credit to borianag (Flickr) Licensed under Creative Commons license.

I like to envision the bees in my hives embracing and high-fiving each other following the news from the Government of Ontario yesterday. The province is committed to reducing neonicotinoid usage by 80% by the year 2017 and aim to reduce winter honeybee mortality rates to 15% by 2020!

In a news release put out yesterday by the Government of Ontario, three points are clearly outlined. The province’s approach will help keep crops healthy and improve the environment by:

  • Working towards a goal of 80 per cent reduction in the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by 2017
  • Reducing the over-winter honeybee mortality rate to 15 per cent by 2020
  • Establishing a comprehensive Pollinator Health Action Plan

To put this into perspective, the honeybee mortality rate over the 2013-2014 winter was 58%. We (collectively) lost more than half of Ontario’s honeybees last winter. Seeing that number reduced to 15% in the next 5 years would be astounding. Tibor Szabo, President of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, has this to say: “The OBA appreciates the government’s recognition that the prophylactic use of neonicotinoid-coated seed on Ontario’s corn and soy crops is unwarranted and unacceptable.

The news of this neonicotinoid reduction is great news for all beekeepers, but it’s also excellent news for anyone who eats food. I.e. everyone. Reducing neonics in our food means less systemic pesticide usage in foods that we all consume.

While it would be nice to see neonicotinoids banned completely, this is definitely a step in the right direction. I speak on behalf of all pollinators everywhere when I say: “Hip hip hooray!”

Urban beekeeping

The bees are dying

By now, you’ve probably heard that honeybees are in trouble. Every year, beekeepers around the globe face colonies dying from all sorts of things: Varroa Mites, Small Hive Beetles, Neonicotinoids, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), diseases, etc. There are many people spending their days pointing fingers and placing blame on a variety of different things/people/climates/gremlins who are responsible for bee deaths. However, we need to turn our attention to a much simpler solution: start allowing urban beekeeping… everywhere.

Why should we be so concerned with honeybee deaths? Well – quite frankly – we need honeybees for our own survival. This problem goes way beyond jars of honey and beeswax candles. 33% of the food that we consume as humans is on our table because of honeybee pollination. If the bees are at risk, we are at risk.

The problem

I’ve avoided this touchy subject for a while, and I’m sure to ruffle a few feathers with this article, but large-scale commercial beekeeping practices are hugely problematic and it is not a coincidence that commercial beekeepers are making the biggest stink about honeybee die-off and Colony Collapse. Over the last century, we have drastically changed the way we keep bees. Large-scale commercial beekeepers now transport honeybees across the country for pollination services, literally moving beehives by truck to California to pollinate the almond orchards and then up to Maine to pollinate blueberries, and then back down to Florida to pollinate oranges. Along the way, new honeybee queens are produced in masses and then artificially inseminated, colonies are forcefully combined, sharing diseases and pests, hives are fed high-fructose corn syrup instead of honey, and the bees are generally made weaker and weaker along the way.

Urban beekeeping

Urban beekeeping (i.e. keeping honeybees in a residential area) is generally frowned upon – and prohibited – in most towns and cities. Laws and bylaws are driven by a lack of understanding and overall fear of stinging insects. It is time to change this type of thinking and stop prosecuting people who are keeping bees in their backyards or on rooftops. It is the urban and hobbyist beekeepers who are driven by a genuine interest for keeping bees. Urban beekeeping may be the honeybee’s only longterm survival plan.

Pesticides

One of the biggest concerns and hot-topic issues right now is the use of systemic pesticides such as Neonicontinoids (AKA “Neonics”) in rural and agricultural areas. There is clear evidence that the use of Neonics is directly linked to bee deaths. The battles being fought to have Neonicontinoids banned are ongoing and may last for years. However, there is a much simpler solution already available and it doesn’t involve huge corporations or decade-long studies: allow beekeeping in cities. The use of pesticides in residential areas is practically nonexistent when compared to farms and agricultural areas, especially when talking about systemic pesticides which are part of the plant itself. Instead of being forced to forage on poison plants, bees would be free to forage from flowers without becoming sick, weak or dying. Along with this, will come stronger honeybee colonies and bees would be much more likely to be able to fight off pests and diseases.

Forage

On the topic of foraging from flowers, consider this analogy: Imagine you were treated like a honeybee in an agricultural area. Instead of a stocked refrigerator and a grocery store around the corner, you are placed into a gigantic warehouse in which every shelf is lined with apples. (An apple a day keeps the doctor away, right?) You are now free to feast on apples; as many as you’d like, whenever you’d like. Yay! There are just two catches:

  1. You cannot eat any other foods. Only apples.
  2. In three weeks, every single apple will be removed from the warehouse and you’ll be left with nothing.

Sound great? I didn’t think so. But this is exactly what happens to bees in agricultural areas. They are placed in middle of monocrops that stretch for Kilometres. Massive fields planted with a single plant: corn, soy, almonds, blueberries or similar crop. This provides a single source of food for the bees, and only for a short period of time. After pollination occurs, the monocrops become an empty warehouse of food for the bees. There is nothing left. This is precisely the reason why bees need to be trucked across the country instead of being left to establish themselves in almond orchards or blueberry fields. They would literally starve to death.

Now consider an urban area – such as a city – where flowers are planted to bloom from the very first sign of spring until the last day in fall. Bees would have an amazing amount of variety in their diet and they could gather pollen and nectar from flowers throughout the entire year. Bees in urban areas would have a more complete diet and they would be able to build up their honey stores nearly every day that there is no snow on the ground.

How to help

Even if you’re not a beekeeper, you need to participate and push to have bylaws changed locally and provincially. In my city, Melissa Krone has recently been forced to move her bees and she’s started a petition to have the bylaws lifted for honeybees kept in the city of Kitchener. Sign the petition right now.

I encourage you to start similar petitions in your city. Contact your city councillors and your local MPP or MP and make it known that we need bees in urban areas. Honeybees are essential for our survival as humans and we need to act now.

Article photo by “edibleoffice” used under Creative Commons license.

I’ve caught my fair share of bee swarms and I’ve learned to watch for signs that a capture was successful. A typical honeybee swarm contains between 10,000 to 30,000 bees. When you shake the swarm into a box or container, there is a really good chance that you’ll get the queen (the odds are in your favour). However, if the queen takes flight before you seal up your box, then the rest of the swarm will know within minutes that she is not there.

The above video shows what happens if you don’t manage to capture the queen. We had to try four times before successfully capturing her in the box. The moment that she was inside, the rest of the bees stopped around the entrance and created a fanning chain, distributing her pheromones into the air for the rest of the bees to follow.

If you see a swarm of honeybees in your area, contact me through the form at the bottom of my swarm page and I’ll help put you in touch with a beekeeper who will remove them.

Chris with a swarm of bees

It’s that time of year where bees are reproducing (at the colony level) and I’ve started getting calls about bees around Kitchener and Waterloo. I was contacted late last night by someone who was looking for a beekeeper in Waterloo. Lucky for all of us – including the bees – I fit the bill.

My friend Geoff and I both lost our bees to a long cold winter, so we jumped on the opportunity to rescue this swarm. We set out early this morning and shook the bees into a new hive box. With any luck, the bees will stick around and Geoff will transfer them to his bee yard in St. Jacobs.

If you see a swarm of bees in your area, please contact me using the form at the bottom of my swarm page. If I can’t rescue the bees myself, I will find someone who will.

Dan Davidson – president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association – released a letter today informing beekeepers that the Province of Ontario has decided to give money to beekeepers who suffer losses this year. The letter says:

Dear Beekeeper,

On Tuesday afternoon, OBA board members were informed at a meeting with senior OMAF officials that the Province has developed a one-time compensation package for beekeepers experiencing higher than normal mortality rates. Compensation includes $105 per hive to beekeepers with more than ten hives who experience hive mortality of over 40% of their colonies between Jan. 1st and October 31, 2014. OBA has been advocating for over a year for beekeeper compensation related to extraordinary bee deaths. The amount per hive provided under this program is significantly less than we were proposing; however, we feel it is a good first step and shows awareness of the hardships many Ontario beekeepers are experiencing. We are pleased, as well, that losses will include those occurring over the summer and early fall, and not just winter. This is significant. Ontario is the first province to compensate beekeepers for losses likely caused by pesticides as well as other causes. We will be getting back to everyone with further information as it becomes available.

OBA is preparing a press release for later today. Watch the website and future newsletters for new developments.

All the best,
Dan
Dan Davidson, President

This is great news for anyone that has lost a significant portion of their colonies this past winter and heading into the rest of the year. Unfortunately, I don’t qualify myself, because I have fewer than 10 hives. Still, I’m sure this will come as a great help to many beekeepers.

Forms to apply for this compensation will be available by mid-May, 2014.