As Busy as a Bee

Posted Friday, Aug 12, 2016

2016 will be the third season that Sunnyside Natural Market has operated two beehives in the neighbourhood with the help of Apiaries and Bees for Communities (A.B.C). The move into beekeeping was a natural progression for us, as bees are an integral part of moving farming and food away from the unviable monoculture of conventional food systems to a more sustainable food practice. In joining with A.B.C., we hoped to further understand the role pollinators play in our food system. Three years later, we’re still learning. 

I had the pleasure of attending a hive tour with A.B.C.’s founder Eliese Watson. The tour was chalk full of information, sunshine, and hands-on bee-keeping. We checked the health of two hives, made sure the queen looked happy, and noted the striking differences between male drone bees, and female worker bees - the latter making up 95% or higher of the hives population. We were even encouraged to ‘pet’ the bees to see how docile they are; no-one was stung.  

Eliese began the tour by taking questions from the group, and the importance of bees in agriculture quickly became apparent. Questions inevitably lead to the predominant subject surrounding bees: colony collapse. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) occurs when worker bees suddenly and permanently disappear from a colony. It’s a topic that brings about a polarizing response, with some brushing it off as a non-issue and others claiming imminent armageddon.  

Even at a national level, the issue is divisive. The United States began using the term CCD in 2006, although it has recognized the issue for decades. CCD has effected agri-industry to such an extent that in 2015, President Barack Obama revealed the first national strategy for improving the health of all types of pollinators.

Unlike the U.S., professional apiculturists in Canada have not classified CCD as an issue.¹ Both Canada and Australia are often cited as examples to illustrate the lack of evidence that CCD is a global issue.²

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Elise, like many other apiculturists, speculates that CCD may be so prevalent in the United States due to large-scale migratory beekeeping within the agriculture industry.  In 1908, beekeeper Nephi Miller decided to take his bees on the road and rent them out to farmers in exchange for increased pollination. He would then pack up his hives and travel to the next agricultural bloom. It was a lucrative venture, and it soon became the norm for many beekeepers. Today migratory beekeeping is an essential part of U.S. agriculture, and the sole reason the country can produce as much as it does.

Every February, California’s sprawling almond orchards contain approximately 80 billion commercial honeybees attempting to pollinate 2.5 trillion almond flowers. By March, the orchards will finish flowering, and beekeepers will pack up their hives and drive them north to Washington to pollinate apple or cherry orchards. Following this, it’s alfalfa, clover, and sunflowers in North and South Dakota; berry orchards in Wisconsin or Michigan are the first stop in summer; various melons and cucumbers in Texas are the next big draw, or oranges and clementines in Florida. The convoy travels almost perpetually - millions of boxes containing billions of bees on thousands of tractor-trailers, always coming or going. The season for migratory beekeeping lasts from Early February to late October.

Many beekeepers will winter their bees in Florida, where some type of crop is always flowering. In the past, beekeepers could overwinter their bees in colder northern states without having to worry. Recently, however, many have lost between 30 and 60 percent of their hives if they don’t winter in a warmer locale.³

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A tractor trailer being loaded with beehives to move on to the next crop.

Elise points out that migratory beekeeping is particularly hard on bees, and is probably contributing to their weakened immune systems. The constant travel is filled with boom and bust periods for food, droughts occur, and the bees work a much longer season that they would in a natural stationary hive. All in all, it is a stressful workload. Another issue is the spread of disease. Much like disease spreads more easily amongst humans in a globalized world, the same is true for bees. If one hive develops parasitic varroa mites, for example, it will soon spread throughout all hives within an orchard, and onto the other hives the beekeeper works with during travel. Many scientists have suggested the weakened immune systems of honeybees, and the spread of disease  are main factors in CCD.³

Elise suggests CCD is not as widespread in Canada due to our cold winters which prevent the perpetual blossoming that occurs across the many climates in the U.S. Having said this, she is quick to state that CCD certainly still occurs in Canada, and is an issue that needs to be looked at. 

In the U.S., the sheer size and nature of the agricultural industry requires imported pollinators. It is estimated that without this legion of honeybees, U.S. agricultural output would drop by one third.³ Simply stopping migratory beekeeping in favour of pre-existing local pollinators is not a solution; The demand is far too high for native pollinators to currently handle. 

Regardless of how serious CCD is - or will become - in Canada, there are lessons that can be learned that will lend a more sustainable and productive touch to our food system. What many researchers are suggesting is the introduction of more native biodiversity into what has historically been a desert of monoculture.

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Sunnyside Natural Market’s head purchaser, and certified apiarist Joey Brocke inspects one of our hives.

The health of pollinators is just one more reason why supporting small, local farms is crucial. In the many farms I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, I’ve found small-scale farms are always the most rich in biodiversity. Contrary to common belief, this method of farming is not only as productive as conventional large-scale agriculture, but may be the answer to solving CCD while simultaneously increasing agricultural yields.  

Biodiversity is essential for the sustainability and productivity of small farms. A recent review of several scientific studies found that the enhanced diversity found on small farms helps conserve domestic pollinators (like the honeybee) while also increasing the population of native pollinators.

The review concluded that placing native-plant belts within mono-crop fields, as well as growing more than one or two crop species not only boosted native pollinator species, but also contributed to a more productive honeybee population that effectively increased crop yields. 

The impact of increasing biodiversity in the American agricultural system could end the dependance on migratory beekeeping. Placing flowering ground crops amongst Californian almond orchards, for example, will help increase the population of native pollinators, while also providing a food source for domestic honeybees once the almond trees have finished blooming. The hives could remain at the farm, providing the bees with a better immune system, and less risk of disease.

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A typical almond orchard after blooming. Note the lack of options left for domestic or native pollinators.

The two hives that Sunnyside Natural Market operates are located right in the community. These hives will provide pollinators for community gardens and urban farmers within 5km! By contributing these hives to the area, a more sustainable and thriving ecosystem can be achieved by having better pollination and thus better yields for the many gardens in the community.  

The need for biodiversity extends to urban gardening as well. Elise suggests planting native species of wildflowers or shrubs along with food-gardens to ensure native pollinators are not left out of urban farms. You can find more information on how to make your garden pollinator-friendly here

Suffice it to say, beekeeping is an exciting and important part of promoting a healthy and sustainable food system. We’re glad we could be a part of it. For more information on Calgary’s urban beekeeping community, visit www.backyardbees.ca. I also highly recommend the tour - it’s hard to find a better way to spend a summer day.

 

¹ "Update on Neonicotinoid Pesticides and Bee Health.Health Canada. 2014. 

² Jon Entine, "Science Collapse Disorder -- The Real Story Behind Neonics And Mass Bee Deaths." Forbes Magazine. 2013. 

³ Ferris Jabr, "The Mind-Boggling Math of Migratory Beekeeping.Scientific American. 2013. 

 ⁴ Clara Nicholls & Miguel Altieri, "Plant Biodiversity Enhances Bees & Other Insect Pollinators in Agrosystems. A Review." INRA. 2013.  

Matt Gigg Posted Aug 12, 2016