Raising bees is a very delicate challenge

Raising bees is a very delicate challenge
Raising bees is a very delicate challenge

A Queen bee, centre, crawls through the hive on the roof of the Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue library. Allen McInnis

Oh boy, when I read Urban beekeeping comes to the suburbs” (Montreal Gazette, July 19, 2017) about Pointe-Claire and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue installing bee hives on the roofs of their public libraries. Well, I had a Sheldon Cooper moment – the brain in Big Bang Theory who needs to erupt in technical knowledge when a topic that tickles him pops up. I asked a good pal of mine George who owns a bee farm, to share his expertise on these fuzzy, buzzy friend of ours. (I confess, for once I did not cheat by going to Wikipedia – the online library of misinformation and overgeneralization.)

Wishing to stay anonymous, George who was a former car mechanic started by saying with a laugh: “Great job. Can you lick your fingers working as a mechanic?”

So this is what he told me verbatim; really good stuff and all true:

“Throughout winter, bees don’t sleep. They keep warm by clustering. That is the only time when they relax. They are very clean and never go to the washroom inside the hive. The colony can die from contamination, so they have to hold it for a very long time. Bees will emerge in the winter provided the day suddenly warms to between 10 and 15 C.

Raising bees is a very delicate challenge. They are wild, and simply allow us to keep them. They can leave anytime they want. We have to adjust to them, not them to us.

Six problem areas causing the decline in bee population:

1- Reduced sources of food (nectar): Years ago, canola was a great source. Today, the plant is genetically modified so it does not seed and therefore does not need to make nectar whose sole purpose is to attract pollinators.

2- Pesticides: Nicotine-based, they are not poison to us, but gradually destroy the immune systems of insects. For bees, it is a slow death. In particular, if the soil and water table is contaminated, bees are affected because they need water to build their hives. Purple loosestrife (a common invasive species) used to provide good nectar. Now it is being removed by beekeepers because it pulls up toxic water and chemicals in wet areas.

3- Mites: I lost 110 hives last winter due to parasites.

4- Electromagnetic radiation from transmission towers: A few years ago, Bell installed a nearby tower that I suspect contributed to an eight percent loss of hives.  

5- Drought: In 2016, I had fewer honey cones.

6- Climate change: Cold weather is a factor. If their entrances are blocked by ice, colonies suffocate. In the past, a 10 % loss was considered normal. Today, it is 15 to 20 percent. Beekeepers learn to cross your fingers.        

The of beekeeping is that you don’t have to rush. You can take a moment to marvel at how they operate as a community. The hive is docile when you don’t bother them. A bee may sit on my finger cleaning its antenna for 15 minutes.

Honey production is only 10 per cent of the bees’ work. More importantly, 90 per cent is pollination. Honey is not only food, it is a health product that boosts your immune system (only if it is unpasteurized, kept in its natural state) Bee pollen is like a multi-vitamin. And to the resins collected from trees, bees add honey and wax to make propolis, an antibacterial agent used to line each cell inside the hive to ensure larvae health. We scrape off the excess, dilute it and bottle it as a natural antibiotic and proven antiseptic that helps heal wounds and skin infections.

Each cell is a perfect hexagon, the most efficient use of space. The beeswax we use in candle-making is a clean concentration of sun energy. The bees fill each cell with nectar at 50 per cent moisture and fan it with their wings until it evaporates to 18 per cent. Then they cap it with wax. The cells are scientifically angled to keep the honey from flowing out. (Wow.)

As opposed to bees, wasps and hornets are predators. They have retractable stingers shaped like cones. Their venom, produced from animal matter, is meant to kill or paralyse their prey. The bee is a herbivore. Its stinger is harpoon-like connected to its intestine. Their gentler venom called epitoxin is used as a blood thinner for people with arthritis, able to relieve pain while reducing swelling in joints. It has a chemical found only in its venom, so some people say that bees were given to us by the gods from another planet.

There is zero waste in bee production. Everything they produce can be burnt cleanly. Even dead bees can be made into a medicinal extract that goes back to the practices of ancient healers. Today, many people are trying to return to the natural remedies that come with no side-effects.

Yet another bee product is royal jelly, a super food of concentrated vitamins fed exclusively to queens. If a queen dies or is no longer productive, the colony will take an egg and raise it as a queen. It is not the queen that is in charge in a hive, but the collective mind of the bees, in what is best for the colony. It takes 10,000 bee lives to make one teaspoon of honey because a bee lives only about 40 days.”

Cool, huh? So the next time you see a bee, be nice to these gentle creatures who work so hard for the betterment of nature. We could sure learn a lot from them on that score.

Beekeeper Alexis Daudelin searches for the Queen bee as he works on a hive located on the roof of the Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue library. Allen McInnis

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