Cats and Dogs, Living Together

There’s a scene in Ghost Busters where Bill Murray describes the doom awaiting the world when the captured ghosts are released: “…human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together…” It’s hard to image any fate worse for civilization, eh?

Such fear surely disturbed countless generations of superstitious humans when the gods unexpectedly hid the mid-day sun. Rumours abound of people dying of despair, birds falling silent, and bees racing home during a total eclipse of the sun.  And yes, cats and dogs living together.  Fortunately, after a few moments of lunacy, the sun shines radiantly once again.

I figured that today’s bee blog post would be eclipsed by bigger events, but I wanted to write a few words anyway. I’d love it if a beekeeping reader or two in the USA would let us all know how their bees perform during today’s eclipse. I’ll be watching bees along with you and I’ll let you know how they behave up here in Calgary. I’m not in totality’s path, but we are expecting 81% of the sun to disappear (momentarily, then we expect it to return). That’s certainly not going to be the full doomsday deal, but we should nevertheless experience some darkening around noon here.

My mother once said that she was working in one of our family apiaries when the July, 1963, eclipse passed to the north. There was 85% obstruction – the tone of the 30 hives in the bee yard changed from delight to panic. Foragers headed home. My mother said that the bees became mean and disturbed so she and my father had to quit field work for the day. I’m anxious to see if we have anything nearly as dramatic here today. I’ll write about the eclipse as a post script to this blog if the sun returns in the afternoon. Hopefully, a few of you will also give us a mini-report of the happenings in your own apiary. Especially notice if bees land heavy and/or with pollen, or if they mostly return skinny with pristine pollen knees. I’m curious to know if bees return empty – or finish foraging, then fly home.

In this crazy world of cat and dog cohabitation, a solar eclipse (now that we know what causes it) is actually a touch of normalcy in our otherwise unbalanced world. Enjoy the event. By the way, if you bought solar-viewing glasses (we didn’t), don’t throw them away! I’ve heard that they will be perfect for viewing a nuclear blast, too.

 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

OK! We survived the 81% eclipse! We had a bright clear day and a nice broad deck with a great view of the sun, so we had front-row seats. My teenager set up my 35-year-old old army binoculars to direct sunbeams toward a sheet of paper. It worked really well!

We didn’t enjoy totality, but we had an experience. The temperature dropped at least ten degrees. The sky was an eerie twilight, but without the glow of a setting sun. It actually wasn’t nearly as dark as I expected. Take away 80% of the sun and you should be in the dark, right? Nope. Here’s what 81% solar obstruction looked like in Calgary.

The absolute weirdest thing was the effect of the sun’s eclipsed light working its way through the needles of the tall spruce tree in our back yard. Instead of tiny points projected on the deck, we had dozens of amazing crescents. Here is my backyard wheelchair ramp, partly shaded, but all decked out in solar crescents.

My brother, in North Carolina, drove an hour south to experience totality. I loved his descriptions. The sudden darkness, the mesmerizing rays projecting around the edges of the moon, the bats taking flight. (Really!)

Finally, what about those bees? Well, they were a no-show! Our morning here in Calgary was rather chilly. Our bees weren’t flying when the eclipse started so we didn’t get to see what they’d do when it got dark.  But if you had active bees, please add a line or two in the comments below and let us know how they behaved.

Posted in Humour, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Lazy Bees

Hutterite kids, hanging out with my daughter. Not every moment is spent working.

A friend wanted to name his honey farm The Lazy Bee Apiaries. He even made the proper brand (LBA) for marking his frames and rims. But other beekeepers (including me) told him that bees aren’t lazy. Sometimes beekeepers are a bit work-averse, but never bees.  Was I right about that?

Bees have a reputation for tireless work. Their alleged ethics are borrowed by moralizers and preachers, including my friends, the Hutterites. They belong to a Mennonite-style religion started by Jacob Hutter five hundred years ago. Hutterites live communally on big farms, called colonies. Every generation, each farm ends up with too many kids for their sections of fertile farmland, so they send out a swarm of Hutterites to start another farm, which eventually splits again, after another generation. (From 400 immigrants in 1879, there are now 45,000 Hutterites in North America.) The Hutterites see parallels between themselves and the bee colony, swarms, and the bees’ extreme work ethic. These are traits which the Hutterites believe they share with honey bees.

But I don’t think bees work as hard as Hutterite farmers. In fact, I’ve come to suspect that bees can be a touch indolent. I’m not talking about drones, who are philosophically opposed to any form of labour. I’m talking about worker bees.

Mark and his hive. It looks like some of his bees aren’t working.

I fell into this train of thought when a neighbour here in Calgary invited me to take a peak at his bees. It’s Mark’s first year beekeeping. He’s doing well. His single hive, established in early May from a package, has grown from its initial single box. Now it fills four deep chambers and two shallow supers. Mark wanted my opinion on the bees’ strength, honey harvest, and winter prospects.

It wasn’t hard to tell him that his bees were doing fine. He had already harvested a super of honey, the bees had plenty of stores for winter, and the queen seemed active enough. There was no indication that they might swarm this year and their brood nest was not crowded. (You want the queen to have space in mid-August. If the brood nest is honey-bound, the queen stops laying and there aren’t enough bees for winter.) Everything was in good shape. We rearranged the order of the boxes and swapped around some foundation. Nothing dramatic.

As I mentioned, Mark is a new beekeeper. First year with bees. I like working with newbies as they often ask questions which I wouldn’t normally wonder about. For example, Mark pointed to two bees which were idle on a frame of sealed honey. They were just sitting there, perhaps chatting, but apparently doing nothing else.

“What are those bees doing?” Mark asked me.

I had no idea. How many times have I opened a hive, fumbled through some necessary manipulations, seen thousands of bees ‘hanging around’ but never stopped to wonder what a particular bee was doing at that particular moment.  I told Mark that I didn’t know. Maybe they were resting. Maybe they were disturbed by us, the beekeepers, and otherwise might have been gainfully employed. It looked like they were doing nothing.

If you quietly open any hive, give a gentle puff of smoke, and slowly remove a few frames, you’ll find hundreds of bees just hanging around. Not feeding hungry brood. Not drying and curing fresh nectar. Not constructing new comb. Not doing anything.

Are bees busy? Well, we’ve already dismissed drones as total miscreants. The queen, as we know, does a lot of work laying eggs, but she has a lot of down time, too. If you’ve ever watched her at her job (best viewed through an observation hive’s glass so she doesn’t get agitated), you’ll know that she spends less than ten seconds laying each egg. Count to ten, slowly. That’s enough time for the queen to drop an egg and move on, checking for the next cell.  A good queen may lay 2,000 eggs a day in a healthy developing hive, spending less than six hours each day working at her job. Then autumn and winter come and she has even less to do. This puts her productive hours only a little better than many office workers.

Worker bees seem to have it rather easy, too. Except during big nectar flows when a bee might forage non-stop fourteen hours a day for three or four weeks, finally retiring in death when her ragged wings shred from overuse, plunging her and her tiny droplet of freshly drawn nectar to the cold, unforgiving earth. Oh well, eh?

But that’s the romantic notion of a honey bee’s service. The vast majority never get to die for the team. In fact, the average bee’s life is mostly sedentary. Honey bees won’t fly if it’s cool (below about 10C/50F) or hot or windy, drizzly, or snowy. They don’t forage in the dark. If nectar-rich plants aren’t secreting, they don’t work even if the weather is good.

What about those two idle bees in Mark’s hive? They were too old to be housekeepers or nurses – and they were relaxing far from the brood. Other bees were gathering nectar (we side-shook a wet frame and thick nectar dribbled out). Those idle bees could have been at work, but weren’t. I guess even bees need some downtime. Hutterites, too. Whenever I would stop by at the nearest Hutterite colony, I could always find someone with a bit of time for a relaxing visit and small glass of dandelion wine – even on mild, sunny afternoons.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Friends | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

The Kiwi Beekeeping Podcast is Back!

Returning to the pod-waves after a two-month hiatus, Kiwimana is back. Since May 24, I’ve been suffering mana-withdrawal, but the popular beekeeping podcast released a new episode a few days ago.  So, I’ve kicked back and begun to enjoy the series again.

If you haven’t yet listened to the beekeepers who make this clever podcast, you’re in for a treat. This refreshing  podcast is broadcast from New Zealand’s north island, but we learn about good beekeeping, bees and politics, and environmental issues from all over the world. The focus is on ‘natural’ beekeeping but not to the point where credibility is lost. Gary and Margaret have lively opinions and banter to share, but most episodes also include interviews with other experienced beekeepers. For example, “Beekeeping Like a Girl” Hilary Kearney, bee health essayist Randy Oliver, Louisiana Bee Man JP, Australian commercial keeper Victor Croker, and bee blogger Rusty Burlew have all been guests on Kiwimana. Along with the interviews, the Kiwimaniacs usually discuss interesting bee news (like the time that a swarm shut down an entire school or the incident that involved a Kentucky driver who landed his car in an apiary).

Gary and Margaret have been podcasting for a few years – the newest release is Podcast #110!  That’s a lot of bee communication.  And a lot of hard production and research work from these Kiwis. If you’re looking for an interesting bee-centric way to spend a Sunday afternoon, Kiwimana may be what you want. It will especially appeal to newer beekeepers and ‘natural beekeeping’ enthusiasts, but there’s something at Kiwimana for experienced professionals, too. If you’re a commercial beekeeper, migrating hives on long treks or spending hour after hour in the extracting shop, this podcast is a pleasant way to pass some hours.

Take a listen, especially in September when Gary talks to me! Yup, he cornered me for a full hour of Rambling Ron on the Pod and we brought bad beekeeping to life. I’ll remind you when that show gets aired, but in the meanwhile, tune in to Kiwimana’s beekeeping podcast. If you like bee talk, you’ll like this.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Outreach | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Does the Truth Matter?

I’m back in Canada after a week in Europe. It’s cooler here (21C today) than Hungary’s 39C. It’s been much too dry on the western Canadian prairies – that’s probably going to hurt the honey crop and maybe even the millions of acres of wheat, lentils, and canola in our area. It’s already August, so perhaps grains will fill out as they should, but beekeepers who were hoping for a late season nectar flow might be disappointed.

Things like temperatures and inches of rain are clearly factual while the effects of heat and drought on crops are conjecture. Everyone understands that. There is (for most of us) an ability to differentiate fact from fiction or speculation. But lately, we’ve seen a lot of misrepresentations posing as reality. It’s getting tedious. I’m not going to write about politics, alternative facts, or the pervasive misleading news which is numbing and dumbing us. I’ll stick to something I know – truth and exaggeration in beekeeping.

The idea of writing about beekeeping’s little white lies came to me when I was heading home from Hungary. The trigger was a newspaper story I had read in Europe. As I’ve noted in my previous posts about last week’s trip abroad, bees are taken very seriously in central Europe. So, you can expect to see newspaper filler pieces (like the one below) about the goodness of honey. The headline, “A méz időtlen“, means that honey is timeless and within the article (where I’ve circled) we’re told that honey was found in a 3,300 year-old Egyptian tomb and it is “tökéletes állapotban” – in perfect condition. Nonsense.

A ridiculous meme, but its heart is in the right place.  (BTW – “they still tasted delicious” might refer to the archaeologists, not the honey.)

If you’ve been keeping bees for awhile, you probably heard this before: Archeologists break into an Egyptian tomb, find some honey pots and “the honey is as good as new”. That’s only true if the new honey was black, thick as tar, and inedible. That’s what archeologists discovered. After 3,000 years, honey doesn’t look or taste like honey. Lab analysis of the samples shows high sugar content and pollen grains from nectar-producing plants, so it’s called “honey”.  A few years ago, I sent notes to websites where I saw the Egyptian tomb story and asked if they could provide sources. Only the National Honey Board and one blogger wrote back to me saying that they didn’t have the original reference. The NHB has since removed the anecdote.  (Some of the mummy tale comes from Howard Carter who opened King Tut’s tomb in 1922. He described an 8-inch-tall ceramic container that he thought had a residue of honey along the bottom.)

Egyptian pharaohs aren’t the only source of dubious honey claims. I once toured a beekeeper’s shop in Florida which was, well, pretty messy. The fellow who owned it knew that I was uncomfortable when I turned down a chance to taste some awful smelling stuff from a big tank. It looked like honey, but… “Hell, Ron, what’re’ya worried about? Germs can’t live in honey.” Perhaps not. But botulism spores can. And lots of nasty stuff can fall into an open honey tank. The idea that “germs can’t live in honey” has some truth – honey is an incredibly good antiseptic. But that’s no excuse for a sloppy honey shop. Acids, hydrogen peroxide, and osmosis may kill most germs in honey. We might use this fact to promote the goodness of honey, but claiming miracles is best left to the folks working at Lourdes.

If we exaggerate the wonders of honey, we’re not doing ourselves any favours. If we stretch the truth to excuse a dirty shop, we are hurting everyone. You’ll sell more honey by keeping it wholesome and by singing its advantages over processed sugar than you will by advertising it as a panacea (or as a multi-spectrum cure-all for dementia, cancer, and dry, itchy, red-patch dandruff).

More untruths. Einstein, the poor chap who wasted thirty years of his life fighting quantum physics and trying to discover a Grand Unifying Theory of the Universe is better known today for  saying, “If bees disappear, man will survive for only four years.” He never said it. In all his millions or written and recorded words, bees simply never came up.

Although Albert Einstein wasn’t known to claim that human extinction would follow the collapse of honey bees, his fake quote  has been useful for anyone raising money on the theme of impending extinction of the honey bee – another fallacy. This one’s a whopper. There are now billions more honey bees in the world than there were 50 years ago. Canada has never had more honey bees, ever, in its entire history. Honey bees are not going extinct. This doesn’t mean that all is well in the Garden of Beedom. Pollution, climate change, pesticides, and monoculture have made beekeeping harder than ever. And the gentle bumble bee really is endangered in some areas. But honey bees? As long as they have growing economic value as pollinators and honey producers, their numbers will keep expanding.

The truth – does it matter? Exaggeration gets attention. Maybe it’s for a good cause. So what’s wrong with lying? If you honour veracity over fallacy, truthing means something to you. Credibility is valuable. There is no reason to stretch the truth with honey bees. The truth about bees and honey is fascinating enough without fabrications: Honey can be stored (without refrigeration, preservatives, or vacuum-packing) for years. Honey acts as a powerful antiseptic and is a good healthy food. Similarly, although honey bees are not going extinct, we can still vigilantly defend the environment and draw attention to those creatures which really are disappearing. But “cry wolf” without cause, as the little shepherd boy discovered, and people will eventually ignore you. Speak the truth without embellishments, and smart people will pay attention.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Honey, Outreach, Save the Bees | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

When Bees Become Culture

I’m in the central European country of Hungary for a few days. It’s a family visit with no work or particular sightseeing goals. But honey bee culture is everywhere. Perhaps only Utah (“The Beehive State”) and the little alpine nation of Slovenia are more closely tied to a beekeeping heritage.

You can catch glimpses of the bee everywhere. Here’s a litter box, anonymously enhanced by a creative graffiti artist. I saw this in the Liszt Ferencz Walking Park – named for the musical genius Franz Liszt, composer of Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2, a piece which you know, but perhaps not by name.

I wonder who the waste can artist was. Other dispensers in the park were more profanely annotated than this one. Was this artwork added under cover of twilight, or was there a cheering entourage of fine arts and beekeeping enthusiasts on hand, encouraging the itinerant painter? I shall never know.

Meanwhile, a stop at our favourite ice cream cafe on a city centre plaza shows us another cultural permutation of the Hungarian honey bee – this time a culinary treat. At perhaps 2,000 calories per plate, the 690 Ft ($3.50) Maja the Bee ice cream dish is a delightful indulgence. It’s creative and tasty – I saw one of these icy bees being consumed at an alarming pace at nearby table.

If you look for the honey bee in central Europe – a place with  2,000 years of beekeeping history – you’ll see lots of examples of the winged symbol of hard work and prosperity – frescoes, statuettes carved into buildings, murals. With 0ver 15,000 beekeepers out of a population of fewer than ten million folks, one in 600 people keeps bees. That makes it ten times more likely that you’ll bump into a beekeeper on the street here than in the USA.

A Hungarian honey shop

Honey shops abound. Szeged, the city of 200,000 in which I holidayed, has at least three honey stores. These are small shops, perhaps 500 square feet, on less expensive side-streets, with doors opening directly to the sidewalk. People walk in – sometimes with empty buckets in hand – and chose from ‘Mixed’ or ‘Milkweed’ or ‘Acacia’ (black locust) or other floral honeys. Customers might also pick up pollen, wax, or candles. In one shop, I was told that all the products were produced by the store-owner’s beekeeping family. Because beekeepers tend to be small-scale commercial (300-hive) operations and climate and floral distribution yields modest crops (40 to 60 pounds per year), direct marketing gives the family an edge. I wrote a bit about this for the American Bee Journal a few years ago – here’s a copy of that article (Monks, Doctors, and Little Old Ladies: The Beekeepers of Hungary) for you.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Honey | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Better Bees

Hungary, where I am today, has a long beekeeping history. Honey bees have been part of the ecology for thousands of years. Here, they are indigenous species whereas in the Americas (and Australia, New Zealand, and much of Asia), the European honey bee has immigrated to help with farm chores.  Before 1535, there were no honey bees in North America. On the other hand, Europeans have kept bees in the Old World for thousands of years. 

In Europe, bees are an ancient and integral part of the environment and culture. Although honey bees are native, regional honey bees have local advocates. This brings the idea of indigenous bees to a more specialized level. When I was in Ireland, I toured the Galtee queen breeding project – an earnest effort to replace the green isle’s Italian and mixed bee stock with indigenous ‘dark bees’ – Apis mellifera mellifera. The thought is that the European dark bee evolved to match the sometimes gloomy Irish climate and is best adapted to the locale. Within the indigenous gene pool, selection is made to reduce aggression and increase honey production.  To your left is a photo which I took in Ireland.  That’s a styro-insulated mating nuc. You can see that the bees are indeed ‘dark’.

Searching in veins for a perfect bee.

I’ve seen similar work in Central Europe where the Carniolan race (Apis mellifera carnica) has been recognized as local and superior. Near Budapest, I once toured a lab where technicians sat at stereo microscopes, counting veins on bee wings to determine racial origin of each specimen. I was told that by law, only Carniolans are permitted as bee stock in Hungary. If the specimen bee had the wrong number of veins, the technician told her manager who arranged a field visit to the errant apiary.  I’m not sure if other races were eradicated or if the purity project was dropped, but that’s what I was told by the lab director years ago.

Carniolans are definitely nice bees. They winter well and are notoriously docile. If one wishes to promote a ‘local’ bee then it’s great to have such a fine bug to endorse. Folk legend and citizen scientists tell us that this bee is gentle because for 3,000 years people kept the ancestors of today’s Carniolans next to their doorways and gardens. Aggressive bees weren’t tolerated. Mean colonies were regularly eliminated, affecting the genes of the bees in a way which most farmers would appreciate. 

I’ll post more observations from my short holiday in this lovely land of honey bees in a few days. Meanwhile, here’s a picture of my father poking around some Carniolans in the 1980s. I think it would be hard to find hives like these around here anymore. His smoker was his pipe. Did I mention that these are among the gentlest honey bees in the world?

Posted in Bee Biology, Climate, Culture, or lack thereof, Ecology, Genetics, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Quick Note from Abroad

Did you spot the honey bee? Today, I’m in a lovely part of Europe. The weather is great – sunny and warm – but the main nectar flows (acacia/locust and rape/canola) are over. I saw a few bees working in a city park, but they weren’t collecting much.

Want to be a better beekeeper and have a lot of fun in the process? Try exploring new scenery. When I was rather young, I worked for about a dozen beekeeepers – in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Saskatchewan, Florida, Montana, Wisconsin. Even though I grew up on a bee farm, working for others was an eye-opener. Learning how others adapted to their environments gave me ideas which I later borrowed. It surprised me that not every honey crop came from goldenrod, boneset, and aster in the fall and it was enlightening to see that bees could be kept in something other than single deeps with shallows as honey supers. The rest of the world, I discovered, was not Appalachian Pennsylvania.

I know that the old adage, “All beekeeping is local,” is broadly true. But it’s also true that “If you stop learning, you start dying.” Local is important, but fresh ideas are, too. Although Reverend Langstroth invented his moveable-frame hive in Philadelphia, I’ve seen equipment modelled on Langstroth boxes in South America, Asia, and Europe. Good ideas are portable.

I’ve been in Europe for the past few days. It’s just a quick trip, a change of scenery, a visit to extended family. This is not a beekeeping holiday.  Most years that I’ve been here, I’ve met beekeepers and bees. It might still happen, though it’s not planned. But even without seeing many bees, a change of culture, language, and climate is like hitting a reset button. 

I’m in Hungary. Our base is a lovely university city (Szeged), about two hours south of Budapest. The city is just a few kilometres from Romania and Serbia, so it is a bit of an international crossroads, down here in Hungary’s far south.  It is the hottest and sunniest place in the country. Agriculture is a big part of the economy and paprika is a well-known commodity. In fact, a Nobel Prize was awarded to a scientist at the university here when he took a mountain of local peppers and distilled Vitamin C from them – combining the best of agriculture and scientific research in one big project. When Albert Szent-Gyorgyi finished his distillation, it was the first time anyone had ever seen a vitamin!

Within this innovative agriculture, beekeeping is a star. The country has just ten million people, but over 15,000 are beekeepers.  That’s a lot more than there are in Canada. There are also a lot of colonies – over a million. That’s just under half the number as in the entire USA – yet Hungary is a much smaller country. As a result, Hungary has the greatest density of honey bees in all of Europe – perhaps in the world. There are more than 10 hives for each square kilometre (250 acres)!

Each beekeeper has an average of 70 hives. There are few really big operators, but thousands are running a few hundred colonies and earning modest livings as beekeepers. Bees are a big deal here. It wasn’t hard to find a bee magazine at the local newsstand, occupying a slot next to national newspapers and international news magazines.

The articles in the bee journal which you see in my photo are depressingly similar to what you can read every day, in any beekeeping magazine. Mites, nosema, pesticides, short crops, low prices – these are universal beekeeping realities. 

Balanced among the despair in the journal are a few encouraging stories – this month’s issue includes a feature about the Horvath family, their 150-250 hives (the number depends on how many splits are made in the spring and how many hives are sold), and their three young kids who help with the family business. As one reads their story (a struggle, but a success), it’s easy to have a touch of nostalgia for the days when commercial beekeeping was at this scale.  Granted, this is really hard beekeeping – but it’s a family project.  

The Horvaths apparently don’t move bees between black locust (acacia), sunflowers, canola, milkweed, and fall flowers. But many Hungarian beekeepers migrate within the country to try to catch something from the relatively small and unreliable nectar flows which cumulatively yield about 60 pounds per hive per year.  It’s barely viable economically. For many Central European beekeepers, the various paths to success include unpaid family help and direct sales to customers. This is the thing I learn each time I talk to beekeepers here.  They have an expression that translates “Success at beekeeping comes only when the whole family works together.”  Such prerequisites for success are not limited to beekeeping, of course, but there aren’t many examples as good. 

A family beekeeping story: universal truths.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof | Tagged | 7 Comments

Are You Giving It Away?

Creamed honey from the beekeepers’ co-op. Price per pound: CAN $9.00 (US $7.25)

A few days ago, I was shopping at our local co-op grocery store. As usual, I checked the price of honey. I like to use their prices as a minimum guide for honey produced by hobby beekeepers. Here in Calgary, beekeepers are beginning to extract. We make nice, mild, white honey. It’s beautiful stuff. But some of my friends give their honey away. Others price it so low that you’d think they’re not proud of what their bees have done.

So, here’s my annual admonition. Charge a lot of money for your honey. People will assume that it’s worth it. And it probably is. Certainly, it must be worth more than the stuff on the grocery shelf. Here are the prices worked out per pound for you:

Remember, this inventory was taken at just one store, on one day. Sales come and go; prices vary. But if you are cheaper than the cheapest honey at the local grocery, maybe you’re giving it away.

Gramma Bee’s was the cheapest honey at the store. It’s officially Canada #3 honey. To be #1, it has to meet a few standards (colour and moisture) which this honey likely met. But it’s ‘Never Heated, Never Filtered’ and “RAW”. Your honey, dripping from the extractor tonight, is probably similar. This honey is selling for $6.80/pound ($5.44 US).

This honey is called “McKenzie Natural White Honey”. There is no ‘McKenzie, except that the name is perhaps the most quintessential Canadian of all names.
I’ve tried this brand, it’s really good. It’s packed by some good folks in central Alberta. In the store at $8.16 per pound. ($6.53 US)

Billy Bee (now owned by McCormick foods) has promised to only retail 100% Canadian honey. Hooray for that. I once bought this brand just for the squeeze-bee. Sells here for $8.33/pound. ($7.00US)

On the top shelf, out of reach for kids and people (like me) shopping from a wheelchair, is the store’s only blatantly imported honey. It’s from the Australian packer, Capilano. (If you haven’t read my story about the defamation case involving Capilano, you’re in for a treat.) The Capilano brands shown here are the most expensive in the store – one is organic, the other is from manuka. These honeys are around $10.75/pound. ($8.50US)

Posted in Honey | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Fireweed Attraction

Last week, fires in western Canada forced 47,000 people from their mountain homes. Over a hundred houses were destroyed. Livestock, wildlife, even bees went up in flame. Millions of stately pines and firs are now little more than spent matches on the landscape. It’s horribly destructive, but like everything, forest fires are complicated.

If you’ve lost property and had to scramble ahead of flames, then you have no sympathy for the idea of forest renewal. But forest fires are part of the natural cycle that burns old growth and allows new. For thousands of years, lightning on a hot dry summer evening was the spark that led to the destruction of huge swaths of forest. Fires kill pests and tree bugs, leading to a fresh environment for shrubs, small trees, and herbaceous colonizers. Fireweed is among the new-growth sprouts. Here in Canada, it’s sometimes called willowherb, but most of us like to call it fireweed, a name that conjures  rebirth amid destruction.

We expect to see fireweed as a wild weed that grows in remote forests after fires have scorched the ground and blackened the dormant fireweed seeds. But there is a grand fireweed blooming beside our deck in the backyard.  Ten years ago, a kind breeze blew its seed into our lives. It took root and has been a lovely addition to our eclectic floral menagerie.  

It has been a century since any fires swept through our back yard, but year after year,  our single sprig of fireweed shoots up.  It is a myth (perpertrated by beekeepers) that fireweed seeds need fire to ‘burn off their tough seed pod’ – that’s what my father told me and that’s what I tell my kids, even though I know it’s not true. Instead, fireweed is a ‘pioneer species’ that needs sunlight and wide-open meadows to get established.  After a fire, the plant can conquer huge sections.  Beekeepers sometimes haul their bugs into those fresh ranges to gather tonnes of water-white nectar. 

Here in my city backyard, our friendly fireweed started to bloom a couple of weeks ago. It’s covered in bees. Bumblebees, not honey bees.  In fact, I have never seen a single honey bee on our backyard fireweed, not this year nor any previous year.  This summer, the absence of honey bees on this fireweed specimen is especially odd since I recently placed a small hive just a few metres away.  

Why do honey bees shun my fireweed while a variety of native bees enjoy its blossoms? There are several reasons.  For one thing, honey bees are more likely to forage as a mob. They communicate discoveries of huge fields (near us, it’s sweet clover and alfalfa). A scout bee would be seriously ridiculed if she were to announce the discovery of a solitary sprig.  If there were thousands of fireweed plants, I’m sure that millions of bees would be having a party in our yard.  But one plant? Why bother.  

I also suspect that the workers in my nuc, which you see in the picture above, are better adapted to imported forage such as alfalfa and sweet clover while indigenous bumblebees find this indigenous variety of fireweed appealing.  Lastly, honey bees fly kilometres while gathering nectar so they aren’t as partial to their immediate surroundings. Most other bees only forage near their nests so they are stuck with lonely bouquets.  These are just guesses. It would be interesting to follow up with a project to be more certain about the reasons that I’ve never seen honey bees on this honey plant, but have watched dozens of other bees work its blossoms. 

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YIKES! Small Hive Beetle in Alberta

Small Hive Beetles? No, thank you.

Two days ago, our apiary inspector announced the unfortunate discovery of the ugly Small Hive Beetle (SHB), species Aethina tumida, in the northern part of our province.  I think that this is the first time SHB has been found in Alberta, Canada. Our prairies are a long way north of the beetle hotspots, so the beetle didn’t arrive of its own volition. Instead, according to the government press release, it was inadvertently imported among “honey colonies that were imported from Ontario without the required permit”.  The permit would have required an inspection and the inspectors issuing the permits in Ontario (2,000 kilometres east) might have seen the beetles. Instead, the bugs are now in our pristine province and a major quarantine has been put in effect.  Here’s part of the announcement:

The SHB is a filthy little animal. It makes a mess of weak hives and unkempt honey shops, chewing honey and wax, then dropping dirty little droppings everywhere. Although the beetle is native to tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and probably won’t thrive up here in North America’s fridge, SHB could survive in heated honey shops and be a bee yard nuisance in the summer. The last time I wrote about this pest, I lamented that inspectors on our mild west coast (in British Columbia) had found the animal. So, we were wary that the beetle would arrive from the west. But this discovery was imported from the east, from Ontario.

Unfortunately, Ontario beekeepers have already exported this pest earlier this year – Ontario SHBs were discovered in New Brunswick. In that case, the beetles were hitching a ride among Ontario hives trucked to the maritime provinces to pollinate blueberries. Kevin McCully, New Brunswick’s agriculture director, was surprised to discover the beetles since the colonies were “all reported to not have any presence of small hive beetles in them,” when they were issued moving permits in Ontario. Nevertheless, the beetles were discovered among some of the 25,000 hives hauled into New Brunswick’s blueberries from Ontario.

Meanwhile, here in Alberta, the provincial government has issued a quarantine of a 15-kilometre zone around the affected hives. This means that apiaries belonging to 15 different operators in the Peace River region (about 800 kilometres north of Montana) will have a new set of rules to follow this summer – they won’t be allowed to sell or move any nucs or hives over the next 45 days, but they are allowed to produce and pull honey from hives within the quarantine.  Hopefully, this will prove to be a tiny infestation which can be eradicated quickly and permanently. But the accidental importation serves as a warning to beekeepers to be vigilante – and follow the rules about moving hives across borders.

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