The Bees at Times Square

New York City beekeeper Andrew Cote just captured a swarm high above Times Square. The bees were perched on a ledge and the beekeeper went to their rescue, boxing them up before they jumped to their death.  In coastal New York, swarm season is between Memorial Day (near the end of May) and the Fourth of July (near the fourth day of July).

Cote thinks that the swarm was from a nearby hotel rooftop apiary.  The free bees were on a 17th floor ledge, way up above the place where they store the big New Year’s Eve ball. This wasn’t the highest swarm he’s nabbed – that distinction goes to a swarm he collected from the 19th floor of a different Manhattan building.

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Backstory for the Bees

Our backyard hive.

Yesterday evening, I brought a small hive of bees to my back yard. It was thrilling. That may seem odd to those of you who read this blog regularly. (Did you miss my Urban Beekeeper post?)  Surely I’ve got dozens of hives somewhere. That’s a valid assumption, considering that I write frequently for American Bee Journal, teach several beekeeping courses a year, and mentor other beekeepers around the community. But it’s true – I’ve had no hives of my own for a few years, for a variety of reasons that you’ll see in the story which follows.  Many of you have read my book, Bad Beekeeping, which describes my twenty years of commercial beekeeping in Pennsylvania, Florida and Saskatchewan, so you know how I got here. For the rest of you, here’s the Cole’s Notes summary of the book:

I was the middle kid in a big family. My parents led a self-sufficient lifestyle – building, growing, and making almost everything they needed on their 50-acre farm in the Appalachian foothills. We had cows, sheep, greenhouses, and acres of orchards, vineyards, potatoes, tomatoes, cukes, and peppers. And there were bees. My father’s original goal was to be a commercial beekeeper. He eventually reached 800 hives around 1960, when I was a pre-schooler. He couldn’t make a living from it (Pennsylvania has feeble, undependable honey flows.),  so my mother chose greenhouses and row crops as their business. She was right  – people came from as far as Pittsburgh to buy Summit Gardens’ Golden Peppers and assorted delicacies.

The bees performed a less important role on the family farm, but by then my three older brothers and I had all been thoroughly stung. David, the oldest, moved to Florida where he still operates a fine queen business. By the time I had a driver’s license, the older boys were in the army or off the farm, so I was told to care for the 300 hives that were left from my father’s previous 800. (He gave/sold the rest to the older boys.) I made a lot of mistakes, but had some modest success. I was learning a lot. At 18, already with a few years of commercial bee experience, I left home to beekeep in Florida (learning from my brother David) in the winter and Wisconsin (learning from my brother Don) in the summer. Along with producing queens and orange blossom honey in Florida and clover honey in Wisconsin, my bees pollinated West Virginia apples. A couple years later, I met a guy selling hives in Saskatchewan. No money down. I was on my way.

Production in Pennsylvania had been 50 pounds per hive. In Florida, it was about 60 (plus queens to sell), while in Wisconsin my bees averaged 100 pounds per hive. But western Canada was known for amazing crops of water-white honey. Beekeepers were making 200 pounds per hive, so I joined them. That was the best decision of my life. I arrived in Canada in the 1970s and ran a thousand hives for over ten years. My base was a cowboy town near the Montana border. During my first four years, I averaged a little over 300 pounds per hive and paid off the entire farm. Then the area had a drought. No rain for 14 months. Crops died. My honey average was 14 pounds in 1985. I drained my savings, then sold the business. I kept 300 hives and placed them near Saskatoon, where (at age 33, in 1987) I started university. Four years later, I had an honours degree in geophysics – and several job offers in Calgary. So, I drove eight hours west and started a new life. Again.

Earth science had always interested me (volcanoes, earthquakes, gravity and magnetism, rocks, fossils – what’s not to like?) but I found myself doing the less interesting work of analyzing seismic signals. Lots of math and physics. Not so much fun and fresh air. So I bought 5 hives and put them on a friend’s quarter-section. It got me out of town and I soon split them to 15. Things were going well, but in a few years, I noticed some muscle weakness. I was tripping and falling. The diagnosis was ‘probably ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease‘. That usually causes complete paralysis within three years, followed by death. But my progression has been strangely slow. My ‘atypical ALS’ began 20 years ago, yet I still do most of the things I need to do. You never know about such things – you just have to see how it goes.

A little over ten years ago, I invited one of my older brothers to Calgary to operate a new honey farm which I wanted to build. I bought ten acres and we soon had 500 hives. It was entirely devoted to comb honey production – a beautiful product with much less heavy lifting and much more cash per hive. That seemed the right move at the time as we were in our 50s and my muscles were slowly becoming weak. But after seven years, my brother moved on, going back to the States with his wife so they could be closer to their grandchildren. Meanwhile, my illness was progressing, so I couldn’t move bees or pull honey. Besides, I was still consulting  in geophysics. My oldest daughter and her husband, both nearing 30, were interested in running the farm. So, I handed them the keys.  It hasn’t been easy for them. But they both have some of the skills that help beekeepers succeed. Erika is good at marketing and works in the shop (and sometimes in the bees) while Justin is great with woodworking and was a furnace-repair guy, so he knows mechanical things and is learning beekeeping. But it’s been a slow start for them.

That brings us to yesterday, when I visited my daughter, her husband, and their three little kids. Justin set up a queenless nuc for me. He had built some really nice nuc boxes and gave me two frames of brood (about half in pearl-stage) along with four frames of honey, pollen, and attached bees. We didn’t shake any extra bees into the nuc and we made sure that we found the queen and left her behind. I wanted a moderately weak hive which would have to raise a queen.

My goal (this year) is not to have a huge hive, but instead to intentionally keep the colony weak through occasional queenlessness and regular use of foundation. I just want to easily observe some honey bees. (I can see them from the deck while I’m writing these words!)  As a bonus, my two younger kids (ages 10 and 15) seem more excited about the bees than I am. They’re curious about nature and bugs and things.  I like that the hive also gives them a special family connection to something stretching back a century and across a continent, yet sitting in a small box in our back yard.

Finally, here’s a picture I took yesterday of my son-in-law preparing my nuc. He’s being helped by his kids (my grandkids). Over the next few days, I’ll describe how the nuc was made, transported 130 kilometres in my van, and hauled into the back yard. Oh, and I’ll need to name the hive, too. Any suggestions?

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Keeping the Cougars out of your Bee Yard

Mountain Lions, October, 2013 (photo by permission Liz Goldie, Calgary)

Ever been chased by a mountain lion? How about a cougar, panther, or puma? Me neither, but I’ve probably passed within metres of all four. (I’m told that they’re all the same speciesPuma concolor.) A new study from U of C Santa Cruz looked at the timidity of these big cats. Investigators found that cougars are particularly flighty at the sound of human voices. According to the research scientists,  the cats run most quickly when they hear the recorded banter of political pundits. They are especially nervous when exposed to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, or Rachel Maddow.

The experiment went something like what you see in the video below. Mountain lions were lured to a fresh carcass, then treated to the unexpected sound of frogs. The pumas kept eating. But when the soundtrack switched to noisy political know-it-alls, the cats fled – as should we all. The experiment was repeated again and again with the same results. This made me think of bears and bee yards.

It can be really, really hard to keep grizzlies and black bears out of bee yards. We once had a grizzly dig under a chain link fence to get into one of our apiaries. With the cheap cost and high reliability of electronics these days, I wonder if bears can be sent scrambling the same way that pumas retreat. Probably not. My brother chased a 7-foot-tall bear out of a bee yard by yelling at it, but the bear ambled slowly, then turned and stood, seeming to laugh at my brother as Don stood there, thinking that the hivetool in his hand wouldn’t be much of a defense if the bear suddenly charged.

I suspect that some non-fence systems might be as good as a string of electrified wires because bears sometimes make a hair-raising charge through the voltage. A north-Saskatchewan beekeeper told me that he regularly filled bottles with beer which he had cycled through his own body, placing urine-imbibed canisters around his bee yards. He claimed that after ‘marking his territory’, bears kept out. (That’s your beekeeping tip of the day.) Compared to the sound of Rush Limbaugh, it’s likely a less effective anti-bear ‘solution’. I have no reason to doubt the beekeeper, though I never tried it. Maybe someone can test this and let us all know if it works.

Grizzly at the bee yard, October, 2013 (photo by permission Liz Goldie, Calgary)

My friend Liz Goldie set up a Primos Truth Cam 46 at her farm south of Calgary and caught animals in these pictures. (By the way, the bear (above) eventually entered her apiary, ripping apart the electrified fence and some hives.)  Perhaps the trigger mechanism from the motion-sensitive camera which took the cougar and grizzly photos on today’s blog could be adapted to photograph the critters, then scare them away with a blast of pundit. Works for me.

Posted in Bee Yards, Beekeeping, Diseases and Pests, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

National Pollinator Week: Shrews and Mongooses, too.

Bombus Georgius Vilhelmus (photo credit: EHS Pest Services)

National Pollinator Week is June 19 – June 25, but summer is an odd time of year to celebrate pollinators. The big honey bee migration to California’s almonds ended in March. Bees, birds, bats, and butterflies have finished their work on spring fruit trees. Sure, zucchini buds beckon, but even Dipteran pollinators (flies) slacken visits to entomophilous flowers. Now that summer is happening, our biggest pollinator is unseen (the wind!), but it’s as busy as a bee, blowing pollen from wheat flower to flower – doing its job without much notice. (Did you know that more than two-thirds of the food we eat is pollinated by wind or gravity?)

The elephant shrew, practicing on sugar before moving on to nectar.

Among the more unusual/ignored pollinators are bats, toads, and mongooses (mongeese?). The BBC has a fun page that talks about mongoslings which transport pollen while snacking on nectar (to wash the taste of cobra from their mouths, I suppose). BBC also mentions the elephant shrew which uses its elephant nose to probe flowers for pollen and nectar, spreading goodies from blossom to blossom. (Incidentally, this mouse-sized creature is genetically closer to elephants than shrews – as you can see from its face.)

In China, some farmers carry little brushes into orchards, dusting pollen on pear and apple blossoms. In areas bordering Tibet, apple crops must be hand-pollinated by humans. These are areas so remote and rugged that it’s not possible to haul in native eastern honey bees (or any other non-human pollinators). Although wind and gravity may do some apple pollination work, Wired magazine credits local farmers with doing “100% of the pollination” – depending on variety and need for cross-pollination, that might be true. Both Wired (Will We Still have Fruit if Bees Die Off?) and Huffington Post (Startling Effect of Shrinking Bee Populations) claim that the impending extinction of bees has caused humans to hand pollinate. They are wrong. Read their articles and see for yourself.

Dusting pollen on pears in China. (Credit: HuffPost)

So, National Pollinator Week has a wide variety of pollinators to celebrate: Birds, bats, toads, butterflies, shrews, humans, gravity, and wind. We, of course, want to give due credit to bees. After all, they help pollinate our gluten-free favourites: squash and blueberries. (Not to mention apples, almonds, rambutan, mangos, kidney beans, canola, and kiwis. And a few dozen more.)

Yesterday, a friend asked me what she could do to encourage pollination in her garden. I fumbled for an answer. Do you buy a hive of bees, bring in leaf cutters, masons, bumble bees, or elephant shrews? Or do you plant flowers that will attract bees, shrews, and maybe humans to your backyard? If it’s bees you are after, you might like to look at this website: http://www.pollinator.org/guides. You’ll find excellent (really excellent) guidebooks that will help you decide what to plant to attract bees and butterflies to your own garden. Though, alas, no mention of attracting shrews, mongooses, or humans. You’re on your own with those.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Honey Plants, Humour, Pollination, Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Urban Beekeeping Mug

Yesterday, Father’s Day, my family surprised me with this homemade mug. They had conspired to co-create this bit of art for the past few days. I heard the hushed tones and I saw people and things quickly disappear when I approached. My new coffee mug says “Urban Beekeeper”.  My first thought when I saw it was that the coffee cup is really sweet and cute and thoughtful.  Then I remembered John Travolta, the Urban Cowboy, and his 1980 movie. These days we have urban lumberjacks (who cut and prune city trees) and urban farmers (backlot gardeners but also landscapers and groundskeepers), so why not the urban beekeeper? An Urban Cowboy is less easy to imagine – even if the cowboy is just maintaining mechanical bulls and riding them for trophy money, as happened in the movie. Though I live in Calgary, the home of the great Calgary Stampede and the heart of Canadian cowboy culture, I couldn’t tell you if my city has even a single mechanical bull. I’ve never seen one here. Maybe they all died out in the 1980s.  Mechanical bulls may be rare, but urban bees are not.

So, shall I be an Urban Beekeeper? I’ve gone without doing much beekeeping for the past little while, just helping friends and neighbours with their own colonies. But my wife and kids are encouraging me to move a hive into our backyard, hence the coffee mug. But an urban beekeeper?  I used to be an entirely rural person – born a farm boy, I’ve owned swampland in Florida and some aspen forest in northern Saskatchewan. For quite a few years, my home was perched at the edge of a sea of grasslands on the prairie. On all of those places, I’d kept hundreds of hives.  But now I’m in a city with a million neighbours, so the moniker and a single colony is appropriate.

Calgary, with some potential bee yards

I never thought the phenom of urban beekeeping would explode as it has. It conveys the welcome message that people (even in towns of more than a million) want to connect with nature. Urban beekeepers usually encourage their hometowns to provide more greenspace, more parks, more nectar-rich flowers, and less poison  – helping their own hive or two, but especially encouraging wild native bees. Today, there are more urban beekeepers keeping bees in our huge agricultural province (Alberta) than there are commercial beekeepers. Many of these folks are conscientious keepers and are supporting apiculture in a big way.

When I get around to setting up my backyard hive, the bees will have to share their spot with rabbits, coyotes, and deer which sometimes wander through here. The hive will sit almost exactly were this fawn is in the picture below. It’s sheltered from wind, sloping, and south-facing. In our area, bees in town make less honey than those out on the range. But that’s OK with me –  massive honey production is no longer my goal. I’ll be satisfied with two or three hundred pounds from a single backyard hive every year. My biggest bonus will be the short ten-metre commute for me when I visit my urban beefriends.

Posted in Bee Yards, Beekeeping | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Return to PolliNation

Last month, I mentioned a great new podcast, PolliNation. It’s produced by Andony Melathopoulos, a university professor at Oregon State. The PolliNation podcast series is very nicely produced and Andony has a voice made for podcasting. As a bonus, he has a background in practical beekeeping as well as research. He knows what he’s talking about when he talks about bees.   The 30-minute PolliNation interviews are so good that I can’t begin to imagine how a new one gets published every few days. Number 9 was just released!  Each is worth your ears’ efforts, so if you have not yet tuned in, you’re now behind by four and one-half hours of good beekeeping talk.

PolliNation’s  most recent entry is a chat with Dr. Meghan Milbrath. She is owner and manager of The Sand Hill Apiary, a queen-rearing operation. It’s rather unusual, as far as queen companies go, because it’s not located in a semi-tropical southern region. Meghan is in Michigan. Her intent is to help develop bees more suited to northern climates. Although southern queen breeders often have northern mother stock (and may hope to saturate their area with northern drone stock), if they are in southern California (for example), the queens will end up mating with at least some local drones. Meghan does not diss the good southern queen breeders, but by definition, they cannot provide ‘local’ queens to northern beekeepers.

Dr Meghan Milbrath, Michigan State University academic specialist

Because of the scarcity of northern breeders, one of her initiatives involves pairing ‘local’ queen producers with ‘local’ queen buyers. A task slightly more challenging than pairing cheese and wine, I think. In the past, most local queens were matched to new beekeepers by word of mouth, said Meghan. Sometimes you’d ask someone at the local bee club who would know someone else who would pull a paper from a pocket and pass along an elusive connection to a local queen breeder. You could see this going down in a McDonald’s parking lot sometime after midnight, too. To make this system easier and more transparent, one could turn to the Northern Bee Network, which Dr Milbrath runs. If you look at NBN’s website, you’ll see that it’s now easier to find a local, northern, small-scale queen or nuc producer. Here’s an image of the map on the site last night:

The interview with Dr Milbrath is just the latest in Andony Melathopolous’s series of bee talks. Be sure to subscribe. It’s free, but the information is priceless. You can listen or download on your computer through the podcast’s main website or search PolliNation in iTunes and load up your device with bees, beekeeping, and pollination stories.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Friends, Outreach, Pollination, Queens | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The Annual ALS Fundraiser

My 10-year-old daughter giving me a push. Almost done with the 5K walk/run/roll!

Almost every year, I diverge from my usual beekeeping nonsense on this blog and write a bit about our annual ALS fundraiser, Betty’s Run for ALS.

You probably know someone who had ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. Right now you are reading a blog written by someone with a non-typical form of the malady. (That’s me!) I was diagnosed 19 years ago, though for about five years before that, I realized that something wasn’t quite right with my balance and my muscle tone. Most people with ALS suffer a very quick and devastating progression. Mine has been about 20 times slower than normal. It’s non-typical and we’ve been calling it ‘motor neuron disease’. No one knows why mine isn’t following the usual path.

As a family, we have been active with the Alberta ALS Society for a long time. My wife worked directly with/for them for a few years and was on the executive fundraising committee for years. I’ve been the recipient of wheelchair ramps and other equipment when I’ve needed the help. Each year, we participate in the big annual fundraiser. This year, we were among over a thousand others who helped raise money to fight ALS. Pure Sweet Honey Farm, Inc., owned by two of my best friends, has contributed to our Calgary fundraiser for years. This year, they were our sweetest Gold Sponsors!

Whenever we have this ALS fundraising event, I invite people to sent a few dollars to our group, Betty’s Run for ALS.  Betty’s Run is named for a Calgarian who passed away from ALS 22 years ago. This event has been held in her memory every year since. Donations are used to buy equipment (vans, power wheelchairs, special beds, and so on) and to support research in finding a cure.  Great progress is being made, but the cure is still elusive. With everyone’s help, it will come.

Here are some pictures from yesterday’s Betty’s Run for ALS.

This is what the starting line looked like for people getting ready to walk the 5 kilometres. I appreciated that our city’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi,  walked with us. He’s supported this fundraiser for years.

My wife and I and some of our family

It was a beautiful, sunny day in Calgary.
Here we are near the halfway point on the 5-kilometre trail.

My friends at Pure Sweet Honey are sponsors of the ALS charity.
It was really cool for me to see their company listed on the 1,200 or so T-shirts!

Guess who the sweetest sponsors were this year.

My tag said “I’m Here For Everyone”.  Anyone could get this disease. But I was also thinking of all the families and friends affected by the illness. Everyone.

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(Vice-) Presidential Bees

The hive at the Veep residence

Beekeeping transcends politics. At least, at the ‘stick your hand in the hive’ level, it should. In the past, I’d written about how the Obamas planted hives next to peas and carrots at the White House. The president uttered a profound, “Bees are good” when he calmed a group of school children who had panicked at the sound of a honey bee on the White House lawn. (See the video here. It’s cool.)  Michele Obama brought a high-profile acknowledgement of ecology, bees, beekeeping, healthy eating, and wholesome living to the public’s eye. Now it’s the new VP family’s turn to keep the flowers pollinated in D.C.

Vice-President Pence’s wife, Karen, has brought honey bees to the vice-presidential grounds, which sits on a 13-acre spread belonging to to the US Naval Observatory.  In the official unveiling of the hive, Mrs Pence said,

“All types of pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, birds and bats, are critical to providing our nation’s food, fiber, fuel and medicine… However, our beekeepers have been losing colonies for many years. This presents a serious challenge to our ability to produce many of the agricultural products that we enjoy today.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue helped announce the arrival of the new beehive on the grounds of the vice-presidential residence, adding to the Second Lady’s comments,

“…our honeybee population has been losing ground at an alarming rate. The problem represents a diverse mix of challenges requiring a wide range of solutions. And at USDA we are leading the way in research to help out our pollinator friends.”

Well stated. If this translates into increased funding for research and better controls on the use of chemicals such as those sprayed on Florida’s citrus while trees are in blossom, it should result in more than symbolic sympathy for the plight of bees.

I think that the vice-presidential wife’s hive is more than a political gimmick. Karen Pence has maintained hives before, including a colony established when her husband became governor of Indiana in 2014.  These are animal lovers. The Pences have a pet rabbit (which has already visited the VP’s office) and today Karen Pence’s Twitter page starts with a tribute to their late feline, Oreo, a two-tone cat which apparently died this morning. I take the menagerie to be a healthy sign of a family committed to animals and (hopefully) nature.   The beehive seems a sincere effort on Karen Pence’s part to participate in improving our environment. Veils off to you, Mrs Veep.

Posted in Outreach, People | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Miel Carlota – Once the World’s Biggest Bee Farm

“Removing supers during harvest” – from Speck & Wulfrath’s 1955 bee guide

One of the world’s largest honey farms was a Mexican outfit started by a couple of guys on holidays from Germany. The Second World War broke out while they were rambling around the Mexican coast, so they stayed for an extended vacation. That vacation turned out to be the rest of their long lives.

Miel Carlota was began as a hobby when the two friends, Arturo Wulfrath and Dr Juan Speck, picked up five hives from a farmer. Apparently looking for an interesting way to make a living and contribute to their new country, they became beekeepers. According to their company representatives at Miel Carlota, it all started on this day (June 5th) in 1943 when those five hives came into their possession.

They were incredibly progressive beekeepers. Their part of Mexico historically produced 15 kilos (35 pounds) of honey per hive when the young men arrived. Their first hives were in rustic boxes. These were hard to manage and contributed to Mexico’s low honey production. They transferred the bees to modern Langstroth-style equipment and learned to move hives to seasonal blossoms.  By 1958, Miel Carlota, headquartered in Cuernavaca, operated at least 20,000 hives of honey bees. According to a Waco Tribune-Herald reporter who interviewed Dr Speck, the business produced six million pounds of honey a year. This would be a yield of 300 pounds per colony, which is unlikely, but not impossible. (Bee colonies typically produce between 50 and 250 pounds annually.) Speck indicated to the Waco paper (January 26, 1958) that they operated 318 apiaries. Elsewhere, Miel Carlota indicated they had about 100 hives per apiary, which would imply over 30,000 hives. Others have stated that the company had 50,000 colonies during the 1960s. The fuzziness around the numbers may be due to seasonal variations and whether or not their vast collection of mating nucs were counted as hives.

Regardless their challenges managing such a huge number of hives, Miel Carlota was among the most innovative and progressive honey companies in the world. They designed and patented unique hive equipment, build their own wax foundation mill, and wrote books which educated thousands in practical beekeeping. I have a copy of one of their first texts, Pequena Guia para el Apicultor (Small Guide for the Beekeeper), written in 1955 by Speck and Wulfrath. The book is refreshingly open in sharing practical and even privileged details about their techniques in successful Mexican beekeeping. For example, the authors disclose their best choice for hive equipment and, at the end of the book, they itemize expenses for establishing one’s own beekeeping enterprise – complete with all the dollars and cents in an investment.

By the mid-1950s, Miel Carlota was the world’s largest queen producer. Dr Eva Crane, a bee science writer and researcher, visited the outfit in 1957.  Dr Speck took this picture of Dr Crane as she watched Miel Carlota beekeepers grafting queen cells in the shade of one of the company’s trucks. In addition to queen rearing, the firm also led the world in royal jelly production. They invented a vacuum pumping system that sucked the food out of day-old queen cells. They could produce a tonne of royal jelly from 2,000 hives in three months. Their surplus helped create a craze for the stuff as a dubious health food. One of Miel Carlota’s biggest royal jelly fans was Pope Pius, according to Dr Speck in that 1958 Waco Tribune interview. (The pope died a few weeks after that interview, so by the next year, his endorsement was less convincing.)

Below is a picture taken at one of Miel Carlota’s queen rearing stations. It’s from their guide, Pequena Guia para el Apicultor. The instructional point here is that even in 1955, when this book was published, they knew that they needed hives dedicated to drone production, as it says in the caption, “Hives for raising queens. On the left, hives for drones.” It took most North American queen breeders another decade of so to really catch on to the need to introduce and promote selected drone stock into their breeding programs. I still know some who don’t understand the need! 😦

In 1973, 1974, and 1975, Canadian beekeepers imported thousands of these skillfully produced Mexican queens. (For example, 4,500 queens in 1974.) However, the lineage was tropical, so the Alberta government pioneered an effort to have winter-hardy Canadian stock sent to Miel Carlota for breeding stock. Here’s the Alberta government press release from 1975:

November 3, 1975
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MEXICAN QUEEN BEE PROJECT
Three hundred honeybee queens left Alberta by air recently for Mexico! Their destinations were a number of commercial Mexican beekeepers, including Miel Carlota, the largest queen breeder in the world. Alberta Agriculture, which is sponsoring this Mexican Queen Bee Project, hopes to get about 1 0,000 young queens from this initial investment by next spring. Dr. Ulf Soehngen, provincial apiarist in charge of the project, explains that Alberta sent its own queens to Mexico so that the Mexicans could produce the strain of bees that are most suitable for our climatic and environmental conditions. “The majority of the strains currently being used in Mexico,” he says, “have been selected for aggressive characteristics to discourage hive pilfering in outlying areas of the country. However, since these aggressive traits are not needed here, and since they make the bees more difficult to handle, it was decided to send our own honeybee strains to Mexico for multiplication.”

Most of the queens that have gone to Mexico were produced this year from stock that was originally selected in northern Saskatchewan. They are primarily Caucasian queens because this strain tends to be more winter-hardy than the Italian strain, which is the other main type used here. Dr. Soehngen says there is a growing trend in this province towards overwintering honeybees because of the difficulty of obtaining package bees and queens in the spring and because of their ever increasing price. The queens were sent to Mexico in cages, each cage containing one queen and half a dozen workers. Except for Miel Carlota, package bee production and queen breeding are new to most Mexican beekeepers with the result that the present project involved a considerable amount of preliminary work on the part of Alberta Agriculture personnel.

The reason the government decided to import bees from Mexico was to ensure that Alberta beekeepers will have a supply of relatively high quality queens and that the price of these queens will be lower than the price currently being charged in the United States.

The project soon failed. Not because of poor craftsmanship from Miel Carlota, but because of timing. Tracheal mites (and then varroa) were soon discovered in Mexico. African honey bees were approaching Mexico. I can’t say that this was a government boondoggle, but overseeing a bee project in Mexico during the Canadian winter at taxpayers’ expense would have been enticing. And surely Canadian scientists clever enough to know something about raising queens would have known about the potential maladies that were on their way.

Miel Carlota started with five hives June 5, 1943. In 12 years, they had perhaps 50,000. (According to R.B. Willson, 1955, Gleanings) The growth was amazing. They had huge crops, were extraordinarily progressive, and entered an area with no commercial beekeepers. In their beekeeper’s guidebook, they present a plan for other beekeepers wishing to expand. It’s almost childish in its simplicity. Start by purchasing two hives, then split them every four weeks. You can see how they got to 16, 385 colonies in just one year. It’s the magic of compound interest!

What happens to famous progressive honey companies after the founders shuffle off to unknown bee pastures? Well, by the 1980s, the company began operating mostly as a packer and distributor of honey and various bee products. In 1989, the Mexican-based international Grupo Herdez purchased Miel Carlota and added their honey line to goodies such as canned peas, shrimp, and tomato paste. Grupo Herdez had started in 1914 but in the 1940s was selling McCormicks products, and adding other lines. Herdez acquired a series of other labels, and built Grupo Herdez into one of Mexico’s largest firms. They even spread to the USA where they own several zesty brands and Chi-Chi’s restaurants. If you’ve ever eaten MegaMex, a popular label in the states, you have purchased indirectly from Grupo Herdez and possibly eaten goods sweetened by Miel Carlota honey. Meanwhile, back in Mexico, Miel Carlota signature honey continues to make up a part of Herdez’s sales.

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Commercial Beekeeping, History, People, Queens | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

The Serious Lawn

Three Hills, Alberta, Friday, June 2, 2017. Credit: Cecilia Wessels

Do we take lawn care too seriously? Whether we are wasting water on Kentucky bluegrass in the great American southwest, or soaking tonnes of weedkiller and insecticide into pleasant little villages across the continent, much of our obsession is just wrong. (And I’m not saying this simply to justify my own half-wild, unkempt backyard.)  Considering the harm we’re doing to ourselves, our neighbouring ecology, and our bees, what good comes from that perfect lawn?  Even the aesthetics are sometimes questionable. (I’ll refrain from venting about golf courses for the moment.)

On the other hand, I tip my hat to the homeowner in the photo above. He keeps a neat yard a bit north of me, up in the town of Three Hills, Alberta.  Theunis Wessels’s wife snapped this sensational picture of him finishing up lawn work while a tornado descended.  There’s much to admire in that unflappable Canadian demeanor and sense of duty. Well done, neighbour.

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