In the calmness of bees.

Bee bombWe have honeybees flying in our backyard again, and they have brought our family a noticeable sense of comfort.

Our bees died last fall. Likely it was the varroa destructor mite, archvillain of many news stories. Carmen has noticed our bees die before we move, and she thinks this is no coincidence. I hate moving too.

So yesterday I picked up a new package of bees from an apiary just a few miles up-island from us. A ‘package’ is the most common way to buy bees. It is a mesh-walled box full of adult bees and a mated queen in her own little mesh cage. Packages are often sold by the pound–this one ended up being over three pounds of bees, so probably over 10,000 bees. The queen is in her own little cage because she is not necessarily these bees’ queen, so they might kill her as an usurper. Keeping her in the cage for a few days allows her Queen Pheromone to spread through the colony and bend them all to her service.

Actually, they bend more to the service of the continued spread of the colony. You can easily introduce a new queen, so obviously they are not loyal to genes. The reproductive strategy of bees is to grow large hives and then send off swarms to colonize distant hollow trees or other nooks, and as long as they are doing that, they are happy.

I realized as I was driving back with this package that it was almost exactly four years ago that I picked up my first package of bees. In fact, as I drove away from my weekend bee workshop I was listening to the 2010 olympic gold medal hockey game as the winning goal was scored.

Four years with the bees. My first package came out of Chile, shortly after their devastating earthquake. Apparently only three packages from that entire shipment made it to Vancouver alive. Who knows how long they sat, under what conditions, as Chile struggled to rescue people. Needless to say, that colony did not last long. The next succumbed to a wasp invasion. Then we were beeless, as we knew we were moving to Victoria, which until recently has had a moratorium against off-island bees.

The next bees to join us were a huge swarm. My phone rang as Carmen and I were raising cocktails before our third-anniversary dinner, and I was off, with my red jumpsuit (bad) and my straw cowboy hat with a cheap veil (bad). But when I got to the swarm, burled on a suburban branch, I stood underneath it and felt the soothing hum of the bees wash over me. This is a strange thing. Bees buzz, and buzzing is often scary. Bees are also insects, and so are incomprehensible to humans. But I find the sound of the bees to be very soothing, very calming, and my family has grown the feel the same way.

That colony was strong, and gave a couple of good splits. I thought we had a good thing going as they drew white wax and raised their own queens. But then they died last fall, a blessing only in that I didn’t have to move a large colony of bees, which is always stressful. So, this year I went looking for bees again. I prefer local, in the hopes of finding bees acclimated to our region, as opposed to the packages from Chile or New Zealand. There is a queen breeder who has been part of government study in breeding hygienic behaviour in response to the varroa mite, so maybe I will buy one of his queens later.

But I brought home the package last night—absolutely stuffed with bees—and shook them onto frames of good, drawn wax, even a little honey from last year. I tucked them in and wished them a good night. And this morning, as we unlocked our bikes for the ride to school, we all commented on how good it felt to live with bees again.

We joke about our 50,000 head of livestock, the language is all about “keeping” bees. But, as J.B. McKinnon might have lyrically said in The Once and Future World, the bees have rewilded us, even if only in the smallest of ways. We feel better for sharing our lives with these tiny, incomprehensible creatures, and it is wonderful to have them back.

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Dance of the Honey Bee—lovely slow-mo

When I collected my first swarm last year, I arrived at a well-manicured suburban home to find a cluster of bees the size of a Christmas Ham clumped on a branch about ten feet in the air. It is hard to describe what I felt as I walked over to stand under that swarm—peace, calm—it felt great to be with bees again.

Anyhow, this short video has lots of great slow motion footage of honeybees. Enjoy.

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Are you back? Okay. Now I would like to talk about swarms and native pollinators.

bee-swarm

This is what a ‘typical’ honeybee swarm might look like. I want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that bees are not wasps. Wasps have the ability to sting you multiple times, and just may do that. But when a honeybee stings you, their guts are ripped out and left attached to the stinger stuck in your hand.

Now, if you think being eviscerated as a consequence of your actions might give you pause to think, it is the same for honeybees. You can still get stung, but out of ten thousand bees, only one or two guard bees are going to get shirty with you.

Back to swarms—swarms are how honeybees spread. The bees raise new queens, then the old queen takes off with about half the colony. Before they leave, they stuff themselves with honey, then fly somewhere close while the scouts try to find a better spot. Generally they will hang out on branch for a couple of hours, then fly to their final home: a hollow tree, under a deck, inside a hot-tub cabinet, or whatever. They convert their belly full of honey into some fresh wax, and get the queen laying eggs so they will have new worker bees within a month.

So bees don’t like to sting, and swarming bees are stuffed full of honey. They just want a place to call their own, and are not looking to pick a fight. If you see a swarm, call your local beekeeping association and ask about swarm removal.

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And now native pollinators…there are hundreds of species of bugs that pollinate—probably thousands (would anybody like to raise me to millions?). There are hundreds of species of bees that pollinate, let alone the wasps and flies. Now, as is often the way with we well-meaning humans, the invasive honeybees we so love can out-compete local, native pollinators, perhaps even to the point of extirpating them.

Mason bees come out early in the year, and bumblebees can fly in high winds and rain—both can tolerate much colder temperatures. Local, native pollinators are very important to a healthy ecosystem and a healthy food system. So, the threat to food security of declining honeybees may be thought about especially as a threat to monoculture industrial farming. Honeybees are needed by the trainload to pollinate the thousands and thousands of acres of almonds in California. I don’t want thousands of acres of anything in one spot, so I am not in favour of monocultured industrial food. I want a high variety of locally grown foods, and for that local pollinators can be much better.

If you keep bees, you have a responsibility to support local pollinators, perhaps through pollinator-friendly landscaping. If you love food, the same. Here is a lovely USDA pamphlet on native pollinators. Here are plans for a bumblebee nest. And here, of course, for a mason bee board. When you are making your Mason bee home, drill holes of lots of sizes, for all the smaller and bigger bees in the world. Enjoy the peace and calm, if you can hear it over all the buzzing.

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Postscript: I really enjoy keeping bees. They are wonderful—beautiful and mysterious and educational. They are impossible to anthropomorphize, and force me to consider the world through the values of an insect. I also have dreams of being honey self-sufficient, or making a little money selling comb honey. So, I think keeping bees is great. But, most of the beekeeping world is of a chemical mindset, forgetting that bees have been fine for millions of years without our help. This was difficult for me to wrap my brain around, and continues to be challenging when I visit my local beekeeper’s group. I wish I had found some of the natural, organic, small cell beekeeping websites before I took a course, as I would have asked a lot more questions before signing up.

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