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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.

A swarm of bees in a treeIt’s that time of year when bees are swarming. This past weekend I received two emails from people who had swarms of bees near their homes and were trying to find a beekeeper in Kitchener or Waterloo to come take them away.

If you have stumbled upon my blog because you have a swarm of honeybees near you, here’s a bit of information that you should hopefully find helpful.

First and foremost: Contrary to what the word ‘swarm’ usually implies, swarms of honeybees are very docile and not dangerous. These bees have left their old home in search of a new one. They are storing their energy so that they can survive away from their hive. They have no food or young to protect so it’s unlikely they will sting. In fact, many people have been known to stroke swarms or stick their bare hands right into the the middle of them.

Bees typically swarm as a means of macro-reproduction. This is the way the entire colony splits and forms a new hive. Most swarms happen because a new queen is born and the colony splits in half. There are approximately 25,000 bees in an average swarm.

When a swarm is preparing to leave their home, they stock up on honey in their tiny bellies and typically fly up into an elevated area, not too far from their original home. This is usually a tree. They’ll camp out in a watermelon-sized ball for a day or two, but it could be as long as a week. During this time, scout bees are sent out to try and find a new home for the colony, and if a suitable home is found, the entire swarm will leave and begin to set up their new digs.

The probability that a swarm of honeybees will be able to survive on their own is quite small and it’s usually best for everyone if a beekeeper comes and rescues them. This is usually done by shaking them off the tree or cutting a branch to lower the bees into a box. The box is then left until nightfall to ensure all bees go inside. They will follow their queen’s scent, so as long as the queen makes it into the box, the rest will follow.

Contact me

If you know of any honeybee swarms or if you have one near your house, please feel free to contact me. If I cannot retrieve the swarm myself, I will try and refer you to another beekeeper in your area that can.

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Your phone number (very helpful)

Photo of swarm (optional):

Location of swarm and description:

 

A group of worker bees

Illustration provided by Marty Elmer and used under Creative Commons license.

The Grand River Beekeepers’ Association is my local beekeeping association. I attended my first beekeepers meeting last night. It’s nice to be able to interact with real, local beekeepers finally.

The Grand River Beekeepers’ Association (GRBA) is the beekeeping association for Kitchener-Waterloo and surrounding area. Last night there were 29 people at the meeting (9 women and 20 men) ranging in age from about 25 to 75. There was also a wide variety of experience levels in the room. There were a handful of brand new beekeepers—like myself—and beekeepers with decades of experience. Read the rest of this entry »