Like an unruly house guest staying far past midnight (and still visiting the liquor cabinet), 2020 should have left long ago. It’s a year we won’t forget. A hurricane in an earthquake, delivering volcanic pyroclasts. Our 14-year-old will forever remember the year (years?) she wore exquisite home-made masks to her junior high. Science, history, math, language – taught without a visible frown from any of her classmates.
2020 began with a blistering heatwave in Australia, followed by the inevitable fires and loss of life. A friend sent me photos of her family’s former apiaries where millions of honey bees perished. I shared them, and my story about the Australia blazes, here. The fires, of course, brought billions of dollars of damage to structures and businesses, but we are haunted by reports of beekeepers. They told us how they arrived in distant apiaries, finding ash heaps where hives stood. In surrounding forests, the cries of wildlife, suffering burns, deepened their dismay.
Back in Alberta, a warm spell arrived in late February, but I noticed that there were no bees flying from our backyard colonies. Dead, both of them. Full of honey, wintered with good queens, and adequate populations in well-insulated hives.
I soon discovered that nearby friends lost 34 of their 36 hives. Across the western Canadian prairies, winter losses were the highest ever. In Alberta, over 40% of all colonies died. (Although the long blizzardly winter received much of the blame, 60% of the thousands of colonies wintered in climate-controlled shelters also died.) Over 100,000 Alberta hives needed cleaned and restocked by people who were barely making a living producing honey and running pollination services. I think the losses were mostly due to bee viruses. Viruses dominated the news in 2020.
Restocking deadouts wasn’t easy this year. Responding to the Covid virus, cargo flights of honey bee packages were cancelled, leaving Alberta beekeepers without replacements. Some operations reduced their holdings, split some of their own hives, or bought domestic nucs and hives – though the source couldn’t meet the demand. At the first rumblings of Corona, back in February, I ordered replacement nucs from British Columbia. I was nervous taking receipt of the little hives in mid-May, but ultimately, I made a huge honey crop from those bees in my backyard.
I started by transferring frames and shaking out every bee from the nuc box:
See how they grew, from tiny hives May 22 (left) to gigantic, July 25 (right):
Because of the virus and cancelled flights, commercial beekeepers and farmers were also unable to welcome all of their seasonal farm help from abroad. In order to produce the dirt-cheap food we buy, thousands of foreign beekeepers, fruit-pickers, greenhouse workers, and other farmers normally arrive in Canada each spring. (We don’t have enough Canadians willing, able, or skilled enough to do this hard work.) This year, scheduled flights weren’t flying. To bring in essential farm workers, planes were chartered. For example, the Canadian Honey Council spent $200,000 bringing 80 Temporary Foreign Workers from Nicaragua to Canada. Other seats on that flight were occupied by Canadian tourists and business people who were stranded in Central America, but were coming home thanks to the beekeepers who had arranged the charter for their helpers.
Meanwhile, my honey bees that had arrived in nucs from British Columbia developed into strong hives. When the clovers began blooming (late June here), nectar flowed into the hives, and the bees gave us over a hundred pounds per hive – plus they filled their own pantry with winter stores. I don’t remember a year with as much lush clover (both Melilotus and Trifolium) carpeting parks and roadsides.
Here is some of the honey from those nucs, poured by my 18-year-0ld and his friend:
Unfortunately, I spent the summer rather ill, with extreme fatigue and brain fog. Luckily, my teenagers helped me with the honey bee hives in our backyard. They also did the hard work among my experimental hives, which I’d established around the city, and over a hundred bumble bee domiciles and biodiversity traps. The traps required four summertime visits to collect pollinating insects and refresh the traps. I would not have done this without my kids serving as my arms and legs.
One of the University of Calgary research subjects:
Brain fog and fatigue also made it difficult for me to analyze data and write my Masters’ thesis. I am months behind schedule, but I have a wonderfully patient supervisor. Although I am likely the worst grad student he’s ever had, we have been doing some great research. Eventually, I’ll produce a worthy analysis and write a valuable report. Meanwhile, my work is inching along.
More fires, this one near Penticton, BC.
In mid-August, my son took the photo above while he was visiting friends in British Columbia. It looks dramatic, but no one was killed and not much property was lost. By autumn, reports of more fire tragedies arrived, this time from California. More honey bee hives and property were reduced to ash. This, along with thousands of Corona deaths, accompanied by lost businesses and unemployed folks weaken the spirit. Mental stress, displaced families, friendships placed on hold take a toll.
Almost as a joke, 2020 brought us some murder wasps. A bit of levity delivered by a giant insect with a lethal sting that kills dozens of people each year and extinguishes the vitality of entire colonies of honey bees. Sportingly, murder wasps have jaws that snap bees’ bodies in half, taking down a 40,000-population hive over tea time. The Asian Giant Hornet made news this year with its discovery in a couple of places along the west coast. A denizen of Asia, queens probably crossed the Pacific in a container ship. I suspect they are now fully established in Washington state and/or British Columbia.
Finally, let’s throw in a few hurricanes, swarms of tornadoes, and a year-end earthquake that demolished a town near my grandfather’s childhood home in Croatia. We hope that the door smacks 2020’s backside on its way out. And hello, 2021.