Monday, May 4, 2009

Future of Beekeeping? An article from the Vancover Sun

I found this interesting. I was aware how hummingbirds and other birds are no longer migrating because cities have plenty to forage even during the winter, but this article does give much hope to a more integrated urban environment.

Vancover Sun 5-3-09

A family consisting of a single mother and her large brood of offspring moving in across the back fence may not be considered the ideal new neighbours.

And there's no need for the neighbourhood to chip in and host a welcoming barbecue because the newcomers are all vegetarians anyway. Truth is, most neighbours will never know they're there - which is quite a feat for a queen and her several thousand attendants.

In backyards all over Surrey, spring means more than lawn maintenance and planting flower and vegetable gardens. In the corners of some yards, activity is frantic from sun up to sun down as the residents industriously go about their business. Their work involves pollinating flowers, collecting nectar and pollen, tending to the ever-growing colony and producing hundreds of pounds of honey. Welcome to the world of urban beekeeping.

"It's more common in Europe than it is here but it's picking up speed in North America," said John Gibeau, president of the Honeybee Centre in Cloverdale.

"The yield in the city is far greater than it is in the country for beekeeping. For instance, here in the heart of Surrey at 176th and Fraser Highway, we're lucky to get 85 pounds of honey per colony per year - 40 kilos. But in my home hive in New Westminster, I can get 265 pounds of honey per year; that's well over 100 kilos."

The urban environment is actually ideal for honeybees. There are more flowers that blossom year round, and they are close together which means shorter flight paths for bees. The bees work faster and more efficiently plus it's warmer in the city so they can work longer days.

In addition to parks and gardens, the rougher areas like ditches and waterways or protected areas for wildlife provide additional benefits for the bees. Plants such as dandelions and blackberry bushes that grow in those areas supply two of the essential food groups for bees in the Fraser Valley.

Dandelions are the first significant source for nectar and pollen in the spring and help kick-start the colony after the cool winter months. Blackberry vines are also essential in their role as the most important honey producing plant in the Fraser Valley. With help of the bees, blackberry bushes create a clear, sweet honey with a neutral flavour ideal for baking or tea.

"We haven't done any medicinal tests on urban honey but that will be done in the future," Gibeau says.

"What we do know for sure is that urban honey is delicious; it has a spicy texture to it and it's medium to sweet-sweet. It has a wonderful aroma with almost a hint of brown sugar and it's consistent almost across the region. I get roughly the same flavoured honey from the hives at the Fairmont Waterfront downtown as I do in New Westminster and Coquitlam and downtown Langley."

Gibeau estimates there are more than 400 urban beekeepers operating in Surrey, basing that number on sales of beekeeping equipment and people who have signed up for his introductory courses at the Honeybee Centre.

Gibeau adds there is no such thing as a typical urban beekeeper as everybody has their own motivation for getting involved in the hobby.

Some people want to do something good for the environment, to give Mother Nature a helping hand. A few people get into it as a source of income and some people love the science of the hobby and are fascinated by the bees and how they operate. Newly retired people will take up beekeeping because it is something new while still others are drawn to the hives for their medicinal properties.

One trait is common, however: a dedication to their industrious little buddies in the hive.

"Beekeeping as a craft requires a type of personality that is perhaps a little bit stubborn," Gibeau says. "They don't mind getting stung - I mean, they don't like getting stung but they'll keep working through it. Other people get stung once and that's it for them; they're not interested any more."

Klaus Schalli? is one of those urban apiarists. The Cloverdale biologist professes a life-long fascination with science and when he retired after a 34-year career with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, he took up beekeeping as a new hobby.

Schalli? understands first-hand Gibeau's description of the hazards faced by urban beekeepers.

"Sometimes when the hive isn't very active I'll go in and check it without a bee suit on," Schalli? says.

"Once in a while I'll feel a bee go up my shirt sleeve or down my collar and I'll think, 'Whoops, that's going to hurt.' I know the bee is going to freak out when it can't get out and then I'm going to get stung. It's not something I'm paranoid about though; the stings I get are more by accident than on purpose."

The fear of getting stung is what fuels most people's fear of bees. Throw in a lack of understanding for what the bees do and an inability to differentiate between a docile honeybee colony and an aggressive wasp's nest and it's no wonder many people see all flying yellow and black insects as a threat.

"First off, bees are vegetarians while wasps are meat eaters, they're omnivorous," Gibeau says. "Honeybees generally ignore people. They go straight to the flowers and if people are around the flowers, that's where they will encounter them."

Gibeau added the scariest stories people have about bees is when the insects swarm. Such a scenario is frightening for some people but the danger is actually quite minimal.

When bees swarm, they are in the process of dividing the colony. Roughly half the bees will leave with the old queen while the rest will stay and raise a new queen. The group that is leaving will form a cluster which is what human observers see as a swarm. Unlike what is portrayed in countless B-grade (no pun intended) Hollywood movies, at this time the bees are not aggressive and are, in fact, in their calmest and most gentle state.

Because of paranoia some people have about bees, many backyard apiarists keep their hobby secret from their neighbours. Not Schalli?. He shares his honey with his neighbours and they pay no mind to the efficient little workers in their midst.

"My neighbours on either side of my house were OK with it, especially when I gave them some honey," Schalli? says with a laugh. "The neighbour across my back fence was more than OK with it because he is an avid gardener and he has a small orchard of fruit trees. He was just thrilled to have the bees here. It's a non-issue for my neighbours and they all like the honey."

Tom Lee, one of Schalli?'s neighbours confirms this assessment.

"You hardly notice anything," says Lee while taking a break from gardening as several honeybees foraged nearby. "You see the odd bee here and there but that's about it. I like the bees actually; they pollinate the flowers and they help the garden.

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"The side benefit is getting the honey from my neighbour. It's really good honey, better than what you get in the store."

The average backyard beekeeping operation consists of two colonies or hives, each ranging in size from one wooden box (10-inches high) to a stack more than five levels deep. Start up costs are roughly $250 and that includes the wooden ware and the honeybee livestock. Bee suit and tools cost a further $200.

Schalli?'s operation in Cloverdale can be one or two colonies, depending on the year. When he first took up the hobby, Schalli? completed an introductory beekeeping course at Gibeau's Honeybee Centre. He returns regularly to learn of new developments and to complete follow-up courses like Revive the Hive and No-Freeze Bees.

"My training really helped me so I was ready for most things that arose," Schalli? says. "What did surprise me was how much work it was. It's not just a matter of getting a couple of beehives, put them in your backyard and forget about them. You have to stay on top of it. You should be in your hives every week to 10 days just to make sure everything is OK and growing according to Hoyle."

Schalli? pauses before adding: "If you are a responsible apiarist, you're not going to have the disease problems with your hives and, beyond that, your hives are not going to be a disease source for other bees."

Schalli? admits his hobby has created some problems in his home. His family was less than pleased when they discovered he had given away all of his first honey crop, leaving none for the Schalli? pantry.

Last month Schalli? discovered another unexpected benefit to his hobby when he was filing his tax return. Thanks to honey money generated by his colonies, Revenue Canada now classifies Schalli? as a farmer and he can write off his beekeeping expenses.

"If you make the commitment to get involved in bees, it's a great hobby," he says. "It's fascinating. I never get tired of it. In fact, I'm really excited right now because I got to see the queen today. That's the first time I've seen her since October and it's pretty rare to see her even when you check the hive regularly. That's really exciting for me."

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