About those bees . . .

I had a wonderful time at Seedy Sunday at The Local last month, and I’m just getting around to writing it up. I got variety of really interesting seeds that I’ll soon be starting on the front porch, but the best part of Seedy Sunday for me is always the presentations.

I loved the one on beekeeping, presented by Stuart Arkett. I’m quite fond of bees, and like to see them in my garden, but I’m a little overwhelmed at the idea of being responsible for a hive. But  I needn’t have worried. It was illegal to keep bees in Stratford until last year, when Stuart presented a petition to allow it within city limits. After all, the city coat of arms features a beehive. Why not live up to our history? The city agreed, but followed provincial regulations, which require a hive to be 30 meters from a property line. That puts my beehive smack-dab in the middle of my living room coffee table, right next to my husband’s beer when he’s watching sports. So it’s progress of a kind, but, short of a divorce, it’s not going to work for me. I hope Stuart continues his work to promote urban beekeeping.

Notice the beehive

I really got a lot out of Stuart’s presentation. He told us a great deal about neonicotinoid pesticides and how they work. These are the ones that cause all the problems for bees. Some crops around here just can’t be grown without this pesticide, or a more expensive alternative. It gets put on some seeds, and when dirt is blown in the wind it’s breathable. The good news is that neonics are on their way out, due to increased government regulation, and also because after an insecticide has been used over a period of time, the insects just become immune to it. You do have to question an agricultural practice that has the end result of breeding resistant bugs, but let’s save that for another day. (More about neonicotinoids here)

We also discussed colony collapse disorder, which I’m sure you’ve heard about. Surprisingly, only three crops depend completely on bees for pollination: blueberries, cranberries, and almonds. These crops use trucked-in hives, a method that stresses the bees and weakens their resistance to mites and disease.

I have always wondered why the almond farmers don’t just raise bees within their groves. That would save time and trouble in transportation, and minimize the risk of infection to the hives. And you get honey. So I put my hand up to find out. Stewart answered that almond groves do not provide a complete diet for bees, as almonds are the only thing allowed to grow there. “But…” I said, “Why not allow a little extra vegetation, so the bees can thrive?” He smiled patiently, and explained that water is very scarce where the almonds grow, and no farmer would risk the expense of watering weeds. “But… “I persisted, “Why not reduce the ratio of trees to vegetation, just a little, to allow for bees?”

His answer was accompanied by the steely-eyed look farmers reserve for city-folk who want to give them advice. I could tell he’d been asked these kinds of questions before, presumably by people with a slightly vacant stare and flowers in their hair. He said that it is the obligation of farmers to produce the maximum from their farms. Farm families aren’t charitable organizations, and farm life is hard enough without creating extra, unprofitable work.

Well, it’s pretty hard to answer back to a statement like that. But then — and this is the interesting part — I asked him another question and got an answer I didn’t expect. I wanted to know why the bees produce more than the hive can use. Turns out they just do, it’s a bee thing. They keep working until there’s no more room for honey. Many beekeepers take all the honey from the hive and leave the bees with cheaper sugar water to last them over the winter. This is not as nutritious, and some hives die, but it works out in the long run. On his farm, Stuart doesn’t do this. He tries to calculate how much honey the bees will need to keep healthy over the winter, and he takes the rest as his share.

So in other words, he’s taking a reduced profit on his hives, hives he’s bought or built — to make things more comfortable for a bunch of bugs. He is not maximizing his farm profit. Seems to me there’s a contradiction. And I find that really interesting.

There’s a kind of a way we’re taught to think about how society relates to nature. We’re tough, we’re practical, we’re in control, and nature is a product. If you watch the news these days, particularly the weather news, maybe we’re not so much in control as we think we are. And I notice a kind of vague unease; it’s like we have a conflict between our heads and our hearts, and we try to resolve it by not really thinking about it very much. But avoiding it doesn’t make it go away.

I’m certainly no expert, but maybe the bees need more thinking about. Maybe agriculture needs more thinking about. Just because we’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.

%d bloggers like this: