Sweet Stats

Yesterday, Stats Canada released honey bee numbers for 2016. Canada now has more colonies ever. That’s  right – more hives of honey bees than ever, in all of our recorded history. Our numbers are now over 750,000 colonies.

The last time Canada had a big colony count ramp-up was in the mid-1980s. We reached 707,000 colonies in 1986. Then, over the next three years, our colony count collapsed to below 500,000 hives in 1991. It wasn’t bee disease or CCD that caused Canada’s colony collapse. It was a new law that stopped honey bee imports from the USA. Canadian bees that died during our long brutally cold winters couldn’t be cheaply replaced so about one-third of Canada’s beekeepers left the bee business. The mistake cost Canadian beekeepers millions of dollars and shows what happens when people who don’t know much about beekeeping make the rules.

Canada has finally had a few good years, but I predict that colony counts will be down a little next year, this time because the wholesale price of honey has fallen quite a lot. Some beekeepers will probably not replace all of their winter dead-outs. As a result, I think Canada’s colonies will number less than 700,000 in 2017.

Canada’s 2016 honey production is estimated as 92.2 million pounds. That’s a 123 pound per hive average. Respectable, but not Canada’s best – that  was 1998 when the national average was 180 pounds per colony. Few other places on Earth are as prolific, nor do they make the delicious snow-white honey that’s found in Canada.

High-glucose honey - safely in a jar.

Great Canadian honey – and lots of it!

Posted in Honey, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Some Ambrosia


Ambrosia. n. nectar; food or drink of the Greek gods which confers longevity

Break out the mead – it’s St. Ambrose Day! Ambrose is the patron saint of beekeepers, a task he’s had since the day in 340 when he was born. A swarm settled on his face as he slept in his cradle. The bees moved on to a better nesting site, but left a drop of honey on his lips. Saint Ambrose Senior took the event as a sign that his son would become a honey-tongued orator.

Saint Ambrose, aka Aurelius Ambrosius, was a politician before he entered the clergy and became the bishop of Milan. Ambrose was a staunch opponent of Arianism (the heretical belief that Jesus is God’s son) and he led persecutions of Arians, Jews, and pagans, thus consolidating the power of the ascending Church. One thousand years after he died, the Church elevated him to “Doctor” of the Church, a promotion (not a posthumous medical degree) that recognized his role in doctoring the Church’s early theology.

His sainthood recognizes his exemplary and celibate lifestyle and such intriguing observations as “giving to the poor was not to be considered an act of generosity towards the fringes of society but as a repayment of resources that God had originally bestowed on everyone equally and that the rich had usurped.” To modern ears, it sounds like Saint Ambrose’s was a communist.

 In addition to being a theologian, politician, and equalizer of wealth, Ambrose is sometimes credited with teaching the world to read silently, instead of aloud. (Keeping his honeyed tongue to himself.) He described a key event in his religious conversion as a moment of silent reading with a friend.  In Saint Augustine’s Confessions, you’ll find this:

“When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”

Ambrose had other talents, too. He was the composer of Veni redemptor gentium, an Advent hymn written by him using iambic dimeter. He also promoted a choir style called “antiphonal chant”, which you may hear here.

But getting back to the bees. A swarm landed on Ambrose when he was a young. We’re not told how long they stayed but we learned that the bees left him honey-lipped.  That’s pretty much it for Saint Ambrose and the bees.

Nevertheless, Ambrose is patron saint of bees, beekeepers, and candle makers. In Ambrose’s writings, bees are mentioned only a couple of times. Because of his musings about ownership of property, I thought he’d relate how all the bees in a hive share their food equally and if starvation strikes, every bee continues to share until they all die en masse, at the same sad time. But instead, Saint Ambrose was more preoccupied with celibacy. In his few lines about bees, he connects them to celibacy.  The Catholic Encyclopedia says Ambrose had an “enthusiastic love of virginity which became his distinguishing trait.” Here’s how Saint Ambrose ties bees and virginity together.

Ambrose didn’t know that worker bees are female virgins – that idea wasn’t figured out for another 1,500 years. He thought the queen was a king. And Ambrose believed that bees spontaneously generate (without sex) from dew on flowers where older bees gather them up and carry them back to the hive. As Ambrose observed  “virginity is fit to be compared to bees…  The bee feeds on dew, it knows no marriage bed, it makes honey… How I wish [women] to be an imitator of bees whose food is flowers, whose offspring is collected and brought together by the mouth….”  The idea that baby bees were collected by mouth from flowers was the state of the science in fourth-century Europe.


That’s about all I could find relating the patron saint of beekeeping to bees. I guess we make more of it than Ambrose himself did.


Today, the Ambrosian bee link is mostly forgotten, except among some St Ambrose University sports teams where Fighting Bees is a warrior symbol. But we might still light a candle for the old saint.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Bee Book Season

Everyone needs at least one bee book.

Everyone needs at least one bee book.

bad-beekeeping-coverIt’s holiday season. And if you’re normal, you’re thinking about beekeeping books for everyone you know. Even the non-beekeeps. I spent a few minutes today scanning the Amazon.com site to see what was bee hot. Not that the best sellers are always the best books. (My own book fell from the best seller ranks back in 2008, but I think Bad Beekeeping is still an OK gift for your friends.)  But there are some good ideas to get you started.

As of December 6, 2016, here are the top 10 Amazon.com bee books:

1 – 
The Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, Honey, Recipes & Other Home Uses by Richard Jones, Sharon Sweeney-Lynch – published April 1, 2011

2 – 
Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum

3 –
The Beekeeper’s Handbook 4th Edition  by Diana Sammataro, Alphonse Avitabile, Dewey M. Caron (Foreword)

4 –
Beekeeping For Dummies 3rd Edition by Howland Blackiston

5 –
The Beekeeper’s Journal: An Illustrated Register for Your Beekeeping Adventures by Kim Flottum – published February 1, 2014

6 – 
Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley – published October 10, 2010

7 –
The Bee Book by DK, Emma Tennant, & Fergus Chadwick – published March 1, 2016

8 –
The Sting of the Wild (The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science) by Justin O. Schmidt – published in 2016

9 –
Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees: Honey Production, Pollination, Bee Health by Malcolm T. Sanford  & Richard E. Bonney – published September 18, 2010

10 –
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping  by Buzz Bissinger & Dean Stiglitz – published May 4, 2010

beekeepers-bibleThis list includes one Bible and two books for dummies and idiots. It also includes two (!) books by Kim Flottum, long-time editor of Bee Culture and a gifted writer. I own several of his books and can recommend them – they are well-written, printed with quality, and reasonably priced. The seventh book on the list above (“The Bee Book“) is aimed at smart young readers and features bumbles, masons, and honey bees.

honey-bee-democracy-seeleyIf you are buying for someone who is contemplative and beyond basic bee books, I strongly recommend Tom Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy.  Another Seeley book, Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting, released this spring, is also great. If you have not read Mark Winston’s recent Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, it is now released in trade paperback and is considerably cheaper than the hardcover. Winston is always a good read, and this book is a blend of environment, ecology, and bees.

If you do your own Amazon search for “beekeeping books” you’ll notice the next three volumes. They are not precisely bee books, but I can see why they’d appear in the Amazon beekeeping book list. First, here’s is a hugely well-selling book released in 2010 and written by Brett L. Markham: Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre. It should appeal to the Doomsdayers on your Christmas list – if you can find their bomb shelter to deliver the book.

A bit more closely related to beekeeping is Beeswax Alchemy: How to Make Your Own Soap, Candles, Balms, Creams, and Salves from the Hive, on Amazon since April 1, 2015  and written by Petra Ahnert.   The third book to place among the best-selling bee-related books is Make Mead Like a Viking: Traditional Techniques for Brewing Natural, Wild-Fermented, Honey-Based Wines and BeersMead Like a Viking, by Jereme Zimmerman, came out in November 2015.

I can’t imagine that there are people who won’t read a technical beekeeping book, but maybe you know some. For those friends of yours who are non-keepers, I can suggest a couple fictions that might swing them your direction. First, a recent release in the “Whatever happened to Sherlock Holmes after he retired?” genre:  The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: or, On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King   In this adventure, Holmes is retired from detective work and quietly keeping and writing about bees. Along comes a teenage-girl and a new mystery.  There’s also The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. It came out in 2003, and is still popular. It might be interesting to some readers on your shopping list.

Going back much further in time is The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter (1863 – 1924).  She was an American author, naturalist, nature photographer, and one of the first women to form a movie studio, Gene Stratton-Porter Productions, Inc. She also wrote several best-selling novels, including her last one, the Keeper of the Bees. It’s set in California in the 1920s, where we meet a master beekeeper, his bees, and a wounded World War I veteran. If this sort of historical work appeals to you you may also like The Beekeeper’s Pupil by Sara George. I read it a few years ago and really liked the story – it’s a fiction, but closely follows the facts around Francois Huber’s discovery of the way queens and drones mate. The intrigue is that Huber was blind since he was a teenager and is assisted in his work by his wife and a hired servant. He sets up the experiments which they perform. It’s not quite a drama, not quite a romance, not quite an historical fiction, yet (for me at least) it works.

dancing-bees-munzAnother historical book (definitely not a fiction) is Tania Munz’s The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language. Munz is a researcher, librarian, and educator. Her story tells how von Frisch – though partly Jewish – manages to not only survive Nazi Germany but to run a research lab and discover how honey bees communicate. I read this shortly after it was published this spring and I learned a lot. Munz has a difficult job reconciling Karl von Frisch’s social status amidst the Nazis,  but she does nice work helping us understand the circumstances inside WWII Germany and the Nobel Prize-winning bee science behind von Frisch’s discoveries.

empty-beekeeper-and-bad-beekeepingFinally, I’d be untrue to myself if I don’t include my own book from ten years ago – Bad Beekeeping. It’s also at Amazon. Bad Beekeeping is a memoir – it’s not a beekeeping manual. But bees are on almost every page and the tale takes me from a western Pennsylvania bee farm, through queen rearing and orange honey in Florida, Appalachian apple pollination, beekeeping amid Wisconsin’s clover fields and then to some huge honey crops in Saskatchewan. If you buy just one book this Christmas, make it mine. Or some other beekeeping book.

Posted in Books, Culture, or lack thereof | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Bee Virus with a Cute Name


It will never end. But at least this one has a cute name: The Moku virus. Science Daily had a piece, A New Threat to Bees Worldwide, which gives us yet another bee story that may go viral. The Moku virus was found on non-native invasive wasps which are attacking honey bees on Hawaii’s big island.

Moku virus is named for a Hawaiian district which was recently invaded by a major pest, Vespula pensylvanica, the western yellowjacket. The wasp is native to northern temperate zones of western North America. The wasp’s populations tank in cold weather, but in Hawaii’s tropical paradise, there is no break in its reproduction cycle and the wasp’s numbers have exploded.

Nasty and mean

Nasty and mean

The western yellowjacket, like most wasps, is nasty and mean. It hunts insects for meat and gets carbohydrates from plant nectar – or from honey stolen from a hive. The wasp can capture a bee and carry it to a quiet vertical surface where the bee’s legs and wings are chewed off. With captured drones, the head is often removed first. Then the rest of the victim is eaten at leisure. In Hawaii, yellowjackets stealthily enter honey bee colonies, usually facing no real opposition when they make off with a bee. Not only is the wasp a brutish pest, but it is also the carrier of a virus which may spread to honey bees when the wasp enters a hive looking for fresh meat.

The Moku virus was identified at the labs of Earlham Institute (formerly The Genome Analysis Centre) in Plymouth, England. There, Dr Gideon Mordecai reported, “The use of next generation gene sequencing techniques has led to a rapid increase in virus discovery, and is a powerful tool for investigating the enormous diversity of viruses out there.” The Moku virus was identified when 8 yellowjackets from Moku were DNA-sequenced and the new virus was found in the mix. This is amazing:

“Complementary DNA (cDNA) sequencing was performed at Earlham Institute on the Illumina HiSeq, from which the novel viral genome of 10,056bp (base pairs) [Humans have ~3 billion bp – RM] was sequenced and assembled from eight wasp individuals, whose closest relative was found to be the Slow bee paralysis virus.

“Purnima Pachori at EI performed the QC and assembly of viral samples from honey bees, V. pensylvanic and the varroa mite. Crucially, she was able to clean up the insect and mite-specific RNAs to leave only viral sequence for analysis, which allowed for the identification of the novel Moku virus – led by Gideon Mordecai of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth.”

     – from Earlham Institute’s news release

The discover of the new virus alarmed researchers who suggested that the virus might jump to honey bees – a likely event given the intimate relationships the wasps have with their lunch.

I haven’t heard if honey bees have actually been infected, though cross-species migration of the virus is possible. I suspect that the warning – which was published in the esteemed Nature network of journals – is premature and slightly alarmist. However, Moku evolved in V. pensylvanica, its host for perhaps thousands of generations. Hosts usually develop coping strategies over time. Jumping to a new host – one unfamiliar with the virus – can have devastating results as we’ve seen with swine and avian flu.   How bad could a new honey bee virus be? Many researchers think that  colony collapse disorder was caused by a virus. However, it’s instructive to note that there has been no CCD in over five years, indicating that a new host might quickly develop resistance.


…and many, many more

The list of viruses known to affect honey bees is significant – nearly twenty honey bee viruses have been discovered. These include chronic bee paralysis, acute bee paralysis, Israel acute paralysis, Kashmir bee virus, cloudy-wing, deformed wing, picornavirus, bee virus X, bee virus Y, Arkansas bee virus, and the black queen cell virus. We know of others and many more will eventually be found.

Viruses mutate quickly and their incredibly tiny size allows easy access to hosts. The size of a virus compared to a human body is less than the size of the human body to the entire Earth. The rate of viral evolution makes it impossible to fight all the possible viruses with anti-viral medication. But just as with humans, bees that are the healthiest, strongest, and most resilient are usually most able to fight a virus attack.

Research scientist Gideon Mordecai also said, “future challenges will be assessing the biological relevance of these novel pathogens and the role they play in the ecology of their hosts.” Indeed it will. Rather than attempting to battle each new virus as it arises (remember there are already at least 20 known to affect honey bees), our best strategy is keep colonies free of varroa (a virus vector) and stocked with healthy young queens. Of course, weak colonies with large varroa populations are doomed to fail, with or without viruses.

Posted in Diseases and Pests, Ecology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Hate Nation’s Bees


Mechanical bees’ nest – coming soon to a dystopia near you?

I’m pretty fussy about the shows I catch. Unless they include bees – then I’ll watch almost anything. The folks over at the London School of Economics beekeeping site mentioned a British dystopian thriller, Black Mirror: Hated in the Nation. Not my usual choice, but when learned it had murderous robotic bees, developed by the British to replace extinct pollinators, I was on to it. 


He’ll bee OK.

So here’s the deal. Black Mirror is a series of futuristic dramas – loosely related episodes about some bad karma  hitting us a few years from now. I was unaware of the show until yesterday, but I’m glad I saw this particular installment (Hated in the Nation:  Season 3; Episode 6; released October 2016). The world’s honey bees have colony-collapsed, so an aseptic ag-company develops swarms of robotic drones (actually, workers, I should think), to pollinate  England’s legendary flower gardens. It apparently takes just 23,000 swarms (each of 4,000 mechanical bees) to do the job – but I’m guessing that the solar-powered robotic avatars work day and night and don’t mess with nectar – they just pollinate and pollinate. It wouldn’t be much of a show if things didn’t go badly wrong, but for that, you’ll have to watch it yourself.

This isn’t my normal movie fare, but I liked it quite a lot. Be aware that there are a handful of gore scenes and some colourful language, but if you’re a rugged adult and make a habit of peeking at bees, you can probably handle it. The backstory includes intriguing thoughts on the way bullies use social media to cause grief and it offers one fellow’s solution to the problem. Now playing on Netflix (at least here in Canada).


Tireless and no stinger: What could possibly go wrong?

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Movies, Save the Bees | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Lawsuits Amidst Toxic Allegations



Australia is having a food fight.  Well, a honey fight, actually, and there are lessons aplenty to be found in it.  First off, a Save the Bees gentleman, Simon Mulvany, of Melbourne, launched a name-calling campaign against Australian honey packer Capilano, disparaging the packer’s buying habits by claiming that Capilano bottles “toxic” imported honey and uses misleading labeling to sell it. At least, that’s what I’m hearing from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Capilano sued Mulvany for spreading false stories about its honey, which Mulvany had declared “poisonous and toxic”.

Toxic, of course, is in the stomach of the consumer – persons with extreme diabetes may, indeed, find Capilano honey toxic, if consumed in large enough quantities. Simon Mulvany’s honey would also be toxic in such a situation – provided he produces enough to kill anyone.   The allegations, of course, are much broader than a diabetic overdose, as the accusation claims that Capilano’s honey is poisonous.

Calling another’s honey unfit for consumption does little to sell one’s own honey. In fact, the fear across Australia is that Simon Mulvany is causing honey sales to tank as consumers become wary of all honey. I’ve seen similarly stupid campaigns in the past – people don’t switch brands, they just quit buying. The average grocery customer doesn’t have enough time to bother with this and read all the background material. They hear the words “toxic” and “honey” in the same sentence and the message is clear, even if it’s wrong.

Mr Mulvany’s mission(s)

Mr Mulvany, though, is on a mission or two. Perhaps his goal is not to destroy all of Australia’s honey industry, that’s just a possible unintended consequence. Instead, his goal is to ‘Save the Bees’. According to his linkedin page, this has been a passion since, um, October 2014.

On Linkedin, Mr Mulvany tells us, “We are addicted to the short term disease of money. Compensation ought be paid out to major honey producers in the same way as the Government [sic] buys back fishing licenses when fish stocks are being impacted. Bees are so much more than honey. Indigenous bees are quite often better pollinators honey bees. [sic] More efforts needed in insuring [sic] indigenous insects.” In this, it seems Mulvany wants Australian commercial beekeeping abolished –  unless, of course, it’s done according to his rules.

If the single quote above doesn’t satisfy your craving for pearls of similar beekeeping wisdom,  you’ll find that Mulvany’s “Save the Bees”  Facebook page contains the “Universal spiritual wisdom of the bee”.  For even more nuggets, Mulvany runs a “Bee the Cure” website and an Instagram “Bee the Cure” page (where he writes about “bees dyeing” [sic] , though he doesn’t indicate which colours the bees use).

Mulvany’s personal Facebook page (November 30, 2016) greets you with a photo of Fidel (“Castro: The Making of a Legend”)  and carries insight about how GMO wheat caused the world’s obesity epidemic (“The biggest fat loss secret”).  Further down the page is a delightful story on the harmful chemicals in antibacterial soap. Beyond his personal site, we can learn about Mulvany’s view of his lawsuit with Capilano, Mulvany’s GoFundMe campaign (which has collected $7800 so far!), his Paypal Donation links, and his Change.org petition. By the way, the petition has a point – it’s a  plea to have country of origin as a legal part of every honey label. Go sign it if you’re Australian and you agree with this idea.

This fellow knows social media. However, Australian beekeepers believe that Mulvany’s damage to consumer confidence in Australian honey is hurting them. That’s why many beekeepers publicly support Capilano Honey Limited instead of Mulvany.

Beekeepers defend Capilano

According to ABC, “as news of the legal and social media battle spreads, some beekeepers told the ABC they were concerned about loss of business.” They should be concerned.  As misinformation flows, consumers are reaching for maple syrup and little bags of brown sugar, not honey. They are worried about the toxic honey which Mulvany claims is on some shelves.

Australia’s beekeepers have a lot of experience. They have been running good businesses, producing healthy food, and keeping their colonies alive long before the save-the-bees and honey-is-toxic folks came to their rescue. Trying to restore some normalcy to their industry, many commercial beekeepers have gone to Capilano’s support.

Capilano purchases some foreign honey and sells several brands which carry labels stating they are “packed in Australia from quality local and imported products”. Much foreign honey is packed in Australia and then re-exported. Capilano Honey Limited also packs millions of pounds of local Australian honey, buying from Australian family bee farmers, and selling it as purely Australian honey under the corporate brand name.

Following is a promotion video made and distributed by Capilano. It is, of course, corporate propaganda generated by Capilano, but the beekeepers are real and seem sincere. Some have been selling to Capilano for three generations. If they are like commercial beekeepers everywhere, they may occasionally feel underpaid by their packer and they likely have a love-hate relationship with the people who buy their honey. But they are seriously worried that the smearing of Capilano honey has become the smearing of all of Australia’s honey.

Imports and Exports

Australia’s honey producers are gravely concerned about the misinformation being spread about ‘toxic honey’. The Department of Agriculture issued a statement assuring consumers of Australia’s honey safety standards. The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council also found it necessary to use its time, money, and resources to try to mitigate the damage being done to Australian beekeepers by Mulvany’s campaign:

“Not only are these statements untrue, they are damaging to the wider beekeeping industry,” the council said.

“They also risk undermining Australia’s reputation as a producer of safe, high quality honey in growing export markets,” says the council.

Meanwhile, Simon Mulvany carries on his fight against Capilano and imported honey. The funny thing is, when I was a kid here in North America, we used to complain about imported honey coming from Australia – it typically undercut North American prices. Nevertheless, the beekeepers of Oz were revered as masters of the art – they often produced the most honey per hive of any place on Earth. Trade works in all directions. Here in Canada, we import honey from 30 different countries, but we export much more than we import. It’s the same in Australia.

Australia needs to export millions of pounds of its own honey to the world market. Total consumption of 10,000 tonnes/year is less than half the country’s annual production – obviously the excess must be exported. Shutting down international trade (Mulvany strongly opposed TPP) would hurt Australia’s beekeepers, just as the claim that some honey is poisonous has proven disastrous.

It’s not just Australian consumers who are nervous about allegedly toxic honey. Western Australian honey producer Fewsters Farm Honey, in business since 1898, says a Malaysian buyer suspended an order for 60 tonnes of honey per year due to concerns about Australian honey toxins. Likewise, Australian honey is having trouble entering Vietnam under a similar cloud of toxic and poisonous allegations.

The post-truth world

As we’ve seen, claiming that honey can be toxic may destroy honey sales for everyone. It’s doubly difficult to tolerate when the allegations are untrue. We live in a ‘post-truth’ world now. We can’t credit Simon Mulvany with the collapse of Australia’s entire bee industry, but unfounded claims amplified through adroit (albeit unsophisticated) manipulation of social media shows the deadly power of persistent spin. We have entered a world were facts don’t matter and where a person who has been “Saving Bees” since October 2014 can destroy beekeepers who have been quietly doing their job for generations.

Mulvany has tens of thousands of social media followers who enthusiastically gush their encouragement for his attacks on capitalism, big business, free trade, agribusiness, GMOs, neonicotinoids, and antibacterial soap. He has a responsibility to get facts right. The mud which is being slung at Australia’s honey industry may cost producers millions of dollars. Honey’s reputation as a healthy food is at risk. Calling any honey “toxic and poisonous” is a reprehensible mistake.

Posted in Commercial Beekeeping, Honey, Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Ending the Senseless Roadside Carnage (of bugs)


Roadkill on my van window, western Canada style

Bugs impact windshields from time to time. You’ve scraped off the gooey result. A lovely dégustation if there’s ever been one.  Placing a bee yard near a busy road makes you an accessory to the beeslaughter of millions. You are also losing honey money. Here’s what I figured:

This summer, my van clipped three bees while speeding past one fellow’s bee yard. I know that every two minutes or so another vehicle passed that bee yard at the same speed as my van.  That’s 30 vehicles per hour. If, like my van, they each kill three bees, then we’ve killed almost a hundred bees in an hour. That would be a thousand in the course of a long sunny summer day. During thirty days of peak honey flow, that amounts to 30,000 dead honey bees – over half the foraging population of a producing hive. The average crop at that apiary site is 200 pounds, so the beekeeper – over the course of a season – has lost at least 100 pounds of honey. Depending on your market, that’s between $125 and $800. It’s something to notice. Five kilometres down the road was another yard and another honey bee slaughter site.

An insect road-mortality study

I’m just making broad estimates. I don’t know for sure how many millions of bees (and other bugs) end up as road kill, but last summer some Ontario scientists did the real-deal survey. In a serious (?) scientific paper (Road mortality potentially responsible for billions of pollinating insect deaths annually) five (!) scientists did maths on windshield bugs and found that my estimate of millions was off by millions. It’s billions and billions. And here’s how we know.


Bagged bugs from 2015 road mortality paper

Writing in The Journal of Insect Conservation, authors James H. Baxter-Gilbert, Julia L. Riley, Christopher J. H. Neufeld, Jacqueline D. Litzgus, and David Lesbarrères report that they selected a 2-kilometre (1.2-mile) stretch of rural highway that traversed Magnetawan First Nation as a road kill collection site. Over two summers (2012 and 2013), 117,000 insects were scraped from asphalt and along the highway’s edges. At 10:30 each morning, rain or shine, two or three scientists-in-training (Grad students?) began walking along the roadway, stuffing road kill into ziplock baggies. The assumption is that bugs hit by vehicles land on the road and neither stick to the windshield nor bounce off into the surrounding tamarac. Such assumptions are untrue. Nevertheless, the bagged bugs do represent dead animals, likely killed by vehicles.

The vast majority (94,000) were bibionid flies, pesky little creatures that occasionally ‘bloom’, or cyclically erupt into massive populations. One such bloom occurred during the study, in May 2013. Stand in a bibionidae bloom and your hair becomes tangled in gnatties and your nose and mouth inhale unwanted protein. Of the 117,000 trophies bagged during the 2012 and 2013 roadkill-research expeditions, over 90,000 insects were caught during the May 2013 bibionidae bloom. Take them out of the mix and we are down to just a few dozen insects per day. This is not exactly unbridled roadside carnage.


Congestion:  Hanoi’s solution to insect roadkill. (photo: Miksha)

Before we relax our ecological guard, the authors warn “Recently there have been drastic increases in both the size and density of road networks worldwide, with a 35% increase in road surface area over the last decade alone.” I was surprised with that high number, but I followed the source to a 2013 International Energy Agency paper which you can see here.  Yes, our planet is being paved, but the overwhelming majority of new roads are in Asia where drivers ignore posted speeds (90 km/hr) and instead drive at a more leisurely 30 or 40 km/hr, as I discovered recently going by van from Hanoi to Ha Long. That 120-km trip took over four hours on a good road. The point, if drivers go slowly, as I saw in Vietnam, even snails have a chance to avoid impact. A bigger threat to ecology in such environments is paved habitat, not vehicular impact.

The recent Canadian study into insect roadkill found 117,000 dead bugs in two years along the short stretch of roadway – just 2 kilometres out of Canada’s 900,000 paved kilometres. This extrapolates to 53 billion dead insects in Canada, though the 2013 bibionidae eruption gave an anomalously high value. On the other hand, there are no apiaries along the studied roadside and there are few grasshoppers/locusts in the bagged loot, so the research results might instead be low. Either way, the survey by the five scientists doesn’t represent what we would see in western Canada where the ecology is significantly different.  My guess is that the actual number is between 10 and 100 billion.

What’s next?

The 2015 Sudbury Roadkill Research Paper involved just five authors and the three or four assistants who collected and sorted the bugs. It looked at one tiny stretch of Ontario highway spanning non-agricultural Precambrian granitic shield. Clearly, dozens of similar studies should be done – in the Palliser Triangle, Saskatchewan wheat fields, eastern coves, northern tundra, and western alpines. Physicists might be employed to model vehicle shapes and determine if some insect species are more likely to be found on the asphalt. Other physicists could determine the ricochet coefficient for individual species, defining the roadside collection zones more clearly. Photographers might remotely snap the passing windshields of cars and trucks before and after crossing the study zone. Forensic scientists could then compare before and after windshield images.  I think geographers, statisticians, and maybe even neurologists could find roles in future studies. This would tighten the quantification from an arm-wavey ‘billions and billions’ to something more believable –  perhaps 37,394,663,212 +/- 50, nineteen times out of twenty.

Worldwide, the number of insects caught up in vehicular insecticide could be over a trillion. It’s enough to make even the most insectophobic realize we have a serious problem. Unless, of course we use a sense of perspective and recognize that a trillion is just 0.00001% of the world’s ten quintillion insects. Then it makes roadside insect kill insignificantly meaningless and any such studies terribly unnecessary. But let’s ignore that detail and carry on, shall we?

What’s after next?

After we have collected irrefutable data, we approach Congress/Parliament for mitigation funding. Auto makers may receive cash to redesign cars so they harmlessly flick bugs out of the way (air guns?) or employ braking mechanisms to limit top-end vehicular speeds to an insect-safe 40 km/hr. Maybe butterfly netting could envelope our freeways, saving insects as well as birds, children, and other small animals which may wander on the thoroughfares. Or possibly, insects could be genetically modified, replacing their carbon atoms with hardier silicon, making them rock-like and stronger than windshields. That would surely have interesting consequences.

Lessons from dead koalas

Lessons from dead koalas

Or perhaps the friends of insects could take a lesson from Australia, which has a potential solution to its koala roadkill problemDaylight Savings Time. Most koalas are struck by autos during twilight, so simply resetting clocks and decreasing twilight traffic can save koalas.

Limiting traffic to only those hours when the fewest insects are flying would similarly decrease insect carnage. These insect accident mitigation suggestions of mine are just the start  – I’m sure that smarter people than me will come up with more brilliant solutions than these.

With political will and sufficient cash, there are so many places we could take the challenge of stopping the roadkill of insects. Or perhaps we can study other stuff such as the effect of paved landscape on insect habitat. Even more seriously, Singer-like, we may give deeper thought to our allocation of resources –  perhaps scholarly investigation and public money could improve access to clean drinking water, adequate health care, and safe food at the native Ojibwe lands where the Canadian insect roadkill study was conducted?  Just a thought.

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Money from Honey 101


Bee Economics: Course instructor Neil Bertram, November 2016

I’m still exhausted from co-teaching last weekend’s beekeeping economics course here in Calgary. Judging from the evaluation sheets of the participants, our full-day seminar about the business of the bee business went well. In fact, most of the evalu-forms were ecstatic, as were e-mails we received post-course. We’re sincerely happy for that – we put a lot of hours into course prep and the students put hard-earned cash into paying us for our work. It’s a relief that everyone comes away satisfied, albeit mentally drained.

bee-eco-course-2016-11-2Here’s how the Money from Honey course unfolds. My teaching partner, Neil Bertram, starts the day with introductions and a quick review of class safety and housekeeping rules. We then give about a half-hour background into teachers’ experiences. This is not an exercise in self-grandizing, but an opportunity for participants to see the possibilities of making money from beekeeping. Between the two of us, we’ve pollinated crops, raised queens, produced packages, sold nucs, made comb honey, and produced a boatload of honey. We discussed how we built our businesses, described physical and perseverance skills that served us well, and disasters that beset us.

From our personal experiences, we segued toward other beekeepers’ experiences – folks who have spent years building bee empires or who have been satisfied making a comfortable living caring for modest numbers of hives. For example, we describe how a friend (“The Stationwagon Beekeeper”) ran a hundred hives without a truck, honeyshop, or acreage – he sold nucs each spring. He didn’t extract, bottle, or sell honey.  We discussed another beekeeper who sort of accidentally fell into a nice beekeeping opportunity and built it into a large efficient bee business. Also mentioned were famous beekeepers Richard Taylor and Burt Shavitz who serve as examples. Then we reviewed a beekeeper who raises queens and another who runs a bee tourism business. All of this gave our participants ideas on the wide range of bee opportunities they might pursue.

After the beekeeping business examples, our course spends a couple of hours on very practical aspects of beekeeping – expanding from hobby to sideline to commercial: efficiently making splits, buying packages and nucs, purchasing strong hives or entire apiaries. Other practical stuff includes handling large crops, finding and keeping outyards, selection and care of equipment, honey house design, and a dozen similar topics. Even the temperament and skill-set required to succeed in bees is touched upon.

The afternoon is spent analyzing beekeeping spreadsheets – income and expenses, marketing, insurance suggestions, government inspections and  regulations, kosher/organic/export requirements, price projections. We also walk through a dozen issues that can sink a bee business.

As I’ve said, it’s an exhausting 7-hour course to teach, but if we can help a few beekeepers escape some of the expensive mistakes which we ourselves have made in our collective 70 years of beekeeping, it’s worth it!


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Beginners’ Bee Course


Calgary’s bee club does an amazing amount of work for our area’s beekeepers. It’s great fun being involved. The volunteer opportunities are enormous – mentoring, hosting visitors (Saturday at the Hive), catching city swarms, and bunches more. My contributions over the years included serving as the club’s president, acting as the chief honey judge, and helping with a team of teachers. The most best-est is teachering, which I find marvelously edifying. This weekend, I had the privilege of participating in the beginners’ beekeeping course!


Me, teaching. My friend Lisa Reimer took the squirrel photo at a family picnic.

35 new beekeepers attended our two-day course. Our first day of sessions included an introduction to bees (Bee Biology), hive equipment and costs (Getting Started), and then our Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter management modules finished the day. The next day we covered the necessary stuff on bee diseases and pests, government regulations and inspections, and handling and removing honey. The second day ended with a recap presented as a calendar which led the students through a typical year of beekeeping.

2016-11-bee-club-9The photo, left, is such a quintessentially Canadian pic, don’t you think? You can see the flag and (look closely) a 40-year-old portrait of the queen and her husband on the far wall.  The hall is a community centre (Canadians are big on community stuff!) with basketball foul lines (basketball was invented by a Canadian) and a very old piano, used mostly to play Oscar Peterson jazz tunes. The place is obviously wheelchair accessible, and you can even see a typical Canadian skep-head.

Here are a few more pictures from our very busy, fun (and exhausting) weekend:




Neil, Tom, Glenda, Bert, and (seated) Ron

Neil, Tom, Glenda, Bert, and (seated) Ron

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A Metaphysical Life


Today is the  anniversary of the birth of one of my beekeeper-heroes, Professor Richard Taylor. He was an early champion of the round comb honey system, a commercial beekeeper with just 300 hives, and he was a philosopher who wrote the book on metaphysics. Really, he wrote the book on metaphysics – for decades, his college text Metaphysics introduced first-year philosophy students to the most fundamental aspect of reality – the nature of cosmology and the existence of all things.

Although his sport of philosophy was speculative, unprovable, and abstract to the highest degree, Richard Taylor was as common and down-to-earth as it’s possible to become. I will write about his philosophy and how it shaped his politics, but first, let’s celebrate his beekeeping.

Richard Taylor and his twin brother were born November 5th,  1919.  This was shortly after their father had died. That left a widowed mother to raise an impoverished family during the Great American Depression.  Richard was fourteen when he got his first hive of bees in 1934 – the year that a quarter of Americans were unemployed and soup-lines leading to Salvation Army kitchens stretched for blocks. He began beekeeping that year, and except for submarine duty as an officer during World War II, he was never far from bees. He respected honest hard work and the value of a penny, but he nevertheless drifted, trying college, then quitting, and taking on various uninspiring jobs.

Evenings, on his bunk in his navy sub, Richard descended into the gloomy passages of Arthur Schopenhauer. Somehow the nihilistic philosopher appealed to Taylor and ironically gave him renewed interest in life. Because of this new interest, Taylor went back to school and became a philosopher himself.

Richard Taylor earned his PhD at Brown University, then taught at Brown, Columbia, and Rochester, from which he retired in 1985 after twenty years. He also held court as a visiting lecturer at Cornell, Hamilton, Hartwick, Hobart and William Smith College, Ohio State, and Princeton. His best years were at Rochester where he philosophized while his trusted German shepherd Vannie curled under his desk. Richard Taylor sipped tea and told his undergrads about the ancient philosophers – Plato, Epicurus, Aristotle, Xeno, and Thales. In the earlier days, he often drew on a cigar while he illuminated his flock of philosophy students. Those who attended his classes remarked on his simple, unpretentious language. They also noted that he was usually dressed in bee garb – khakis and boots – he and Vannie quickly disappeared to his apiaries when the lecture ended and the last student withdrew from the hall.

The hippie beekeeper

It’s probably unfair to call Dr Richard Taylor a hippie beekeeper, but perhaps he was exactly that. As a beekeeper, he was reclusive. He refused to hire help. Rather than deal with customers, he set up a roadside stand where people took honey and left money on the honor system. Taylor disdained big noisy equipment. He claims to have sometimes taken a lawn chair and a thermos of tea to his apiaries so he could relax and listen to the insects work, but I doubt that he did this much.  Through the pages of American Bee Journal, Bee Culture, and several beekeeping books, he described best beekeeping practices as he saw them – and those practices required hard work and self-discipline more than relaxed introspection.

how-to-do-it-book-coverRunning 300 colonies alone while holding a full-time job and writing a book every second year demands focus. His bees were well-cared for, each producing about a hundred pounds every year in an area where such crops are rare. By 1958, he was switching from extracting, which he disliked, to comb honey production, which he loved. Comb honey takes a more skilled beekeeper and better attention to details, but in return it requires less equipment, a smaller truck, and no settling tanks, sump pumps, whirling extractors, or 600-pound drums. “Just a pocket knife for cleaning the combs,” he wrote.

Summit Comb in useTo me, it’s surprising that Richard Taylor embraced the round comb honey equipment called Cobanas. The surprising thing is that the equipment is plastic. Reading Taylor’s books, one realizes his affinity for simple tools and old-fashioned ways. Plastic seems wrong. But it’s not.

In the past, comb honey sections were square-shaped and made from wood. That required the decimation of forests of stately basswood (linden) trees, something that did not appeal to Taylor. Plastic lasts forever, a real benefit for a person as frugal as Richard Taylor. It’s light-weight, durable, and ultimately very practical for bee equipment. He advocated making comb honey and he was sure that the Cobana equipment, invented by a Michigan physician in the 1950s, would lead the way. He was so enthused that in 1958, living in Connecticut, he wrote his first beekeeping article about the new plastic equipment for the American Bee Journal. Here’s the photo that accompanied his story.


Richard Taylor’s son, Randy, packing round comb honey, 1958. (Photo from ABJ).

One final thing about Richard Taylor, the beekeeper. He was financially successful. In today’s dollars, his comb honey bee farm returned about $50,000 profit each year – a tidy sum for a hobby and more than enough spare change to indulge his habit of frequenting farmer’s auctions where he’d delight in carrying home a stack of empty used hive bodies that could be had for a dollar.

Taylor, the teacher

Richard Taylor immensely enjoyed teaching and lamented what he called “grantsmanship” which arose in America while he was a professor. Grantsmanship is the skill of securing funding for one’s projects while ignoring the fundamental duties of teaching. This, of course, can eventually lead to big dollars flowing to researchers who are willing to claim that sugar, for example, does not contribute to obesity and cigarette smoke does little more than sharpen one’s senses. Richard Taylor saw the conflict and regretted the demise of good faculty instructors replaced “largely by graduate students, some from abroad with limited ability to speak English. Lecturers who simply read in a monotone from notes are not uncommon,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, the (sometimes unethical) pursuit of grants was accompanied by the rise of the “publish or perish” syndrome. In his own field, Taylor pointed out that academic philosophers engaged in “a kind of intellectual drunkenness, much of which ends up as articles in academic journals, thereby swelling the authors’ lists of publications.” Taylor wrote extensively on this in 1989, saying that there were 93 academic philosophy journals published in the USA alone – seldom read, seldom good, but filling the mailboxes with material to secure a professor’s promotions.

This was not the academic world that Richard Taylor sought when he began his career in the 1950s, but it was the world he eventually left. Although he wrote 17 books – mostly philosophical essays but also several rather good beekeeping manuals – he didn’t publish many academic papers. He spent more time in the lecture halls and with his bees than he did “contemplating the existential reality of golden mountains” and writing papers about them, as he put it.

The philosopher and the bee

I am only going to give this one short passage about Richard Taylor, the philosopher. He studied and taught metaphysics and ethics. His essays on free will and fatalism are renowned and influential, even today. I’ve never taken a philosophy class, so anything I might say here will probably embarrass me. But five years ago, during a winter trip to Florida, I carried Taylor’s Metaphysics with me. I read every word and I think that I understood it at the time. For me, most of it was transparent common sense. Since it was well-crafted and interesting, Taylor may have lulled me into believing that I understood his metaphysical description of the universe, even with just this cursory introduction. At any rate, I felt that what he wrote wasn’t different than what I’d come to discover on my own, although it was much more elegantly presented than I could ever manage.

Taylor-made politics

taylor-c-1980When I saw Richard Taylor – just once, at a beekeepers’ meeting – I indeed thought that he was a hippie, a common enough form of beekeeper in the 1970s. His belt was baler twine and a broad-rimmed hat hid his face. I was surprised to later discover that Richard Taylor identified as a conservative and voted Republican. But he was also an atheist, advocated for women’s rights, and late in life (though proud of his military service) he became a pacifist, “coming late to the wisdom,” he said. I guess he would be a libertarian today. He valued hard work, self-sufficiency, and independence. He disliked Nixon, but gladly voted for Reagan. He even wrote a New York Times editorial praising Reagan’s inaugural address while offering insight on what it means to be a conservative.

At age 62, still a professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester, and the recent author of the book  Freedom, Anarchy, and the Law, he wrote a widely-circulated 1981 New York Times opinion piece. Taylor wrote that in Reagan’s inaugural address, Reagan reminded us that “our government is supposed to be one of limited powers, not one that tries to determine for free citizens what is best for them and to deliver them from all manner of evil.” Richard Taylor then goes on to warn that “political subversion . . . is the attempt to subordinate the Constitution to some other philosophy or creed, believed by its adherents to be nobler, wiser, or better.”

Taylor warned of anti-constitutional subversion in American politics, “if anyone were to try to replace the Constitution with, say, the Koran, then no one could doubt that this would be an act of subversion.” He continues, “Similarly, anyone subordinating the principles embodied in the Constitution to those of the Bible, or to those of one of the various churches or creeds claiming scripture as its source, is committing political subversion.”

Taylor tells us that conservative spokesmen of Reagan’s era – he mentions Jerry Fallwell and others – are right saying that “it is not the government’s function to pour blessings upon us in the form of art, health, and education, however desirable these things may be.” Nor, he claims, is it constitutional for “the Government to convert schoolrooms into places for prayer meetings, or to compel impoverished and unmarried girls, or anyone else, to bear misbegotten children, to make pronouncements on evolution, to instruct citizens on family values, or to determine which books can and cannot be put in our libraries or placed within reach of our children. . . it can never, in the eyes of the genuine conservative, be the role of Government to force such claims upon us. The Constitution explicitly denies the Government any such power…”

taylor-mosaicI think that Richard Taylor would be politically frustrated today. The Republicans have drifted ever-further from small government and have expanded their reach into personal affairs while the Democrats have pushed forward extensive safety nets.  A true libertarian party, such as Taylor seems to wish for, gathers little support in America today.

I hope that my summary of Richard Taylor’s political philosophy has not offended his most ardent followers. I’ve tried to distill what Taylor thought about good government – I agree with much of it, but disagree with some. It is presented as just one facet of his personality. Taylor was complicated. His last book, written in his 80s while he was dying from lung cancer, is about marriage – yet his own marriages had heartbreaks.

He showed other complicated and unexpected quirks. For example, he was an avowed humanist, yet showed a spiritual nature. In his office, he mounted a certificate which honored him as a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, one of the few people chosen over the years. Others included Carl Sagan, Christopher Hitchens, Isaac Asimov, Richard Dawkins, Richard Leakey, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, E.O. Wilson, Elena Bonner, and Karl Popper. Taylor belonged there among the other atheists, even if he once metaphorically wrote in his most popular  bee book, “the ways of man are sometimes, like the ways of God, wondrous indeed.”

Taylorisms in the bee yard

the-joys-of-beekeepingRichard Taylor was complicated for a simple man. It is said that he could not stand complacency, vanity or narcissistic behavior, yet he seemed to get along well in any gathering. He had a love of paradox and Socratic whimsy, yet he was disciplined and direct as a writer. He delighted in the pessimism of Schopenhauer, yet he was not a pessimist himself. Instead, he was quite a puzzle.

I will end this little essay with wisdom from Richard Taylor, beekeeper. Richard Taylor’s finest bee book, The Joys of Beekeeping, is replete with homey truisms that every aspiring beekeeper should acknowledge and embrace. The book itself is slim, entertaining, personal, and very instructive of the art of keeping bees. Or, as Taylor himself calls beekeeping, “living with the bees. They keep themselves”.

Here, then, are some select Taylorisms:

Beekeeping success demands “a certain demeanor. It is not so much slow motion that is wanted, but a controlled approach.”

“…no man’s back is unbreakable and even beekeepers grow older. When full, a mere shallow super is heavy, weighing forty pounds or more. Deep supers, when filled, are ponderous beyond practical limit.”

“Some beekeepers dismantle every hive and scrape every frame, which is pointless as the bees soon glue everything back the way it was.”

“There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention.”

. . . and my own favourites . . .

“Woe to the beekeeper who has not followed the example of his bees by keeping in tune with imperceptibly changing nature, having his equipment at hand the day before it is going to be needed rather  than the day after. Bees do not put things off until the season is upon them. They would not survive that season if they did, so they anticipate. The beekeeper who is out of step will sacrifice serenity for anxious last-minute preparation, and that crop of honey will not materialize. Nature does not wait.”

“Sometimes the world seems on the verge of insanity, and one wonders what limit there can be to greed, aggression, deception, and the thirst for power or fame. When reflections of this sort threaten one’s serenity, one can be glad for the bees…” – The Joys of Beekeeping


Posted in Books, Comb Honey, Commercial Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, History, People | Tagged , , | 2 Comments