Stooped over, tending the tomatillo plants in my garden on a hot August day last summer, I was confronted by a sharp sound. “Buzz!” It wasn’t the general buzz of just any bee; this was a message. Evidently, I was disturbing its work. I was in the way. Luscious flowers of bright yellow and brown were wide open, eagerly soliciting visits from bees and any other pollinators that might be around. My movements, tying back and propping up the bulging plant, were thwarting its “come hither” seduction. And that bee wanted to get busy.
Pulling back to make way for the action, I saw that many of the flowers on the tomatillos were occupied with bees of all shapes, sizes, and colours; large and small; thick and slender; black, yellow, and/or orange. “They come in a variety of styles and fashions,” says Roblyn Hunter. As one of the directors of the Nanaimo’s Beekeepers Club, she makes no effort to hide her reverence and awe for bees.
BC has about 400 native bee species. About a quarter of the province’s bee population, made up of 45 species, lives on Vancouver Island, and about half of those species are right here in my humble yard in Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter. It’s a living, buzzing spectacle, watching them work. The tomatillo bed, as well as the other herb and vegetable patches that surround it, are alive. The bees are doing the same dance that they’ve done through the centuries—they have a long history on the planet.
There is evidence that bees have been producing honey for 10-20 million years. Through the ages, honey has made an appearance in the works of Aristotle and Horace. The first written reference to honey details its use as a drug and an ointment. This was on a Sumerian tablet dating back to 2100-2000 BC. Honey has also been documented in ancient medical literature. In the healing of wounds, the antibacterial properties of honey are able to do their work because it keeps the wound moist and offers a barrier that protects against infection. It also drives away water, which can carry infection into a wound. In modern times, honey is showing promise in use against antibiotic-resistant strains of infection.
All of this antibacterial action also makes honey one of the safest foods to eat because it’s unlikely to harbour anything that will harm the gut. Honey was one of the foodstuffs that First Nations helped early European settlers find.
Like other insects that have persevered through the centuries, the bee life cycle is fairly typical: egg, larva (maggot-like), pupa (cocoon-like), and adult. They make their homes in two main types of habitat: about 30 percent live in trees while the other 70 percent are ground nesters, burrowing into undisturbed soil. Abandoned rodent nests and patches of dried grass are attractive options as well as rotting piles of wood. “People should keep the wild colonies where they are if they can,” Hunter says. “They should try to see them as a wonderful addition to their property.”
Feral honeybees will establish colonies in trees with layers of honeycomb, while some wild honeybees will live alone. Others live in manmade hives, a type of domesticated life at the hand of a beekeeper. Urban development and rural resource extraction are serious threats to the wild habitat of bees.
When living in a manmade environment and kept for the purpose of producing commercial honey, a beekeeper may carefully control forage so the honey has a consistent flavour and colour. Fireweed honey and blackberry honey, plants that grow in abundance on Vancouver Island, are two popular choices, though berry plants will help produce tasty honey. Bees running amok in the wild also head for clover, buttercup, thistle, alfalfa, and any other plants that will have them. The resulting wildflower honey—the product of plants that most gardeners would eradicate—is in high demand by consumers.
Gardeners are increasingly incorporating bee-friendly plantings in an effort to support the populations. Mediterranean herb crops are valuable for the herbs they produce as well as the attractive flowers they offer the bees. There is a movement to encourage gardeners to leave those herbs or vegetables that have gone to flower in the soil for as long as possible to serve as a buffet for the bees. In our garden, the tomatillos and ground cherries are the clear stars, but our pollinators also love the tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, beans, and herbs in flowers like mint and oregano. The bees that we see may be local or they may work in a region as large as 50 thousand acres. No matter how far afield they forage, they always come home at night.
Bees live under a strict social system. Eusociality is a form of social behaviour that is so extreme it’s found in only a few types of animals. It’s characterized by several generations occupying the same space at the same time, cooperation between members to care for young that are not their own, and a division of labour between the queen and worker bees. It actually looks surprisingly similar to the human Communist ideal.
The queen of a honey colony or a bumblebee colony has only one task: to lay eggs and reproduce. The worker bees, all female, care for the nest, larvae, and provide forage for the colony. A bumblebee colony will contain between 50 and 400 workers, while a honeybee colony houses between 10 and 50 thousand. Male honeybees (drones) may number up to 500 (bumblebees only 50) and their job is to leave the colony, mate, and die. Honeybee colonies can thrive for many years while bumblebee colonies are usually smaller and rebuild themselves annually.
To support their colonies, worker bees will often fly six and a half kilometres, covering as much as 50 thousand acres collecting the pollen from flowers. The fact that bees can fly at all is a miracle. Their bodyweight and shape doesn’t add up to an aerodynamic creature capable of flight. Yet they do. The theory is that their four wings work in concert to make flight possible. Warm air temperatures are also a factor, boosting the efficiency of the mechanisms of flight. Their wings beat 200 times per second, or 12 thousand times per minute. By comparison, the song “Thousand” by Moby, Guinness World Record holder for fastest song, clocks in at just one thousand beats per minute.
While they’re engaged in the miraculous task of flying and collecting pollen, the end product is what garners the most attention—honey. Its antibacterial properties give it an impressive shelf life. “You can harvest it, give it a light straining, and put it in a jar. Go put it in the pyramid tombs and 10 thousand years later you can take it out and eat it,” says Stan Reist of Flying Dutchman beekeeping. “What food other than honey can you harvest without doing any real processing, put in a jar, and come back 10 thousand years from now to eat and have it be good? I don’t think there’s any other food we eat that we can do that with.”
Bees are about honey but there’s much more. Bees carry pollen from flower to flower, and work among crops like canola as well, a vital element of food production. One third of the food we eat relies on bees for pollination. It also enables genetic diversity, which is vital for sustainable agriculture. The product of pollination can be honey, which we have come to rely on as a sweetener (mead is becoming another popular byproduct). There is also an emerging respect for its medical properties, as well as the value of the pollen itself. The byproducts of bee production—wax and propolis—are becoming popular for use in manufacturing and crafting. Beeswax candles are in high demand.
While consumer demand for bee products is increasing, honeybees are facing serious perils. Habitat destruction is a primary risk to bees right now. Urban development is covering bee habitat in subdivisions with manicured lawns and paved parking lots. Blackberry bushes, an excellent habitat for bee colonies, are deemed an invasive species and destroyed, taking the bees and pollen-giving flowers with them. “Wild bees are under threat,” says Brenda Jager, former apiary inspector. “What I think people should be worrying about is that they are irreplaceable.” Diversity in bee species is at risk due to large-scale agriculture.
Disease can decimate entire colonies and even whole regions of bees. We saw its power in action recently according to entomologist Ted Leischner: “The main cause of what’s called ‘colony collapse’ all across Canada was the [varroa] mite.” On Vancouver Island in March 2010, beekeepers suffered massive losses of bee colonies due to a perfect storm of circumstances. The long summer kept the bees working much longer than usual. Exhausted, the bees were then hit by the devastating varroa mite, which rendered them more susceptible to disease. Once weakened, the cold temperatures of winter finished them off. These factors added up to the loss of 90 percent of the hives on Vancouver Island. “The last three years we’ve had fairly heavy losses. We had 75 percent one year. It’s just getting harder and harder to stay in bees,” says Reist. “It’s a sticky, dirty business.”
These catastrophic losses led to attention from the provincial government. In February 2011 the Official Opposition Critic for Agriculture, Lana Popham (MLA Saanich South), implored the Minister of Agriculture, Ben Stewart, to maintain a quarantine on the importation of bees and equipment as a safeguard against further disease being transmitted from the mainland to Vancouver Island, where it can spread very quickly. Importation and movement of bee regulations have been amended to mitigate the possibility that this could happen again. But regulation requires enforcement. Government bee inspectors are in place for six regions of the province, but Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands (home to 25 percent of BC’s bees) do not currently have a dedicated inspector.
The most pressing threat to bees at this time may be exposure to pesticide residues which, if they don’t harm the bee directly, weaken them and make them more susceptible to parasites and disease. Neonicotinoid pesticides, introduced in 2006, are implicated in damaging losses to bee populations in Canada. Neonicotinoid dust used on corn and soy seed was identified by Health Canada as a cause in the 2012 mass honeybee die off in Ontario and Quebec. This led to reforms in the way that neonic-treated seed is planted. Consumers are voting with their wallets and demanding that garden centres and other plant retailers label product that has been treated with neonicotinoids, while some retailers are refusing to stock these plants at all. Action is also being taken on the municipal level; the Vancouver park board doesn’t accept planting material that has been treated. Here at home, Groundskeeper Gordon Howe says, “VIU does not have any policy around the use of neonicotinoid-treated plant material. As far as I am aware, no one has discussed it.” Consumer demands for action are likely to put pressure on more businesses and municipalities to consider a neonicotinoid-free position.
This consumer awareness, plus growing general awareness of bee populations and the importance of bees is improving. Seed combinations are being marketed to attract bees, and backyard beekeeping groups are coming together to support hobbyists who wish to learn more. Backyard beekeeping is becoming a popular pastime. In fact, there are so many beekeepers on Hornby Island that there is a shortage of flowers to support a sizeable population of bees.
Legislation in the form of the Bee Act is in place to regulate the use, movement, and housing of bees to protect their populations in BC. Stricter controls on pesticide use are also an important part of the plan to maintain healthy bee populations. [Editor’s note: as of January 19, 2015, the Bee Act has been repealed.]
Manicured flowerbeds, ironically, must be free of pests and debris to remain aesthetically pleasing to their gardeners. Yet these conditions are harmful for the very bees that the flowers themselves require for pollination and to thrive. Manicured landscaping is an enemy; embracing wilder, natural planting styles will go a long way towards supporting the bees.
In conversation with scientists, commercial beekeepers, professional pollinators, hobbyists, and bee cheerleaders, there’s one sentiment, a simple message that is shared across the board: plant bee-friendly plants, and leave as many native wildflowers as possible. The solution to a thriving bee population isn’t complicated, Jager says: “Don’t go and get beehives to help the bees unless you really love bees and that’s what you want to do. But if you want to help the bees and that’s your main thing, plant lots of flowers.” And in the early spring particularly, before much vegetation is in flower, “Keep your dandelions. It’s the most important early crop for wild bees. More kinds of bees get more benefit from dandelion at this time of year than any other flower.”