Best place to keep bees?

Medhat Nasr, teaching queen breeding in Alberta

I don’t know what causes colony collapse disorder. CCD is likely due to poor nutrition, weak genetics, farm pesticides, chemicals used inside beehives, varroa mites, and viruses carried by mites and injected into whatever gooey stuff bees use as blood. CCD is complicated – that’s why it is controversial and that’s why it has been hard to predict and hard to prevent. I think one reason Alberta beekeepers have not (yet) had huge bee losses has been the extraordinary help, advocacy, and educational projects provided by Alberta’s Chief Apiculturalist, Dr Medhat Nasr and his staff. They have worked extremely hard to help Alberta beekeepers keep their bees healthy – especially in areas of nosema and varroa mite control.

Alberta has a lot going for it. Our two big cities – Edmonton and Calgary – each have a million people. Another two million Albertans live out on the land. And it is a big land – the size of Texas. This Canadian province stretches from grasslands along the Montana border to parklands bordering the Northwest Territories. And Alberta includes some gorgeous Rocky Mountains. People here live well – we have the highest per capital income in North America of any state/province – roughly $80,500 for every person. With it comes great schools, universal health care, and some pretty nice biking trails. Honey is produced everywhere in Alberta that has farms and ranches. You may have heard of the Peace River Country – that’s here, too. Honey crops in the Peace can (and often do) top 250 pounds per hive. The province has 250,000 colonies and honey crops average 150 pounds; but this includes 50,000 colonies kept mostly for canola pollination contracts – those bees aren’t expected to produce much honey. The summer climate is mild, days are really long, and there are millions of acres of alfalfa, canola, and sweet clover – all of which produce white, mild-flavoured nectar.

Alberta has a lot going for it. With the lowest taxes in North America (Seriously – you didn’t expect that from a place in Canada, did you?) and a fairly libertarian government, people are mostly left alone to make a living. And that brings us back to the role of a chief bee inspector. When I was a kid, I spent three summers as a Pennsylvania bee inspector. My job was to find American foulbrood. And burn hives. I was a skinny teenager and had to talk smoothly to inspect bees hidden on farms in Appalachian hillbilly country. Only once did I need state police backup. Even though sulfathiazole was a proven treatment for AFB, our out-dated laws mandated burning. It was an awkward job, to say the least. Much better to have a system where individuals are responsible for their own welfare but are offered free or inexpensive advice and tools to help them keep healthy bees.

Good government makes a difference. You can’t let the biggest and meanest kid on the block take advantage of everyone else. The fellow who spends the most on lawyers isn’t always right – chances are he is wrong, that’s why he hires an army of lawyers. There has to be law and order and we have to participate as helpful members of the human family. When American foulbrood was the beekeepers’ biggest problem, equipment was burned to stop the disease from spreading to neighbouring farms – even if the guilty party threatened lawsuits or violence. But that was long ago and far away. I moved to western Canada 40 years ago and have always felt like I won the lottery by being here. But back to the theme of this blog entry – part of the reason Alberta has been such a successful place for beekeepers is the good governance of the bee inspection office – the Office of Beekeeping Help and Advice.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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