As farmlands become food deserts, cities offer pollinators unexpected oases

by Quinn MacDonald

You head out to the store to get groceries for your family. On the way home, you start to feel strange. Dizzy and disoriented. Your step falters. You forget where you’re going, where you’ve been, where you live. Something feels different in your head. Things are heavier. Darker.

You don’t know it, but a chemical has bound itself to the acetylcholine receptors in your central and peripheral nervous systems, inhibiting neural activity throughout your body. Your brain no longer works properly. Your body won’t respond to its commands.

You die.

Now imagine this happens to your whole family, your whole community.

THIS IS HAPPENING every day in North America—to our bees. For these essential insects, our farmlands have become flowerless deserts at best, toxic wastelands at worst. You’ve likely heard the news: whole colonies, millions of bees, dead or disappeared. After thriving for millennia, bees and other pollinators have been decimated over the past decade. In June 2013, 50,000 bees were found dead in a parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon. The next month, Ontario beekeeper David Shuit lost 600 hives, or 37 million honeybees. He cried while describing his experience on the CBC.

For years, scientists couldn’t explain the phenomenon, only name it. In 2006, they coined the term “colony collapse disorder” or CCD. Mounting evidence now points blame at neonicotinoids, a new type of pesticide used on crops such as potatoes, corn, wheat seed, tomatoes, apples, and lettuce. Derived from nicotine, “neonics” get absorbed by plants and permeate all their tissues, including pollen and nectar. They disrupt the central nervous system of insects at lower doses; higher doses cause paralysis and death. More than a third of our food depends on bees. Now that same food is killing them.

Ironically, cities like Victoria now provide a refuge. Here, bees can find food diversity and relative safety from pesticides. Just as urban and small-scale farming has evolved as sustainable alternatives to the industrial food system, backyard keepers may be the best hope to save our bees.

***

Headlights cut through the rain on a Thursday night in early January. It’s just before 7 p.m. and the vehicles have started to fill the parking lot at St. Aidan’s church. The occupants, bundled in rain gear and Cowichan wool, shuffle into the church and head downstairs to the basement. They haven’t come for a typical sermon. They are here for 2014’s first meeting of the Capital Regional Beekeepers Association (CRBA).

Secretary Irene Tiampo welcomes them and hands out copies of the latest issue of Beeline, the CRBA’s newsletter. Rubber boots squeak on linoleum as members pick up nametags and wish each other a Happy New Year. Newcomers timidly swap introductions and space themselves out in the first few rows of seats. The CRBA uses the first half hour of every meeting as a workshop for new beekeepers, or “newbees” as they’re affectionately called.

A grey folding table at the front of the room displays an array of equipment. Bill Johnson, a Kenny Rogers lookalike and member of the new beekeepers committee, asks the newbees to move to the front. Pieces of an empty hive, decked out with stickers, sit on the table so the mentors can demonstrate how they fit together. Johnson holds up a bottom board, which can come with or without an added screen. The main box sits on the bottom board, and above that comes the inner cover, a tray with a raised “fence.” The inner cover stops the bees from sealing the hive shut with propolis, a kind of bee superglue they make from the resin or sap of trees and plants.

Boxes come in several sizes; this one’s a “super.” You can find plans for frames online or buy them at around a dollar a piece from stores like Buckerfield’s. The smell of honey fills the room as members pass some of their own trays around to show the different levels of honey buildup. The full, or “fully drawn,” trays are surprisingly heavy, and the newbees begin to understand what experienced beekeepers mean when they talk about hard physical labour.

As the room fills, the committee wraps up the presentation and invites the newbees to come take a closer look at the equipment. The group of young couples, students, and a few older people crowd the front. Their eyes pass over picks and pryers, a bee brush that looks like a softer version of what you’d use to clean snow off your car, a two-dollar hat with a sewed-on veil, and a pair of smokers. The newer one shines like the Tin Man’s head after he gets cleaned up in the Emerald City; the other, dirty as an old stove pipe, Johnson made out of a juice can 35 years ago. Beekeepers use smoke to clear the hive while they extract honey, although some beekeepers prefer to sedate the bees with sugar water instead.

The next committee meeting will cover sourcing bees, many of which are ordered from New Zealand. By the time CRBA President Catherine Culley calls the meeting to order at 7:35, it’s standing room only.

PHOTO CREDIT HUGO WONG

SHORT AND SLIGHT with choppy blonde hair, Culley seems severe until her face breaks into a smile. A lifelong gardener, Culley had a hobby farm in Ontario for six years before she moved to B.C. in 2010. She’d heard about the bee decline, and when she and her husband bought a quarter of an acre in Saanich, she sought out the local beekeeping organization and made friends while serving the refreshments and washing dishes.

The sense of community and connection to the bees drew her in. Culley remembers the first meeting she attended on a Thursday night in January or February. The members were huddled together, discussing how their bees had fared over the winter. Not well, for most. It had been a hard one. “I noticed so many people were just so desperately sad,” says Culley. “We really care about our bees a lot, and that ties us together.”

As far as beekeeping goes, Culley has fared well, especially considering she’s only just coming through her second winter. She didn’t lose any of her four hives the first year, but so far this she’s out three of seven: one to wasps, one to cold weather, and one she donated to the observatory at Swan Lake.

A hive almost starved that first winter. When she realized they were too weak and cold to eat, she dumped them into a box, covered a top screen with honey, and brought them into the house. She says this isn’t the kind of dedication expected of commercial beekeepers, who have thousands of hives to worry about.

The CRBA both connects and educates the local bee community, says Culley. The association visits elementary schools and sets up booths at events like the Saanich Fair and Seedy Saturday. Curious community members can check their website for information and to find out about the swarm hotline—a number you can call if you see a rogue bee swarm.

For aspiring beekeepers who aren’t ready to commit, or who don’t have the space, the CRBA has a mentoring program that allows newbees to volunteer with more experienced beekeepers —a chance to learn, and maybe get some honey in return. However, more bees aren’t always a good thing. The more bees, the higher the chance diseases can spread.

Bees are prone to many pests. A devastating one is American Foul Brood, which sounds like the title of a horror film. It travels in spores and melts bees’ larvae from the inside, leaving behind the smell of rotten meat. There is no treatment, so infected hives must be burned, along with the beekeeping equipment.

The most common pest here is the varroa mite, which transferred from the Asian honeybee. Smaller and with a shorter lifecycle than European honeybees, the Asian honeybee co-evolved to tolerate the mite. When the parasite jumped to its new host, the balance disappeared. The mites weaken and sicken the European species by feeding on their blood.

Brenda Jager is the provincial government’s apiary instructor for the South Island and the Gulf Islands. (Local beekeeper Lyle Macgregor calls Jager “a freaking walking goddess of bees.”) She inspects bees for disease and pests whenever they are moved between regions and provinces. She issues permits for the transfer and sale of bees, and does outreach with bee associations and gardening clubs. Jager also teaches new beekeepers how to provide for healthy bees.

It’s Jager’s fifth year on the job, but she says her life’s been “bees, bees, bees” for the last 18. She now has 100 colonies of her own, and, as much as she loves the bees, she says the people are great too.

“There’s a temperament,” says Jager. “People who do bees tend to be a little intellectual, so they have stories to tell and all kinds of people do bees, so you meet people who have all sorts of backgrounds.”

The treatment for pests depends on the beekeeper. The standard way has become to treat bees “prophylactically”—that is, with antibiotics. It works, but weakens the bees’ immune systems and leaves them vulnerable to other diseases.

Jager cautions beekeepers against reliance on antibiotics. “I don’t think we should just be throwing prophylactic treatments at the bees,” says Jager. “I think it’s a very bad idea, but you can’t just leave them in the backyard.” She knows some beekeepers are trying to out-evolve the varroa mite, but says that needs to be done in large numbers, and it could take anywhere from a few years to a few thousand.

Another option is integrated pest management. It does not involve prophylactics, but monitoring for signs of infestation and reduced treatments.

 

“Everywhere you looked you could just see, from more and more information, that this was a catastrophe, this pesticide was a catastrophe for bees.”

 

VETERAN BEEKEEPER JOAN YARMI sees the rise in urban beekeeping as a trend. Some newbees will become serious beekeepers; many who drop off will still spread awareness. When she first started 10 years ago, the CRBA only had around 50 members. Now the association has upwards of 150.

After the big die-offs in Canada and the United States, people began asking Yarmi questions. “I go to a local coffee shop down here on Shelbourne, and the first thing they ask is: ‘Well, how are the bees this year? Are they dead? How are they doing on Vancouver Island?’” She mimics their panicked tone. “So yeah, there’s a big awareness—and that’s a good thing.”

Yarmi came relatively late to beekeeping, but in the last decade she has become an expert and a prolific queen breeder. With her short grey hair, knit sweaters, and diminutive size, she seems like any other grandmother until she starts talking about bees. A self-described “social animal,” Yarmi speaks with a folksy familiarity, but quickly, as one story reminds her of yet another.

Yarmi had a country childhood in rural Metchosin, but took a winding path to bees. After retiring as an administrator at UVic, she began Scottish country dancing. One of the few male dancers happened to be the bee inspector for Vancouver Island. He asked if she’d like to learn about bees by having a few hives in her backyard. When he never showed Yarmi took a course and bought two hives from up Island. Two turned into four. And she was hooked. “It’s a lot of work,” says Yarmi. “It’s physical work. You have to be on top of it. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll do it in a couple of weeks.’ Then it’s too late. . . But it’s so interesting.”

Beekeeping isn’t necessarily a cheap hobby, and when she noticed a friend was making money selling small hives with queens, or “nucs,” Yarmi decided to learn how to do the same. “I’m the kinda person that if I do something and I sell something to somebody, it’s gotta be right,” says Yarmi. “I would not just breed queens and sell them willy-nilly to people.”

She admires Bob Liptrot of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery in Sooke, who has rock-star status within the beekeeping community. “He doesn’t have time to just be a queen breeder for the average backyard breeder, because his bees are quality bees and he follows the genetic trail. So when you get a queen from him, it’s a good queen.”

Yarmi has now sold nucs to beekeepers all over Greater Victoria. She still feels connected to these hives, and helps new beekeepers for their first year. She says it’s fine to take a bee course, but new beekeepers need mentors.

Beekeeper Lyle Macgregor is one of the lucky recipients of a Yarmi nuc. After going through a turbulent few years, Macgregor says beekeeping has refocused his life. He currently works for BC Transit, and the bees provide an escape from what he calls a stressful environment. After doing some research, he looked around for colonies, took a course with Bob Liptrot, and joined the CRBA. “Hands down anyone that wants to do beekeeping, you need to be a part of the association,” says Macgregor.

“There’s something about beekeeping,” he says, “and I’m new, I’ve only been doing it for a year, but I’m just, I’m hooked.”

“If we want to save bees and we want to save how we eat with our local food supply,” he continues, “we don’t need one massive bee company with 50,000 bees that drives around all over the place, we need 25,000 people with two hives in their backyard.”

***

WHILE URBAN ENVIRONMENTS may be safe from some of the dangers of industrial farming, the city presents its own challenges: people. Jager says urban beekeepers must be good neighbours. She recommends keeping neighbours informed and not working in the hive when they will be in nearby yards. (Offering homemade honey doesn’t hurt either.)

Urban beekeepers should have a tall hedge or other barrier three to 10 feet in front of the hive entrance to ensure bees fly overhead as they come and go. (Some municipalities, like Oak Bay, require this.) The bees also need a drinking station, like a bowl of water, with rocks to rest on.

Although they might seem domesticated, bees are still wild animals. “They have a mind of their own,” says Yarmi. “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do…It’s how you handle them. If you go in there and you’re banging around and ripping things apart, it’s like you’d do the same thing if it was your house, they only have one defense so, if you’re gentle and you’re quiet…they’re not so bad.”

Urban beekeepers have to watch for swarming, too. When new queen cells are ready to hatch, the old queen will escape with half the hive. However, it is possible for keepers to wrangle this writhing mass of insects.

“The object of the bees is to stay with the queen,” says Yarmi. “She’s going to eventually light on a tree. So you get your ladder up and you go out there and you get a box, preferably a light cardboard box, because you’ve gotta hold it. It’s quite easy as long as the swarm is within reach of the ladder.”

After putting on your beekeeping equipment, climb the ladder and put the box underneath the bees. The queen generally hides near the bottom of the sock-shaped swarm. Give the branch a good shake so the bees fall into the box. If you catch the queen, that’s it. Leave the open box for a couple of hours, so the remaining bees can find it, then take it home and put them in a new hive.

“That’s adventurous,” says Yarmi. “The first time you see all these bees flying around like mad, and your neighbours are all freaking out because they’ve never seen this, and they’re terrified they’re going to be stung to death.”

PHOTO CREDIT HUGO WONG

SOME PEOPLE WANT a car or a trip to Vegas for their 21st birthday. Lulu Fulford just wanted bees.

Fulford’s mother started keeping bees at their property on Salt Spring Island when she was in high school. But Lulu’s interest in the subject didn’t go far past daughterly duty until last summer. Now, the first-year political science student loves “nerding out about bees.”

She installed a colony in the spring of 2013, so she too is waiting to see if her hive survived its first winter. “Now all that I do is stress,” Fulford laughs. “I look outside and worry about them.” She’s hoping to split her colony into two hives for next summer.

Although Fulford hasn’t made it to a CRBA meeting, she does have her mother as mentor. Wendy Gilson, who now has 14 hives, Facebooks her daughter with advice on when to add sugar or check for moisture. The birthday request was a gradual decision that came from talking to people about the importance of urban beekeeping. When Fulford and her sister, who helps with the beekeeping, moved into their current house in the Cedar Hill area of Saanich, she decided it was time. Fulford loves spotting what could be her honeybees on the UVic campus. “In the summertime when we go for walks I’ll be like, ‘Ohhh, look a honeybee, it’s probably from our hive!’”

Fulford enjoys hanging out and watching the bees. She learned which colours they like (blue, white) and which they don’t (brown). The coolest part, she said, is watching bees dance. Bees use dance to map out and communicate the locations of nectar and pollen. The circles they turn are in relation to the sun, and the intensity of each dance tells how good the food source is. “It’s fascinating,” says Fulford.

She had no problems with landlords and roommates, but did have a few anxious neighbours. “I just talked them through it and told them they’re actually really harmless. They’re not going to bother you unless you’re bothering them,” says Fulford. “I think communication’s the key.” Mainly, she thinks people still need to change their perception of bees from dangerous pests to vital partners.

***

Honeybees pollinate a third of the food we eat and contribute billions to the North American economy. But this system didn’t develop naturally. Although humans have collected honey for over 10,000 years, honeybees are not native to North America. Honeybees arrived in Jamestown in 1622; Victoria got its first two hives in May 1858. After the Second World War, beekeeping was industrialized, alongside farming, which led to our now-fragile dependence.

Every year in February, three-quarters of the migratory beekeepers in America converge on northern California. Upon arrival, the bees are unwrapped from their plastic, woken up, pumped full of corn syrup and chemicals, and sent to work pollinating the groves that produce 85 per cent of the world’s almonds. Millions die each year waiting in holding pens for the pollination to begin.

This stressful experience exposes bees to disease, pests and, of course, pesticides. It also puts consumers at risk, as the honey these producers sell contains the same chemicals. In 2008, there weren’t enough honeybees to pollinate all the almonds, so the American government allowed the industry to import honeybees from Australia—new viruses were imported as well.

“They deserve to lose their bees,” says Yarmi, whose laughter halts when she speaks about this topic. “They truck them all closed up for thousands of miles, they treat them with antibiotics so they ‘won’t get sick.’ They’re so jammed together, if there’s one hive sick, it’s going to spread right away. They’re really hard on them…I’d like to think they’ve learned their lesson, but who knows.”

Macgregor appreciates that some people have chosen to make the pollinator industry their business, but he says the commercial industry isn’t a good one. “They have hoses and they just juice ‘em with sugar water the whole time, it’s like going to McDonald’s,” says Macgregor. “It’s insane.”

When honeybees began dying off in Europe, scientists realized it occurred near farms that had started using neocotinoid insecticides. After more serious deaths in 2008, the European Union banned three of the main pesticides: Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, and Imidacloprid. In the fall of 2013, pesticide producers Bayer and Syngenta sued the European Commission over the ban. Neonicotinoids continue to be used widely across Canada and the United States.

Bees on southern Vancouver Island are at lower risk from neonicotinoids because there is less large-scale agriculture. It’s hard to know why bees die, because most small-scale beekeepers can’t afford the $300 for pesticide tests.

Gwen Barlee, a policy director and campaigner at the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC), sees the struggle to save pollinators as closely entwined with the renaissance around farming and food security in urban areas. She says when urbanites think of bees as outside of the city, they lose sight of how food and nature are connected. However, community gardens are bringing that connection back to the foreground.

“I think that it’s all part of a movement in the right direction,” says Barlee, “and realizing that we can’t take farming and pollinators for granted.” Based in the WCWC’s Vancouver office, Barlee started the campaign about neonicotinoid awareness after reading about the dead bees in Oregon last year.

“I started realizing that there was a very, very, very serious problem, not only with the lethal impacts to bees and other pollinators, but also the sub-lethal impacts,” says Barlee. “Everywhere you looked you could just see, from more and more information, that this was a catastrophe, this pesticide was a catastrophe for bees.”

Barlee says the WCWC plans to do soil testing, because environmental groups in the States discovered potted plants and soil marketed as “bee friendly” had been treated with neonicotinoids. As far as she knows, no labelling requirements exist for ornamental plants.

Catherine Culley uses her position at the CRBA to engage the government on honeybee issues. “That’s been my largest role as president for this year,” says Culley, “writing letters to the government to point out why we wish to have certain policies in place about bee management in this country.”

The CRBA was politically active before but suffered a defeat when they argued to maintain a quarantine that helped slow the varroa mite’s spread. In 2009, the federal government ignored the warnings of the CRBA and other bee associations and dropped the quarantine.

“They felt nobody had listened to them,” says Culley. “It was so terrible. All their arguments and all their knowledge didn’t matter. So because I was new, I hadn’t suffered through that, I hadn’t burnt out yet. So now with some of the new problems and the proposal to import bee packages from he U.S. and a lot of the issues around neonicotinoids, pesticides, I have a little more energy to attack.”

When Health Canada asked for input on neonicotinoids, the CRBA responded with four main conditions: a well-publicized ban on the use of neonicotinoids in residential and ornamental plants; availability restricted to legitimate pest control problems in agriculture; no prophylactic use of neonicotinoids; and a stop to the practice of charging more for non-treated seeds.

Culley says she thinks the government does listen to groups like the CRBA. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently granted the CRBA’s request to be stakeholders in pesticide review and Culley was one of the first to see the agency’s latest report. She vows to continue the fight. “If you don’t say anything then they think you don’t care,” she says.

Barlee says if our government were listening to science and honouring the precautionary principle, neonicotinoids would be banned in Canada. “The only reason I think that they aren’t banned is because of the lobby of neonicotinoid producers.”

Even though the honeybee is an introduced species, Barlee says its poster-child status allows a lot of Canadians to realize that bumblebees, wild bees, and thousands of other vital pollinators are also in danger. “I think people get it, that, wow, it’s not just the honeybee, it’s also bumblebees,” says Barlee. “Of all the campaigns that I’ve worked on over the last 13 years, this is the one that seems to have struck a chord with the public in a way that I just can’t remember.”

Barlee says the Wilderness Committee will continue to campaign for all pollinators. “This is…” She pauses to collect herself before continuing, “this is so serious. We can’t have a ‘Silent Spring’ for bees and pollinators.”

The article originally appeared in our Spring/Summer 2014 issue. Since then, Health Canada has started plans to phase out some neonicotinoids.

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