So you want to take up back yard bee keeping

Pioneer Brand Honey owner Andre Flys
As Ron Miksha says, “There are thousands of species of bees in the world. Our favourite, the honey bee, is just one of the estimated 25,000. It’s not even the cutest, friendliest, or most interesting.”

I often hear people say, “we know bees are in trouble. We’d like to keep bees to help them.” Instead of back yard bee keeping, let’s imagine that the latest trend is back yard dairy farming.

What if people started buying dairy cattle to help the decline of native bison. Sound ridiculous? As Ron Miksha writes on his Bad Beekeeping blog, “there are thousands of species of bees in the world. Our favourite, the honey bee, is just one of the estimated 25,000. It’s not even the cutest, friendliest, or most interesting.”

Experienced apiarists like to say: “There are beekeepers and bee havers.” Keepers are custodians of bees, servants if you will. Havers have good intentions but, can inadvertently jeopardize the health of their bees and spread disease and parasites to other people’s populations.

The impacts of irresponsible bee keeping can be widespread. I encourage interested parties to take up bee keeping but, it is an art form not to be ventured onto lightly.

Like other artisans, apiarists enjoy sharing what we do and learning from one another. I love to volunteer my time to my local and provincial bee keeping associations, whose mandates include educating Ontario beekeepers. Over the last few seasons, I even instructed a few bee keeping courses with the Ontario Beekeepers Associations Tech Transfer Program.If you are interested, by all means, take up bee keeping. But, take the time to do it right. Take a course, join a local keepers association, find a mentor, and do a lot of reading. We’ve all heard stories of well-minded people who get a dog, iguana, cat, or even have children, only to find out these are not just ‘things’ we ‘own’ but living creatures. Keeping bees is a responsibility.

I look at our 58-acre forested property similarly: our family may have the title but, we would be naïve to think that title grants us much more than the right to steward a piece of the earth, for the short time we happen to reside on it.

Something to consider

First, and foremost, the managed honey bee “Apis mellifera,” that we beekeepers work with today, is not a native species to North America. Early European settlers brought honey bees over here a mere 300 years ago. Looking at the health status of managed honey bee colonies in Canada can give us only a tiny glimpse of the overall health status of the more than 400 species of bees native to southern Ontario or, more the than 20,000 worldwide.

Although many of the issues facing honey bees also affect our native species, a good comparison might be that we wouldn’t look at the number of managed hogs as a measure of the native wild boar populations. There might be connections but, fluctuations in the amount of a managed livestock do not necessarily jive with what’s happening in the wild.

The Rusty Patch bumble bee, just twenty years ago, was the most common bumble bee here. The last one spotted at Pinery Provincial Park was in 2009; its nest was never foundjust a solitary bee.

In that instance, for that particular species, we have climate change to blame. As it turns out, the Rusty Patch relied on deep snow drifts to cover their nests over wintering burrows, something the Pinery was one of the last places in southern Ontario to have. We haven’t had decent winter snow pack here in close to 15 years. Most experts thought the species would move north but, as it turns out, they just disappeared.

Case in point number two: early last summer, James Murray, a bee breeder and friend of mine in Sharon, Ontario, found himself in the unfortunate situation of a pesticide incident. Seventeen colonies in his back yard were wiped out in a matter of hours.

Tens of thousands of dead and dying bees started piling up in front of their homes instead of bringing their forage back to their nest mates. Showing all the classic signs of pesticide exposure the local bee inspector (yes, there are local bee inspectors) called in the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) to take samples for lab analysis. A year later, the results showed five different pesticides all in levels high enough to damage honey bees. As bad as it was for the bees, James was out tens of thousands of dollars and his customers, who rely on his queen bees, had to look elsewhere.

The stresses on pollinators don’t stop at pesticides and climate change. There are the usual matters that plague all living things such as disease and parasites. There are also things that maybe we hadn’t considered until they happened, like mono culture cropping, increased, and irresponsible use of fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and loss of habitat and forage. We could go on ad nauseam about the reams of studies completed on these topics over the last decade but, I think you get the basic point.

Bee keeping primer

I know I said I don’t try to discourage people from becoming beekeepers and all that stuff was very discouraging. However, we mustn’t give up now! If you think bee keeping is for you, there are more resources now than ever to equip you with the knowledge to become a successful beekeeper.

The Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) was established in 1886, by local postmaster David Allanson Jones, in a Southern Ontario town then called Clarksville. But, thanks to D.A., everybody called it Bee Town, and in 1874, the name officially changed to Beeton. The entire North American honey industry was born here, thanks to D.A and his bee breeding experiments.

Close to 150 years later, the OBA continues to be just as relevant. For the last three years, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as OBA Vice President. I can tell you the push to educate new beekeepers is important to a growing number of commercial beekeepers. Given that bees often develop ridiculously large forage ranges, it is imperative that new beekeepers understand how to recognize communicable disease and parasite infestations in their colonies. There are some basics about bee health every beekeeper should be aware of before ever considering managing a colony of their own. Mistakes can cost more than just your hobby; it might cost your neighbour, the commercial beekeeper, a lot more.

A recent study out of Britain showed that bees were flying a round trip of 17 km to gather Heather nectar from the Moores. If I, as a beekeeper within that range of my neighbour’s bees, contract a disease without a diagnosis, I risk exposing their bees, and all the bees in range of those bees, and so on. It’s not that difficult a thing to learn but, it’s surprising how many people take up the hobby without even considering taking a course or registering their colonies.

Another trope often brought out by beekeepers is: “ask three beekeepers a question and get five different answers.” Sometimes those answers can all be correct, just different management styles. Sometimes they can all be wrong. Nowadays, bee keeping courses and clubs are everywhere. So, how can you be sure the information you are getting is correct? I always suggest starting your first course with the OBA Tech-Transfer team or, at the University of Guelph. They’ve been offering classes for decades, keep up with and even perform the latest research available, and proffer insight that is relevant to our geographic area and climate.

If, after doing your research, you decide that keeping honey bees isn’t for you there are many ways you can help our native populations. Pollinator habitat can be improved everywhere and anywhere, starting in your backyard or even a balcony.

Other ways to help

Many solitary bees survive winter in the stems of hollowed out plants. Simple things like leaving garden clean-up until spring gives them places to stay warm and safe through unpredictable winter weather. As well, selecting flowering plants that bloom either early in the spring or later in the fall help bridge the famine as there are few forage options at those times of the year.

To learn more about how to help native populations or, bee keeping, contact the OBA. As well, York University or the University of Guelph both have labs with researchers who are focused on native pollinators. To learn more about bees in general, beyond the domesticated western honey bee, look up melittologist Dr. Lawrence Packers. His academic passion is the study of wild bees.

So, by all means, go out and get some bees. Become a beekeeper. Join the club. But, don’t do it for the bees. Do it for you. If you want to help bees, then it’s time we focus on the reasons managed honey bees, and native populations are struggling for their lives. Regardless of species, be it a human being or insect, we all live on the same planet, and it seems we’re just not looking after it all that well.

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