge the gap between the beekeeper who needs to know what's happening inside the hive without bugging the bugs.
Mark Greco and his team at the Swiss Bee Research Centre are using an X-Ray tomography system to scan hives to monitor them in a non-invasive fashion so as not to affect the results of their monitoring. It reminds us of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Relation - which includes the basic principle that even something as elementary as a quantum particle can't be measured without influencing the measurement. Biological sciences have long sought techniques to study organisms without becoming part of the experiment themselves. Huber created his leaf-page beehive so he could sneak up on the broodnest to study it. Similarly, we have our glass hive. But in these and most other apiarian examples, we interfere with the bees and we don't get to see how they behave when we're not around. So, the Swiss bee research station perhaps has a pretty clever tool. Very likely, we will one day have such a device to pick out suffering colonies in the dead of winter without opening and examining (and disrupting) our wintering hives.
July 1, 2010
It's Canada Day! A young country in age and attitude - Canada celebrates its 143rd anniversary today. Independence (from Britain) was achieved peacefully when a cluster of eastern provinces formed a self-governing confederacy. Since the country's creation was a clerical exercise (not a war) the holiday is pretty laid-back. Most Canadians could not tell you who signed the Constitution Act in 1867; nor could a majority sing the national anthem. But most know the tune and the first two words. All the usual adjectives - safe, clean, peaceful, prosperous, generous, and free - are still largely accurate descriptors. It's a nice place and we are celebrating a nice day today. So, what's a summer holiday for? If you have a day-job but also keep a few boxes of bees you know the answer to this already.
July 7 to 13, 2010
We are on a family road trip. First time for us. Eszter and I have been waiting for our two tots to reach the safe height requirement for a dark ride. They are now each over a meter high and seem almost comfortable when strapped in their safety seats for up to three hours at a time. So, we are exploring western Canada.
July 7, 2010
What a neighbourhood we live in!Gorgeous beyond description... So, I won't try. Heading west past our local craggy Rocky Mountains are a series of high mountain ranges with deep green valleys. They were part destination and part journey to our more distant destination, Vancouver. Our first day on the road took us beyond Banff, over the continental divide, and down into B.C.'s temperate valleys. There we explored a wolf sanctuary, douglas fir forests, and alpine pastures. Finally, we drove to a cabin in the woods a kilometre off the Trans-Canada Highway. Enroute, high up one of the range passes, snow was just a few dozen metres above us. I doubt the place is frost-free more than thirty days a year. However, alsike clover grew densely with a rich hue of green and pungent blossoms that hosted dozens of strange bee-like creatures. You can see these clover flowers in the picture to your right (the child is not one of those strange bee-like creatures).
Rocky Mountain Clover, near Revelstoke, B.C.
July 8, 2010
Not much for bees here.Today's drive west has delayed us at a honey bee desert - not a lot here for bees among these cool intramontane meadows. Dandelions are common and are attracting a variety of bugs - but we see no honey bees. There is a bit of clover, even some sweet clover. But bears must be irritable here - nectar plants are patchy; there would not be much honey for bears to enjoy.
So instead of biology class, today our little people are being treated to a history lesson. We are standing at the spot Canada really became a nation. One hundred twenty-five years ago, the Canadian government completed a promise to the people of British Columbia - by hammering the last nail in the 7000 kilometre Canadian Pacific Rail track here, in Last Spike, (Craigellachie) B.C.. This tied east to west; Canada became a united country.
Canada Ties the Knot at Last Spike, B.C.
July 9, 2010
Today we are in Canada's rainforest.Ferns and fat trees abound in the humid landscape along of the mild Pacific northwest. It rarely freezes here; seldom becomes hot. It is a green world of giants - giant trees, giant leaves of giant shrubs. Missing - at least to my uncomplicated non-hymenopteric eye - are nectar-drenched flowers. Maybe when you think rainforest, you think tropical - exotic birds and bright flowers. Our Canadian rainforests are usually cool and foggy - splendid with giant hemlocks, big-leaf maples and sitka spruce. But none of these trees - nor the ferny underbrush - give much of interest to the poor honey bee. The west coast beekeepers make honey from berries and wildflowers somewhere inland from these drizzly coastal forests. They may make their money from queen breeding and pollination - but that would be 'lower mainland' beekeeping, not 'wet coast' beekeeping.
The West Coast Temperate Rainforest
July 10, 2010
Honeybee Centre.Our journey back from the coast included a quick stop at John Gibeau's Honeybee Centre. I wrote about John's operation earlier, and had met him at meetings, but this was my first chance to drop by his store near Surrey, BC. Honeybee Centre has an impressive array of all sorts of health-related honey products (honeys high in anti-oxides, propolis, pollen, royal jelly, honey comb). John's outfit is probably the biggest producer of blueberry honey in Canada and provides pollination services, swarm removals, and education services. The latter is evident with the young lady, right, who gives beekeeping demonstrations.
South Mainland BC Beekeepers such as John Gibeau usually engage in a variety of bee-related activities. Honey flows here are usually not very good. So Fraser Valley beekeepers might raise a few queens, sell varietal honeys, pollinate blueberries, raspberries, cucumbers, and cranberries. Lately, cranberry growers have been increasing pollinating colony count per acre, vastly increasing yields.
A Resident Beekeeper at Honeybee Centre
July 11, 2010
Kelowna, B.C.Such a lovely town - along the edge of the Okanagan River, nestled between low mountain ranges running parallel to the valley. This is a place many to which many Calgarians drive ("only seven hours") to enjoy great sunshine and mild water. We expected to be greeted by the legendary mid-July heat-waves. Fat chance. It turned cool and extremely windy! We had one morning of beach weather along the river, but that's all.
Fortunately, our Kelowna sojourn was enhanced by a pleasant afternoon at a buddy's house. Miles Prodan, a former Calgary Bee Club president and beekeeper, has lived in Kelowna for the past few years with his wife Sandy and their teenagers. A few years ago, Miles helped me with my bees south of Calgary, so it was nice connecting again. We feasted on cherries plucked from the tree in his front yard while children splashed in the backyard pool. Oh yeah, it was nice there.
At the Okanagon in Kelowna
July 12, 2010
Planet Bee.Today's special stop is Ed Nowak's Planet Bee, the Vernon, BC, honey gift store. This place has a strong educational program which features a tour of their outdoor observatory, "The largest of its kind in Western Canada," plus seasonal demonstrations of honey extraction and bottling. Specialty honeys in the shop include raspberry, fireweed, Okanagan Valley wildflower, buckwheat, cranberry, blueberry, clover - and (of course) comb honey.
Popular items are pollen supplementals and royal jelly concoctions. Ceramic honey pots, lip balms, hand lotions, candles, and gift baskets round out the offers. Ed told us that tour bus companies include Planet Bee on their itinerary. Great promotion for the entire industry!
Planet Bee of Vernon, B.C.
July 13, 2010
We're back in Boom Town(a.k.a., Calgary). We're back home - not much more than 2000 kilometres later, the loop is closed and we find ourselves in our home town again. You might not expect our sophisticated, cosmopolitan cow-town of a million folks also supports ten million 'kept' honey bees, but it does. There are two vibrant bee clubs in Calgary - one for general hobby keepers and another popular with urban gardener-beekeepers. I think there are likely 200 kept colonies in our town - probably over a thousand if the new expanded rural 'city limits' are included.
The bees of Calgary mostly feast on clovers and alfalfa - producing a premium white honey. Our rather dry climate - 36 cm (14 inches) precip/year - gives the honey a wonderful thick texture. Beyond our city - i.e., southern Alberta - roughly a hundred thousand of Alberta's quarter million hives produce largely legume honey, with canola and wildflowers sometimes giving the white honey an extra nice flavour.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
July 16, 2010
Flooded Beehives in Alberta, Canada
Alberta weather has remained cool and wet this summer. Of course, we are whining and complaining about the poor weather and lack of honey in our hives. But it could be worse: A friend sent the pictures above - they lost seven hundred hives along the South Saskatchewan River, near Medicine, Alberta. Every hive - every honey bee - in these photographs was lost. Below you can the result of over 150 millimetres (6 inches) of rain falling in a single 24-hour period in May 2010. Six kilometres (4 miles) of the Trans-Canada Highway, also known as Highway 1, was under water and closed for days.
Trans-Canada Highway Washed Out
July 20, 2010
The headline screams: Bee Swarm Sets Town Abuzz and the first sentence sensationalizes that "a giant bee swarm" was removed. But the text of the Edmonton, Alberta, CBC story admits that this 'giant' swarm had perhaps only 15,000 bees. Considering that a summertime Alberta colony should have 60,000 or more residents, the swarm's size is less impressive than the 48-point font warrants. The swarm was quickly retrieved by area beekeepers, and the world did not end. But it reminds us beekeepers that the non-keeping public is readily terrorized by a few bees (Red Alert?). And that the evening news is mostly show business.
July 25, 2010
Still no honey in the hives. We can't expect much this year. Our colonies are not strong, the weather is still really cool and wet. But occasionally a bit of honey is gathered in August here. Here's to hoping for a few hot August afternoons.
July 30, 2010
Stompin' Tom will start his summer tour in Thunder Bay tomorrow night. I'll be there. I am already in Ontario. Yes, I realize that Thunder Bay is 2000 kilometres from Calgary. I caught a morning flight with WestJet credits that would soon expire, so the flight was free. I'd never been to Thunder Bay - a visit here has long been on my personal quest list, as I'm sure it has been for you, too.
Stompin' Tom in Thunder Bay, Ontario
The Friday morning flight was a weird 'milk-run' that started from Vancouver, picked me up in Calgary, touched us down briefly in Winnipeg, took me to Thunder Bay, then continued on (without my help) to Hamilton, and finally Ottawa. One plane, six cities, in one day. The weather was clear, so the scenery from 10 kilometres up (30,000 feet) was great.
As we gained altitude, I could see the distribution of canola near Calgary. It was at peak blooming stage - a bit late this year due to cold weather. I conducted a very rough semi-scientific calculation of canola acreage within a hundred kilometres or so of the city as we headed east. This was not so hard - the farmland is surveyed into neat section lines, 36 sections to the township. Each section (640 acres) is exactly one mile by one mile and is subdivided into 'quarter sections' which are the basic unit of agricultural land in Alberta. A quarter section is 160 acres. Sixty or so years ago, each quarter section usually supported a family and had a house and barn. Over the years - especially in the 1970s - farms here merged and expanded. Some family farms stretch across half a dozen sections and are farmed by huge equipment that can till all that soil in just a few days. But the legacy of nicely quartered sections remains, allowing easy aerial counting. I think the yellow canola fields numbered 322 out of 700 quarters. About 50% canola near Calgary.
By the time we flew near our farm (to the south and barely visible from 30,000 feet), the canola was nearly gone - probably less than ten percent of the land had the stuff. I think that's because the area around Milo and the Lake McGregor irrigation system has been historically cattle country. Lots of alfalfa patches were visible - and vast dry rangelands. We were gaining both altitude and speed now, so the glimpse of our homestead was fleeting. We were still north of the South Saskatchewan River. Abruptly, about 200 kilometres east of Calgary, I saw hundreds of crop circles. Not the ones built by the Friends of E.T. Society. These were round irrigation patches - courtesy Water-Masters' Central Pivots Inc., among others. I'm not sure if spraying water in a 500-metre radius circle to quench wheat fields is the most effective use of the prairie aquifers, but try explaining that to the farmers down there who inherited their grandfathers' homesteads.
After Lake Diefenbaker, a little further east in Saskatchewan, moisture conditions improved again. No more crop circles. Instead, the perfectly aligned north-south and east-west grid of country roads (again following the square (6 x 6 mile) townships, sections, and quarter-sections system) was so tidy it was dramatic. Looking about thirty miles south, I could see 'correction lines' where the parallel north-south roads made abrupt jogs east for a few metres to compensate for the curvature of the earth. You can't lay out perfectly squared farmland and still keep roads pointed perfectly north at the same time, hence the 'corrections'. Lucky for me, it became cloudy so I could quit counting farm patches and shut my eyes instead.
We dropped below cloud level on our approach into Winnipeg, which brought the plane across the southern tip of Lake Manitoba. Did you know they grow canola right up to the banks of this magnificent lake? Maybe you don't care. More interesting, I think, is that the sister lakes of Winnipegosis, Manitoba, and Winnipeg are remnants of glacial Lake Agassiz - once the world's largest lake (much bigger than all the Great Lakes combined - actually holding more water than all of the lakes now in the world). 8,400 years ago it breached, causing the world's sea level to rise three metres (10 feet) in a few months - leading to the world-wide legacy of Great Flood Myths. What does this have to do with honey bees? you ask. Nothing, of course, because North America had no honey bees until just a few hundred years ago.
My plane is airborne again, continuing on its way to Thunder Bay. As we glide into this northwest Ontario community, I am surprised at the beautiful farmland below me. Barns, silos, dairy pasture, and then the mafic plateau of Mount McKay. I'm seeing agriculture. In what I thought would be the Canadian Shield - pre-Cambrian granite rock. But this was definitely fertile-looking land below. And the farms our plane was annoying looked pleasant enough to spend a life-time caring for. The cabbie driving me from the airport to Prince Arthur was full of Thunder Bay fun facts. "Biggest city on the biggest lake." I looked it up - he was right, Thunder Bay, at a hundred thousand, had more people than Duluth and Superior combined. "Three downtowns." This forestalled a mystery - any small city with three downtowns would be hard to navigate, and it was. "We have the most Finns outside of Finland." Huh? "Most Finns outside of Finland." How did that happen? He wasn't sure. But he took me past the Finnish Cultural Centre and pointed out the Finnish Bookstore.
On very short notice, Joanne Henderson, president of the Thunder Bay Beekeepers Association, met me at the Prince Arthur with two beekeeping colleagues. Over lunch, I learned a lot about beekeeping in the Thunder Bay area. There are no commercial beekeepers in this scene - just 70 very dedicated hobby beekeepers, one of whom has 75 hives; most of whom have three. There are usually reasons why an area does not have a commercial beekeeper. Commercial, by our definition, implies a sustained expectation of profit. After listening to the trials and tribulations of the TBBA members - bears, cold springs, pesticides, droughts in summer, harsh winters, lack of pollination contracts, minor nectar flows - it is apparent that bees are kept mostly for fun, not profit, here. This is not to say that the occasional crop isn't good. And retail sales of locally produced products are reaching a more discerning audience. However it would be difficult to succeed with more than a few dozen hives here. (But not impossible.)
The Slate River Valley, which had impressed me on my flight into Thunder Bay, is the area's main agriculture district. Joanne tells me that the climate is milder there and has two weeks' longer growing season. Dairy farmers in the valley grow alfalfa, but it wasn't clear to me if legumes produce much nectar in these acidic soils. Earlier in the day, south of the city, I had noticed healthy dense clusters of goldenrod - a typical sign of non-alkali soil. These were the most vigorous stands of goldenrod I'd seen outside of western Pennsylvania. The goldenrod was not yet blossoming (it should by September). I suspect some areas around Thunder Bay have good fall flows - weather permitting. The valley's farms produce potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, and salad greens; but surprisingly, they also offer tomatoes, cucumbers, and 'vine ripened' melons. Maybe there are some pollination opportunities?
Our mini-bee meeting lasted about three hours. We talked a lot about comb honey production. Rene was especially interested in this difficult and complex angle of beekeeping. He was using a system that resulted in a lot of burr comb and not much good quality section. I showed him our round system and left sample frames for Rene, Valerie, and Joanne to try. I wasn't optimistic that they could get comb in August in this area, but it was worth a try. It was a nice and informative evening.
July 31, 2010
More on Stompin' Tom. Few people beyond the walls of Canada know this folk singer. But my American friend and his brother drove to Thunder Bay from Madison, Wisconsin - over a thousand kilometres - just to see Stompin' Tom. So I was there, too. Partly to see Tom, partly to see these recalcitrant Americans. Except for these two fans from south of the border, 75-year-old Stompin' Tom has little commercial currency in the USA. I doubt if even a few hundred Americans know his music, yet in Canada he is more popular than Dylan. Most Canadians will say that Stompin' Tom's musical legacy will be his ceaseless promotion of Canadian culture, history, and song.
Tom Connors spent the first few years of his life in the prison where his mother was incarcerated. Then the benevolent government dropped him on a Prince Edward Island family. He stayed there until he ran away, at age 12, to hitch-hike North America. At 16, he was deported from Texas (USA), sent back to Canada. After a few more years of drifting, he ended up a nickel short of a beer at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ontario. So he sang for his drink, was offered a contract, wrote songs, and soon made records.
Unfortunately, Tom's habit of pounding the stage with his boot ("stompin") was destroying his venues until he was offered a portable stomping board. (Been thinking of getting one for our 8-year-old.) For the past fifty(!) years he has not been allowed to tour without a board. (At the end of each season, his stompin' board is auctioned for charity.) His Canadiana songs include The (Good Old) Hockey Song, Sudbury Saturday Night, Tillsonburg (the tobacco picker's song), The Man in the Moon is a Newfie, Muk Tuk Annie, and, of course, his 1969 launcher, Bud the Spud (from P.E.I.'s bright red mud). Unfortunately, out of 250 songs written by Connors, not one beekeeper's song.
How was Stompin' Tom in Thunder Bay? I think my American buddies - who drove so far for the show - were satisfied. Not as good as when they'd driven to Hamilton, Ontario, to see him. But the songster was a couple of years younger then - and the Hamilton show was mid-season, Thunder Bay was season-opener. Stompin' tried to tell a joke about a Newfie which was inappropriate and poorly delivered, he was weepy, and forgot some verses (but the audience helped him out). Nevertheless, Stompin' Tom Connors was formidable on stage - his voice as strong as ever, his charisma in full flower. And he could still stomp.
August 1, 2010
Before leaving Thunder Bay, locals told me about The Sleeping Giant. Long ago, before the white people arrived, the God of the Deep Waters wanted to reward the Ojibwe people because they worked hard and were peaceful. Deep Water God would tell the people the secret of the silver mine and it would make them rich. But there was a catch. "If you tell the secret to White People, you will become poor and sick and I will turn into stone."
Thunder Bay's Sleeping Giant
The secret seemed safe because no one had ever seen (or heard of) white people. So, for hundreds of years, the Ojibwe grew rich, digging silver from the secret mine, making jewelry, selling it to the neighbouring Sioux. But finally the Sioux sent a spy who found the mine and took some silver from it. On his return to Sioux Country, he was caught by White People, who inebriated the spy, took the silver, but were then killed by a violent thunderstorm that blew up in the bay. In the morning, Deep Water God was a stone man, sleeping in the harbour. Today, on a little island at the foot of the Sleeping Giant are partly submerged shafts of what was once the most productive silver mine in North America.
August 5, 2010
I am back in Calgary. I was stuck in the office for a few cold rainy days before I could get out and see a few bees. Still no honey, but some of the hives have an almost normal strength for early August. I'm hearing from neighbouring beekeepers - similarly disappointed. I think beekeeping is for the eternal optimist. Why would anyone else bother?
August 11, 2010
I keep complaining about the cold wet weather. And that's the way it has been here, in southern Alberta. In July, we had 11 days with rain, and quite a few more with cool windy weather. So I am surprised to learn that beekeepers in the northern part of our province are having one of their worst droughts. What's happening to our climate? (Maybe someone in Ottawa can fill in the blanks: G_ob_l - Wa_m_ng. Ah, too hard for them to figure out?) Climate change creates some surprising anomalies - it is cooler and wetter than normal here in Calgary, not hotter. But weather trends will be affected in a lot of unexpected ways as the climate continues to warm. For example, after the northern sea ice is gone, the Gulf Stream is expected to stop flowing. (Partly because of less saline water from the melting glaciers and ice cap.) So, Ireland and England will become icy cold. But the savannahs in Africa and South America will heat up, dry out, burn up. So will a lot of other places on the earth. I think it's inevitable and at least partly due to human activities. But not entirely. Climate fluctuation is the norm on our planet. Only a few thousand years ago, ice was two kilometres thick over our farm yard. Now it's gone - that's pretty impressive warming. Humans (then numbering a few million world-wide - neither driving cars nor herding cows) had nothing to do with that global meltdown. However, we are undoubtedly contributing to this new round.
If global warming is part of a normal trend, why the concern over human activity? Personally, I think the concern is not broad enough. The carbon dioxide given off by the billion cars on earth (5 trillion kilograms of released CO2 each year!) plus the billions of kilos of leaking farm-animal gases are definitely trapping heat. This may make our planet more like Venus' sister than we'd prefer. But those billion automobiles also spew nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Some vehicles spit lead and other unpleasant poisons. All those cars include four billion tires, a billion batteries, and half a billion airconditioners. This adds up to a lot of poison produced, concentrated, and then dispersed. Not enough attention is given to this dirty aspect of our consumption habits.
I am certainly not against capitalism, science, or development. Developed countries usually have greater personal liberty, better health care, longer-lived inhabitants, and cleaner water and air than places which have not yet had the same chances to embrace technology and liberalism. The dirtiest and most polluted places I've seen have also been the poorest. Poor people struggle just to find food and firewood; concern that their food is insecticide-drenched and their bundle of firewood contributes to deforestation, erosion, and global warming isn't realistic. As a population's living standard increases, people have the luxury of thinking beyond survival mentality and can begin thinking about the health of their environment.
On the other end of the economic scale, my town of a million people - Calgary - has an average family income almost twice the USA average. And it scores consistently as the world's most Eco-Friendly city - according to the respected Mercer Group Quality of Living Rankings. Their Eco-Ranking includes air and water quality as well as recycling, traffic snarls, and the like as factors which help determine the health of a city's landscape. This is the fifth consecutive year that Calgary has placed first on this American stats-gathering and calculating agency's list of the world's 300 largest cities.
August 12, 2010
Yesterday, I mentioned the drought in northern Alberta. According to The Edmonton Journal, the "Parched Grande Prairie County Declares Agricultural Disaster." This is the third northwest Alberta county to make disaster part of its description this summer. And it is Grande Prairie County's third consecutive year. Grain crops are already crispy brown; hay crops are yielding half the normal harvest. How can we (here in south Alberta) be so wet while the north is so dry? Alberta is pretty big ("Texas-sized") and dry Grande Prairie is an eight-hour drive north of soggy Calgary. Lots of room for variability. This will result in a patchy honey season - maybe mid-point (around Edmonton) will be neither too cold and wet nor too hot and dry.
August 20, 2010
"After witnessing courageous Nepali honey-gatherers, you can relax with High Tea at the Resort," says the unsolicited e-mail advertisement. Our world is so utterly incongruous. I might take a tour like this - then return to brag about how I'd made an ardous trek half-way around the world. I might describe how I saw courageous men climb rocky cliffs to chop combs of honey from dorsata bees. It reminds me of when I lived in Florida. Tourists in a van from New York once stopped on the highway's shoulder to take pictures of me working my bees. They even tried to direct the scene. (I don't direct well.) Back home again, I imagine they would tell their friends that they were just a few feet from killer bees. Of course, they kept the windows cranked up. I doubt it occurred to them that I was doing my normal impecunious routine - which was rarely risky or dangerous and neither romantic nor financially rewarding. However, as I think about it a bit more, I guess the Nepalese travelers (whose money helps support the people who put on the traditional honey-gathering 'show') really are the ones outside their comfort zones. The native folks in Nepal are collecting honey, much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. (Except to the beat of flash photography instead of mahdals and damarus.) Maybe I am being a bit harsh on the tourists - thousands of kilometres from home, guided through damp forest paths, struggling with a few Nepali phrases, and finally subjected to a 'High Tea' - have perhaps earned their bragging rights.
September 7, 2010
With Rosh Hashanah approaching, a lot of families buy extra honey to start a sweet New Year. Unfortunately, in Israel, fraudulently packaged fake honey has been plaguing markets and consumers. The Agriculture Ministry and the Israel Honey Board have been helping police identify the stuff - often sugar-water labeled with popular and respected honey brand names. According to Haaretz.com, Shimshon Herlinger, vice president of the Honey Board, says, "Fraud happens ever year, but over the last two years, there has been an upsurge." Police have found and destroyed about a ten thousand kilos of the stuff so far.
September 11, 2010
A good news story to help lighten this day. The Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven opens today - Saturday, September 11 - at the University of California (Davis) campus in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. Visitors can relax at the half-acre bee-friendly garden (after passing by two columns of bee hives at the garden's entrance).
September 15, 2010
I haven't written much about our bees or our honey farm lately. We've had some changes. Because I am physically unable to keep bees anymore (see the June 13th entry on this page, above) I had hired my brother Don to manage and work with the bees, the honey packing, and the honey sales for our little business. After four years, Don has moved on. From September 15, my daughter Erika and her husband Justin will be in charge of the farm. They are really happy to give the bees a try and I think they will do well. They both have the right mix of skills to farm bees. They like the idea of living near a small town (an hour from the city) on an acreage where they can grow a few potatos, rhubarb, and cabbage. And anything else they can coax from the cold Alberta soil. Justin has been a carpenter and furnace-fitter guy, so he brings in a lot of great mechanical skills. Erika will keep her job at the local community hospital (recreation therapist for the very aged and very ill) so they will have a little grocery money while we rebuild the bees and expand the farm a little. Until now, I have been the farm's banker, but now I'll take on the role of advisor - at least for a couple of years while Justin becomes a beekeeper. He's a quick learner, so my input shouldn't be needed for very long.
Our honey season was a bust this year. There were several reasons for this, but the biggest was likely the cold wet weather we had in our part of Canada this summer. Our production was the worst we've ever had. Our 400 hives (spring count) were reduced to 300 by mid-summer - average hives were united in the hope of creating some boomers strong enough to produce comb honey. Four hundred colonies should have made 30,000 combs of honey - we produced 5000 this year. We have no signs of Colony Collapse Disorder, but the cool weather seemed to hold the bees back. It is small consolation that neighbouring beekeepers are telling us their crops were from 25% to 70% of long-term averages. Our crop was about 15%, but that's partly because it is so darn hard to produce comb honey during a feeble honey year. You need strong hives, stiffling heat, and intense nectar flows to draw combs and fill them. We had none of it this year. Maybe next year?
The New Beekeepers: Justin and Erika
September 17, 2010
Oh no, snow. Five centimetres on the ground. The honey flow is probably over.
September 20, 2010
It is a beekeeper's right to whine and complain about the weather. Here (Calgary, Alberta) it has been a cold wet season. But not as wet as some places. My cousin in Croatia has sent these pictures to me. They show my grandfather's village (Cicka Poljana, southeast of Zagreb) has had a once-in-two-hundred-year's flood. None of the folks in the town were hurt. My cousins even had time to move their cars to higher ground. But furnaces and furniture were lost in most homes along the Odra River.
September 2010 Flood in Croatia
September 23, 2010
OK. We all knew it would happen some day. "Dog Saves Allergic Boy from Swarm of Bees," says WJW Fox 8 Cleveland. Am I the only one who is aghast that the headline writer would declare that the boy is allergic? Do we sneeze if we get to close to him? I realize the story is from FOX News, but surely even they can afford editors?
September 26, 2010
Google has an official beekeeper. Bill Tomaszewski keeps a few hives at the Google Headquarters in California. Some of the residents there find the idea of bees on campus worrisome, but most have sweetened up to the concept. Including Jocelyn Miller who saw parallels between the buzzing hives and the corporate world. And why wouldn't she? After all, she's an anthropologist employed by the world's most successful search company. (Trained to see links between everything.) Bill the Beekeeper has been successful - he harvested 400 pounds of honey last week. Don't believe me? Google him.
September 27, 2010
Cumbria, England - A Bee Sanctuary
New Teaching Apiary; First Teaching Session; First Teaching Group
A bee sanctuary. In Cumbria, England. It sounded intriguing to me, so I wrote to the folks doing the work at the sanctuary. It sounded even more interesting after I got a reply, so I asked for permission to reprint it here.Bee Notes from Cumbria Yesterday I organised and closed my beehives down for winter. As the beekeeping year here draws to a close and the inevitable dampness settles in it is a good time to think back over the year. Cumbria is still a very rural county, mountains in the middle, a circle of small towns round the outside, coast and sea to the west and south and an economy in which sheep still play a large part. There is not much for bees though in our green fields and grazed fells so beekeepers here are hobby beekeepers, hardly anyone attempts commercial beekeeping because we just do not have enough forage. Dandelion flowers launch our bees in the spring and our honey crop comes from woodland trees and bramble with some heather at the end of the year. Beekeeping is very important to us though because it provides a strong social network in a rural county, friendships and still, a pastime that is not too regulated or full of modern day silly stuff. I guess that as hobby beekeepers we are really lucky, we do not have to worry about income and the honey crop. We have kept bees for nearly 25 years now but it has been an important year for us because we decided to start a small not for profit bee business alongside our day jobs. As in other places there are concerns about the pollinator crisis here in the UK and there is an upsurge in beekeeping and plenty of potential new beekeepers at the moment. Three years ago we were able to buy the land beside our house and our fairly low ‘sealed bid’ was perhaps successful because we enclosed a survey and plan to run the land as a nature reserve. After 2 years of hard work laying hedges, stock proofing and encouraging insect pollinated flowering plants we decided the time had come to declare our ‘Bee Reserve’ open with its small teaching apiary. The business is not for profit so we plough everything back into the reserve but we have had an amazing year. Five beekeeping courses, bumblebee identification days and projects in schools along with the usual array of talks and attending events open to the public. Our lovely gentle bees have tolerated being carted about, being handled repeatedly by learners and being split to provide nuclei to start off new beekeepers and at the end of the year we have some honey and wax to keep us going. They have also helped us make many new friends and our observation hive bees have modelled in schools round the county for portraits and pictures that, at the moment, are all on display in the local arts centre. Taking the bees to apple days and making ‘bee things’ with the kids there along with the round of honey shows will fill the next few weeks and we are just beginning to plan next year’s courses and beekeeping. - Julia and Martin. www.BeeEd.org.uk
October 5, 2010
Are you an old beekeeper? You probably don't think so. But according to this National Examiner article, a beekeeper's average age is 52. (I'm guessing this stat is for the USA.) Beekeepers usually have a higher level of education, too. 90% of the 1300 beekeepers surveyed have at least 'some' college/university, but the article points out that this isn't necessarily because smarter people become beekeepers. It costs at least a thousand dollars to get started and it helps to be retired young. Wealthier people are more typically university-educated and that's why an inordinate number of keepers are scholars. Or ex-scholars. According to the researchers conducting the survey, nearly half of them have some post-graduate work. Krengel and Schweigert included a personality test in the survey which revealed that beekeepers tend to be less extroverted, more open to new ideas, and more emotionally stable than the general public. The ideal demographic collection: smart, mid-50s, stable, retired, wealthy. Male. Drop by any bee club meeting and see for yourself.
Was Keeping Bees at 102.
October 7, 2010
Are beekeepers smarter? Probably not. But according to this Discovery Magazine report, "scientists have proven that bee venom can improve our brain function." This is apparently due to presence of the peptide apamin, which can lead to improved learning and memory. I can say from personal experience (as a guy who has been stung thousands of times), it doesn't work.
October 11, 2010
Why do bees sting? Why does the sting kill the bee? Here's an answer: If you are into traditional, rather than scientific, explanations, then you will appreciate how Aesop described the honey bee's petition to Jupiter (the god, not the planet). It falls into the "bee careful what you wish for" category. Here we go:
A bee brought honey to the god Jupiter and Jupiter was much pleased. "Now grant me a wish," said the bee. "Sure," said Jupiter, for he had much power and was quite happy with the gift of honey from the bee. "Men come to my hive and take what they want. I wish for a sting and I wish that it be deadly." Jupiter was disappointed with the bee's request. Jupiter liked the race of men which he had made in his own likeness. Jupiter told the bee, "But I like people, and I know that they take only a bit of honey each time." "I want a stinger. A stinger that kills," insisted the bee. Jupiter - a god of his word - finally agreed to the request. He gave the bee her stinger, and told the bee, "I will give you a stinger that kills. But if you use it, you will be the one who dies."
For purists, you can read the 1666 Latin version, rather than the simplified modern English translation appearing above. The wood-cut (left) is from a 1479 publication of Aesop Tales and depicts Jupiter and the bee. Not sure of the run-away bee-thief's identity. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's you.
October 14, 2010
Want some free honey? Free honey is getting harder to find - but I'll describe a time-honoured tradition involving an axe, a ladder, a hollow tree, and a wild nest of bees. This is the time of year for honey hunting in the northern hemisphere - autumn means feral colonies have fewer bees to fight and more honey to find. And less brood to eat. I don't endorse killing the few feral colonies left in order to grab a couple of baskets of comb. You can buy what you need from your favourite beekeeper. And today's bee man gets honey without killing bees.
1909 Bee Hunting Manual
However, it's fun to read about our grandparents' skills. A hundred years ago, Bee Liners discovered wild hives hidden in trees. They did this by first catching a few stray honey bees baited by a honeycomb in a box. After kidnapping several bees this way, the Bee Liner would release one and see which way it flew to return to the secret stash (aka, the bee's home). The Bee Liner would make a visual line with respect to the sun and head off until confusion set in. Then another bee or two would be released and the pursuit continued. Eventually the wild hive would be located, the bees evicted, and the honey stolen from the tree.
With the downturn in the economy, this delightful hobby has seen a rebirth. You can read a full description in John Lockhart's 1909 book Bee Hunting online. My own copy of this skinny book (72 pages, 4 x 6 inches) was published in 1956, apparently a reprint, though this is not stated in the pamphlet. I like the way the book starts: "...from early youth, I loved to lure the wild turkey, stalk the deer, and line the bee to his [sic] home..." Bee Hunting is a manual of bee lining with chapters on "Fall Hunting", "Improved Method of Burning", and "Customs and Ownership of Wild Bees".
October 21, 2010
I found an interesting website about food (Chocolate and Zucchini) that has a yummy way of serving up essays on edibles. Particularly this week's bite on the old French expression "Faire son miel de quelque chose." which basically means making one's honey out of something. As an example, the author of the cited website traces this little truth to the sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne. (I wonder, was he a beekeeper?) About education, Montaigne says that boys can be taught many facts but ultimately they draw their own opinions:
"Bees ransack flowers here and flowers there: but then they make their own honey, which is entirely theirs and no longer thyme or marjoram. Similarly the boy will transform his borrowings; he will confound their forms so that the end-product is entirely his."
October 22, 2010
Who blogs these days? Here is a short list of some interesting bee-bloggers' pages. I learn a lot by reading these peoples' blogs. It helps me stay in touch with what is happening here and there in the bee world on an almost daily basis. If you know of an on-line bee calendar, blog, or diary not listed here, send me the link at email@example.com I'll check it out. And I'll probably add it to the list on my web links page.
- A Beekeeper's Blog by Malcolm Sanford
- Allen Dick - Fifteen Years of Bee Blogging
- Audrey's Buzzin' Honey Bee Blog
- Backwards Beekeeping - No-Chemicals, No Meds
- Bee House Hives - from Montana
- Bee Natural - Top Bar/Natural Comb Beekeeping
- Bees in the Antipodes (New Zealand)
- Canaries in a Coal Mine: Sustainable Beekeeping
- Carolina Bees' Blog
- Heart of Georgia (USA) Bee Blog
- Hill Top Farm's Bee Lady
- Honey Beekeeping Course
- Linda Tilman - Three Years of Blogging about Georgia Bees
- North Carolina Bees' Nest
- Phil Chandler - The Barefoot Beekeeper's Blog
- Que du bonheur (Voici la casa di apiculteur)
- Stephen Epstein - Israel-based Bee Blogger and Photographer Extraordinaire!
- Vintage Bee
- Wisconsin Bee Blogger
October 21, 2010
The bees are still gathering pollen! It has been warm here for a couple of weeks. With Justin, I had a chance to inspect a few hives and venture round the yards in the southern foothills (along the Rockies, about an hour's drive from Calgary). On a sunny 22 degree (70F) afternoon, he positioned hives for winter and checked weight, as I audibly accounted for queens. (With practice, one can usually hear the queenless tone.) We also "knocked-out" a few hives which seemed too weak to survive winter.
at a Rocky Mountain Foothills Beeyard
The knocking-out is not as brutal as it sounds. Basically we shook bees from weak hives into the mid-strengthed hives so that all the bugs have a chance to experience a few more months of life. This can usually be accomplished with minimal disturbance of the 'good' hives if the weather is pleasant and the bees are not too agitated.
From this uncertain vantage-point, survival seems probable for most of the colonies - though there are definitely some poor stocks (and some with various maladies) for whom we are knocking-on wood with crossed fingers. The late influx of the flowers' gifts of protein will undoubtedly give a huge advantage to all the hives. And this mild weather allows the bees some exercise, as can be seen on the left in one of our foothills apiaries.
October 27, 2010
The bees are wrapped for winter! Justin (et.al.) covered the bees with insulation and black-wrap. It took roughly 45 man-hours to cover all the hives, but that includes driving to the numerous small yards scattered around Vulcan County and the Rocky Mountain Foothills district. The timing was accidentally perfect this year. Two weeks of extremely mild weather were followed by cool temperatures. It was during the cool spell that the bees were made comfy for winter. I tell anyone who is curious that bees certainly survive our long dark cold Alberta winters - if properly prepared. Individual bees may live several months during their quiet winter semi-hibernation. The honeybees alive here in October can still be seen here in March. By then, if the queen is doing her work, those bees will be joined by a growing army of newbies.
Winter-Ready Hives in Southern Alberta
To survive months of cold, the hives are wrapped like birthday presents. Uncheerful black-coloured gifts that can't be opened until after the first day of spring - or later. One secret to successful winter wrapping involves a measure of luck. Never wrap too early (September) or the bees will heat up and get too active. Don't wrap too late (December) or an early winter blizzard will make the bees suffer. (And it is pretty hard driving around into snow-drifted bee yards.) Plan on wrapping the hives before the first really bad weather. For us, that unpredictable date is usually November 7th. Or October 29th. Or November 18th. Who knows?
October 31, 2010
Halloween is upon us again. A couple of years ago, I wrote some extraordinarily clever things about this hallowed holiday. Why are sweet treats such a draw for us humans? Isn't it amazing how our bodies are attracted to sugary chocolates the same way that bees are drawn to honey? Certainly this served our ancestors well when they were trying to figure out a career ("Fisherman? Gas Station Attendant? Beekeeper? Sure, beekeeper...") or when those hairy ancestors needed to shovel on a few extra kilos for winter. Although we modern middle-aged folks are quite fat enough, we need to dress our children as goblins who run around the neighbourhood seeking free sugar treats - and then we raid their ill-gotten loot late at night. When I turned 36 (photo, left) I weighed all of 73 kilos. I thought I'd never be overweight. But look at me now, even after the magic of photoshop. (Sorry, recent photos are being withheld.) Why the craving for all the bad stuff? I crave chocolate, coffee, gummy bears. My brain accepts that my remote ancestors needed to calories to survive frequent famines; my brain also knows I am unlikely to witness a famine in my neighbourhood. But I can't shut off the sweet-gene's siren-call, except with significant self-discipline. And then, only rarely. And temporarily.
November 5, 2010
My first bee club meeting in over a year! The local group - Calgary and Area Beekeepers' Club has started meeting at a new venue. The bee club previously swarmed into a dark basement beneath a grocery store. But that place had no elevator access, so I couldn't safely attend. Sure, I could tumble down the twenty or so steps like a slinky, but I'd never be able to crawl back out of that hole. So I was delighted to learn that the Calgary Bee Club is now congregating at a ground-level community centre in the city's near northwest. Even more delighted to see so many interesting and interested new members. Nice group.
Having a knowledgeable guest speaker at a bee club meeting is a real bonus. Our speaker this evening was John Moerschbacher, a 50-ish Calgary-area beekeeper. (Hey, I'm also a 50-ish Calgary beekeeper!) John grew up in Pennsylvania (So did I!), worked bees in Florida (Me too!), and moved to Canada in the 1970s. (Ditto!) He had worked as a bee inspector for the government and has been with bees most of his life. (Yes, same with me!) With all these similarities in our life stories, I'm surprised we hadn't met earlier. There are some unimportant differences - he seems like a really nice person and a talented bee guy, for examples.
John Moerschbacher explained the Warré beehive system to us. This hive style has a cult-like following of advocates who are passionate about the Warré hive's history and implementation. The hive was developed by Abbé Émile Warré (1867 - 1951) in the mild fruit-growing area of central France. He experimented with (Warré says) over 350 hive designs seeking one that was inexpensive, easily used, bee-friendly, and suited for his Tours area climate. He called the result The People's Hive and he created a system of management which he felt favoured the bees' natural instincts. Key to the system is a lack of frames (the bees build comb their way, not yours) and honey supers were added under the brood nest, not over it (in a slow trickle nectar flow this has some advantages). Abbé Warré explained the entire system in his 150 page book L'Apiculture Pour Tous which you can read in Heaf's 2010 English translation, Beekeeping for All. Now, whenever a church leader (especially an abbot who has the job of maintaining order in a monastery) creates a device called a 'People's Hive' my socialist heart naturally skips a beat. His hive has undoubted advantages and deserves the attention it has garnered. But it works best in places like France and England - at least in those parts with slim honey flows and mild winter temperatures.
In May 2008, John Moerschbacher started with 12 Warré hives. By the end of that first season, John had 11 boxes of honey (135 kg, or about 300 pounds) which he cut out of the boxes by hand, crushed the comb with a potato masher, and strained the liquid with a colander and cheese cloth. This gave him about 12 kg (25 pounds) per hive of nice white honey. The quality of honey in the Calgary area is superb, as you can see in the picture to the right of one of John's honey boxes. He was able to wrap 11 of his 12 originals. They were rather light-weight (averaged only around 25 kg stores) but survived into March of the next year, 2009. However, as John tells it, that season was quite a disaster with little honey produced and most of the hives dead by fall 2009.
John Moerschbacher's Warré Hive Honey Super
(photo provided by Moerschbacher)
I understood John to say that he would not recommend the use of the Abbé Warré hive system in Alberta. He explained some of the natural advantages for this beekeeping system, but also said it was developed in the more temperate French climate for beekeepers there. John has kept bees in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Alberta, and he pointed out that beekeeping on Canada's western prairies is fundamentally different (and more challenging) than most other parts of the world. Issues include the extremely short honey season - measured in days in July and/or August) - and the incredibly long cold winter (with extended periods of minus 30 common). Though he may keep using the equipment, he has already modified the management system to something more Langstrothesque - principally 'top supering' for honey production rather than 'under supering' as our climate generates a nectar flow that crowds the queen and restricts the brood nest (possibly fatally) if the latter technique is used. The lack of conventional frames and the inventor's suggestion that the hive should only be opened once a year (at harvest time) does not make it a favourite among bee inspectors, either. I wouldn't switch to such a radical system myself simply because the lack of frames makes colony management so difficult and honey processing so tedious. But it was really informative to hear about John Moerschbach's experiments and to listen to someone who cares so deeply about bees and beekeeping.
November 20, 2010
If you find yourself in Connecticut tonight, consider yourself lucky. You have a chance to see some of the smartest beekeepers in the world at the Southern New England Beekeepers Assembly. Guest speakers are my provincial apiary inspector (Alberta's Medhat Nasr), a favourite bee-author (Larry Connor), and my big brother (David Miksa). This powerhouse of beekeeping expertise are certain to entertain and educate. Appropriately (considering the diversity of the speakers), the meeting is being held at the Unitarian Society of New Haven, Connecticut. Medhat is speaking about Integrated Pest Management, colony monitoring, and organic mite control; Dave Miksa is presenting practical aspects on the production of a hundred thousand queens/cells a year; Lawrence Connor covers small-scale queen production and also tips on how to teach the future teachers of future beekeepers. (We don't think about that much, do we? People who teach anything need to know how to teach - you might be the best beekeeper in the world, but if you can't impart your skills onto the hapless, you shouldn't be a bee teacher.) Finally, in the "don't believe everything you read on the internet department", the 2010 Southern New England Beekeepers Assembly speakers' biographies are published here. The writer of these bios says that My Brother Dave served in World War II. Actually, Dave flew a stork during the last year of the war, so he's much younger than asserted.
Beekeepers Extraordinaire: Medhat Nasr, Dave Miksa, Larry Connor
(photos 1, 2 from R. Miksha; photo 3 from L. Connor)
November 23, 2010
KA-POW! Exploding Pop Bottles! This is ICY Cold! OK, I've got no business keeping cold drinks in the van when it is minus 35 degrees. Maybe the can was a residue of Alberta's balmier days. As you can see, the can split down the middle and spewed inorganic waste all over the floor board - some even scattered as far as the driver's side window. Luckily, the van was unoccupied when the explosion occurred. (And even more fortuitous - I wasn't driving on the freeway!) But the mess I found when opening the vehicle's door reminded me not to drink pop, coke, cold drinks, or sodas. Or any other sugar syrup fortified with caffeine and who knows what else... Unless you've experienced it, you can't imagine temperatures that are so cold mercury solidifies in the thermometer, hands become numb in seconds, and Coke cans explode. But somehow, the tough Canadian honey bee usually survives it!
November 25, 2010
How much is too much? One or two molecules? ? Of course, it depends on what we're talking about. The Canadian news services picked up on a report from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that 41 per cent of raw bulk liquid honey is contaminated with tiny traces of butyric acid. Butyric acid is the incredibly smelly liquid used to make stink bombs. Anti-whaling vigilantes have taken to lobbing a few litres of the chemical onto Japanese whaling ships to disrupt the butchering of the big mammals. Its been around for a long time. And it has innocent uses: the putrid chemical can be drizzled on felt 'stink pads' which are then placed at the top of a hive above the bees. The bees find the odour repulsive, so they race out of the hive - abandoning their honey boxes which can be removed by the beekeeper, sans bees. Within a few minutes the odour dissipates and the bees go back to business as usual. Used discreetly and responsibly, it is an effective tool for honey removal, though most beekeepers (including me) haven't used butyric acid in years.
There are better systems (not involving any chemicals) for taking honey from hives. I'll describe our current surprisingly simple and effective technique tomorrow. For beekeepers still using the chemical, working with butyric acid is like skinning skunks. You notice the odour at first, but soon grow used to the atmosphere. In honey season, some beekeepers are banned from public restaurants, though they may be welcomed at typical fast-food places where the odour usually blends in with the frying hunks of beef and pork. At least, they are certainly tolerated at the drive-through windows. I haven't used butyric acid in twenty years. (And it's been almost as long since I've driven by a pick-up window.) I wrote a bit about pulling honey in Saskatchewan with the stinky stuff in my 2004 book, Bad Beekeeping:"By the time I had all the lids off and the hives smoked, Joe had the stink boards sloshed with chemicals. They are called stink boards because the acids dribbled on these wooden pads smell pretty harsh. Some people say it affects the nose like sour vomit. The cotton padding on the boards absorbs the puke scent, slowly releasing the bad odour when the trays are placed on top of the hives. Understandably, the bees scurry as fast as they can to the bottom of their nest, escaping the bad scent and leaving the honey boxes nearly free of bees. A wicked chemical. Probably not healthy if taken internally. But not as bad as carbolic acid, which was the stink chemical used in the fifties and sixties in North America. The FDA had conducted tests on the stuff Joe and I used and said the chemical did not get into our honey. Nor did it increase the risk of cancer - at least not in any statistically meaningful way. The food industry, in fact, used the same foul stuff to artificially flavor almond-banana bread. Perhaps it was safe. But still, it stank. After a few years, most of us would discover less smelly ways to separate bees from honey."
The Vancouver Sun reported that almost half of Canadian honey jars are contaminated with elevated levels of the smelly stuff. Their story states, "Nothing sweet about this: 4 in 10 honey jars fail chemical-residue test." Their piece states that chemical residue compliance in honey has fallen from 95% good in 1995 to 61% passing the tests today. I'm not sure - I'll investigate and write about this later. However, a report printed in the farm newspaper, Western Producer, exposes some flaws in the Vancouver Sun's sensational reporting. The CFIA tested raw honey in vats and barrels, but not jars in the grocery. From the raw state, the chemical breaks down in a few weeks into water and less potent acids and residues.
Butyric acid is natural - occurring in common foods, including milk and honey. Since few beekeepers use the smelly stuff anymore and since the levels found by the CFIA were extremely low, it is possible that the traces of butyric acid discovered are naturally occurring; not from chemicals used during harvest. Likely some of the trace chemical was found in honey operations where beekeepers have never used butyric acid. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency lists a maximum level of one part per million of butyric acid as acceptable, but even their field inspectors apparently feel that's a bit too harsh for an acid that naturally occurs in a lot of food - even chocolate! Personally, I think beekeepers should use an alternative method to collect honey. If you come home from the apiary and the children run away yelling, "Daddy, you stink!" - it's time to rethink your honey gathering style. Of course, if this happens and you haven't been pulling honey, you've got other issues to deal with.
November 26, 2010
Honey Super on End, Facing Sun - Bees Have Drifted Back to their Hive
Hey, beekeeper, how should I rob my bees? First, don't rob the bees. Don't take what they need. Instead, give them a healthy comfortable environment where they can achieve their best results. Give them extra space to store up treasures that they'll never use. Then take some of that surplus for yourself and the common good. When times get bad, it is your obligation to repay and help those unfortunate hives that ran short of food - even if it was due to their own inactivity. So, please don't call honey gathering robbing the bees. Call it taxation instead.
How to we gather honey? At our farm (Summit Gardens) we don't use butyric acid or any other smelly chemical. Depending on the weather, we either use a blower or a much more civil approach called drifting. The blower is a machine similar to a leaf blower that helps bees fly out of their hives when the weather is too cold to use the drift method. Here's how you get the bees to drift off their honey: on a nice warm day, when there is a honey flow (not when the bees might rob each other! - this is really important!) you simply set your honey supers on a pallet a few meters away from the hives. (Obviously this doesn't work in the USA where meters are not used.) Within an hour, if the weather is warm and there is still a bit of a honey flow, all the bees will fly out of the honey supers and go back to their hive.
Our mechanics are like this: Smoke the hive a bit, open the top cover, and smoke a little bit more. Wait two minutes and smoke once more. Again, be careful with the smoker. Use safe smoldering materials (nothing chemically treated; no dirty laundry) and don't use much smoke, just a few light puffs of cool white smoke. This will calm the bees and also encourage some of them to go to the lower brood nest. Don't smoke too much. If the honey super has no brood, you may lift it and carry it to the pallet or other prepared spot about 10 meters from the hive. (If you discover brood, exchange the brood frame for a frame of honey from a lower chamber. Nurse bees will not drift off the brood.) Stand the honey super on edge, top and bottom bars pointing up to the sky, end bars parallel to the earth. (You can see this in the photo, left.) Turn the super so that the bottom bars face towards the most light (If you've set up in a shady spot, face the up-ended box so at least some light hits the bees.) Monitor the honey supers for snoopers. Don't let robber bees find the cache, or you will have huge problems to deal with! In July in western Canada, there is always a nectar flow if the weather is warm, so we use this method. It simply tricks the bees into leaving what they don't need and what they will never eat - the most benign form of taxation in the world.
December 09, 2010
Twenty years ago, Calgary had no beekeepers' club. I moved to this city from Saskatoon in 1991 and within a week, I found some bee hives to buy. I met Ed Samoil, a Calgary Beemaster with fifty years' experience, who had some strong healthy hives set up about half an hour east of town. I asked Ed if Calgary had a beekeepers' club. "No", Ed Samoil explained, “the old bee club died a slow death in the late 1980s. No one had the energy to revive it.” But around 1998, Ed heard about a new girl in town – someone named Heather Clay - who had taken some sort of job with the Canadian Honey Council. Ed asked her to start a local branch of the honey council, so beekeepers could get together and talk about bees. Heather patiently explained that her job was a bit different - but she'd love to help the Calgary beekeepers organize themselves. I met Heather for the first time when she hosted a meet-up at her house. Then she coordinated our first gathering - volunteering hours of effort to see The Calgary and District Beekeepers' Association up and running. Because she was National Coordinator for the Canadian Honey Council, she would never hold any office for the local bee club. But during the early years, she presented at nearly every Calgary Bee Club meeting – often summarizing national issues and always encouraging good beekeeping practices. For about five years, I was the club's first president and she made my life really easy because I could always depend on her to help out and keep facts straight in the gatherings.
By the year 2000, the membership list had 76 names – including bee research tech Adony Melathopoulos, the Baumgartners of Medivet, Cherie and Art Andrews of Chinook Honey, and even me. Today, the Calgary and District Beekeepers Association continues to promote and encourage beekeeping. In appreciation of her help, members hosted a dinner in honour of Heather. The December 9th gathering was attended by about thirty club members. There were some nice memories shared and a few parting gifts. Because Heather Clay always was fair in her neutrality in the many national beekeeping spats that she had to referee, I presented to her the famous Calgary White Hat - a symbolic Stetson that has been received by Bob Dylan, the Dalai Llama, Clint Eastwood, Bill Clinton, and a few other visitors. They are all now in good company.
We all wished Heather and Doug Clay a fond farewell and best of luck in all their future travels and endeavours.
They are leaving Calgary for places farther west and they will be missed by many folks in our town.
Heather Clay, former CHC coordinator - Farewell Dinner
(Miksha presenting; Heather & Doug; Heather with Vanderput's Stained Glass Art)
December 19, 2010
Frankfurt Airport. We are traveling to Hungary - connecting through Germany - so we can see my wife's parents for the holidays. This will be Eszter's first December with her folks in ten years - and the first time ever for our two little kids to see their grandparents at Christmas. But incessant winter storms across Europe have closed the airports in London, Amsterdam, Budapest, and here in Frankfurt. So we've been storm-stuck since our flight from Calgary touched down in the early morning. All flights in and out are now canceled. Frazzled travelers staged a passenger riot shortly before we arrived, but the German police have restored discipline and order among the queues. We see cots and pillows scattered about the airport - last night's accommodation for 3000 of the stranded. But we seem to be in luck - we have landed during a calm period between blizzards and we are taken to our connecting gate with minutes to spare. Then our departing flight is abruptly canceled. We are jet-lagged. And have been wide-eyed for about 20 hours, but the agents re-book us for an evening flight. Twelve hours later, that flight is also canceled due to the winter storms, so now we are taken to the Frankfurt Airport Sheraton. We have seven hours to try to sleep, then an early morning flight to Hungary. In the morning, our terminal is closed, so the gate is changed - due to a bomb threat. Police have a huge section of the airport roped-off while they look at abandoned luggage, bags, and garbage. But - forty hours into our trip - we are aboard the Malev carrier and heading southeast for Budapest. Grandma greets us at Arrivals.
December 22, 2010
Christmas Markets. It is a couple of days before Christmas Eve. We wander about among several Craft Markets and Fairs. It is a chilly 5 degrees, but there are neither snow nor ice; just mud and slush. I become embarrassingly grimy as my wheelchair's wheels spin muddy water all over my hands and jacket. No wonder I'm the only disabled visitor at this fair! I sample the hot wine and we have fresh baked bread. Vendors sell other interesting foods, knitted sweaters, and hand-made wooden toys. A beekeeping family has set up an attractive display with a huge variety of honey, pollen, wax candles. So many appealing colours of honey and so many different shapes and sizes of jars. But their cut-comb honey is not so pretty. It's priced at the equivalent of ten dollars a pound (average wage here is $40/day), but has a lot of unfinished wax comb. It is disappointing to see and shouldn't be sold. It takes away from an otherwise nice booth.
Nice Honey Booth at a Hungarian Christmas Market - but poor quality combs for sale
December 24, 2010
Dandelions Blooming on Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve in southern Hungary. Dandelions are blooming. I don't see any bees - of any sort - on the flowers, but the grass and dandelion foliage are green and lush and the flowers are fragrant. The temperature is plus 12C (53F) and with the bright sun, it is quite pleasant. It is just past the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. I'm surprised to see so much green at this latitude. Here it is just past noon; in Calgary it's two in the morning and minus 18. So, for this and for other reasons, I'm glad to be in green and mild Hungary today. In a few hours, we will celebrate the joint effort of Santa and the Christmas Angels bringing a couple of gifts to our four-year-old and eight-year-old. We will enjoy a semi-traditional Hungarian Christmas, celebrated on the 24th, with the Claus family and reindeer relegated to a peripheral role.
December 26, 2010
Boxing Day in Canada. And England. But not here in central Europe. I have boarded a flight from Budapest to Zagreb. My wife and kids have stayed in Hungary while I head south for a couple of days to see my grandfather's village and get reacquainted with some cousins. There's a party going on when I arrive at the village. Too much food that is much too good to resist. In a couple of days, I'll be back in Hungary with my own family. But for now, I'll drink a little šljivovica, get lost in stories of Mikša family legends, and listen to music played on the brac, bugarija, and tamburitza. Pictured to the right is I with my great-great-grandfather's dangubica.
So how are the bees doing here in north Croatia? They haven't been doing well in years, actually. The tracheal mite and various foulbroods were never a big problem and beekeepers were able to supply their families with a bit of backyard honey for centuries. But varroa was a killer. It arrived in the mid-90s and wiped out the bees. As they do everywhere, beekeepers restocked and medicated. But it's not so easy battling varroa and nosema and a lot of people found they could harvest honey more cheaply at the local grocery store. So, the paternal home village had just a few beekeepers left when the September 2010 flood washed almost two metres of water over the village - killing Rajka's chickens and (of course) all the villagers' surviving honey bees. So, I didn't see any hives this trip - until the morning I left for the airport! There was a neat line of six new hives near someone's house on the edge of the village,obviously all brand-new replacements for what was lost in the big flood. I couldn't help but think, "Get a job, Job" - there's lots of honey to buy at the corner store. Some of else will never be reformed.
December 29, 2010
Through the magic of the internet, I catch America's National Public Radio and listen to the Science Friday podcast - which includes a bit on Langstroth's 200th birthday (well, we're all getting old) and also an excellent interview with the articulate and fascinating bee scientist, Tom Seeley. I really enjoyed listening to Dr Seeley - largely because he speaks so clearly and intelligently about his work, but also because he has chosen to study truly amazing aspects of honeybee behaviour. Seeley presents his team's findings regarding how honeybees make the decision to find a new location when they swarm. I'll leave it to you to listen to the whole story - it is really worth your time. But basically, he tells us how the bees select from among several potential new abodes. Ultimately, over half the bees in the colony decide to swarm out together to the new home - based on the reports of just a few scouts. Only about a hundred of the bees have actually seen the new spot before they leave, but all the others trust the reporters. And the consensus - the final choice in a new home - requires discussion, debate, and finally a decision which Seeley sees as democratically derived.
Tom Seeley has written the details in his just-released book, Honeybee Democracy. I ordered my copy today from Amazon and I'll review it next year after the book arrives at my house in Calgary. The show was first broadcast on the radio on December 24, but just loaded by NPR today to their podcast location. If you missed the original, miss it no more.
December 31, 2010
The Last Beekeeper
A view from a height. It's the last day of the year and we are flying back from Hungary to Canada. The four of us are heading back to work, school, our Calgary home, and we are flying back in time. It is a daylight flight heading west at almost exactly the same speed (1000 kilometres an hour) that the earth is turning - so our ten hour flight leaves at 2 in the afternoon from Frankfurt and arrives at 3 in the afternoon in Calgary. The sun barely moves in the sky our entire trip. The kids travel well, and they are wide awake. So, sleep is a distant dream. The in-flight movie choices includes a film I haven't been able to find in our town - The Last Beekeeper. I've seen the trailers - the advertising clips - on the internet, and I'm giving you a link here. I hope this trailer doesn't prevent you from watching the film - it almost did me. But I'm stuck on a plane and this is the only beekeeping film that the airline seems to be offering today. So, from ten kilometres over Iceland, Greenland, and Baffin Island, this award-winning documentary begins to play on the fourteen-inch screen in front of me.
The Last Beekeeper. Ominous. The film begins with this mis-statement: "In 1950, there were 500,000 beekeepers in the USA, today there are less than 1600." Actually, there are more than 210,000. The movie makes a number of other fundamental errors. The producer's poor attention to factual information is unfortunate because this is a brilliant movie. It deserves the Emmy award won in September for best nature documentary. It hits the viewer hard at an emotional level by following the lives of three commercial beekeepers in the USA as their bees die and the keepers go broke moving their hives into California's almond groves. With strong healthy hives, the beekeepers will be paid for supplying the honeybees to pollinate the almonds. Every ounce of the million tonnes of California almonds need pollination by honeybees to develop. So beekeepers rent their hives. But those colonies need to be healthy and strong - cared for all year, then trucked in from other areas (in this documentary, the three highlighted beekeepers are from Washington, South Carolina, and Montana). The fact that all three operators are emotionally attached to their bees and are having a tough time surviving in the bee business makes the film irresistible. As I said before, it is disappointing that facts are treated so sloppily because the story is compelling enough without factual exaggeration. At the end of the film, one of the beekeepers is shown selling the bees, business, and home. But in reality, that didn't happen and that beekeeper is doing well today.
In an interview, the documentary's producer said... "we made this film purely as an emotional film. We didn’t set out to try and scientifically investigate the cause of Colony Collapse. We were trying to engage people’s emotions to this terrible thing that is happening...I met almost every beekeeper in this country. I mean, there’s probably less than 1,000 beekeepers, so you go to conventions, you hit the road, and you meet a lot of them..." (from ScriptPhD). Obviously, don't watch this movie for facts; but certainly enjoy it as a powerful glimpse into the everyday struggles of beekeepers. It won the film industry's highest award for a good reason. I watched it three times on this flight.
December 31, 2010
Epilogue. So, this is a wrap. 2010 is behind us.
What sort of year was it? The bees suffered in a lot of ways. Honey production in our area was about the worst it's been. My daughter (Erika) and her husband (Justin) have taken on the bees and have moved to the farm. They love it. Hope we can make a couple dollars next year. I learned a lot about beekeeping over the past twelve months; I've got a lot more to learn. I hope you've enjoyed this year's blog entries (all 31,000 words!) and I hope I can keep reporting and commenting over the next year. Don't take all my pontificating and ruminating too seriously. Even if you are a right-wing religious fanatic or a doped-up commie pinko, chances are I'd really like you and I'm glad you dropped by from time-to-time. For the rest of you - I know you're busy raising kids and paying bills and volunteering in your neighbourhood - you have hectic lives and serious responsibilities, so I'm really, really glad you took the time to read this. Thanks for being the audience...
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