Of Bees and Politicians

Justin Trudeau  Lawrence MacAulay
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (now Prime Minister) chats with Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay, (now federal Minister of Agriculture), right, as they attend the party’s caucus retreat in Georgetown, P.E.I. on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013.               THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Canada has a new Prime Minister, one elected on the platform of change and nation-building. We also have a new Minister of Agriculture, Lawrence MacAulay.

Their election, and the shift in who holds power in this country will, I hope, reflect a change in how we examine and remediate the plight of agriculture in general and the honey bee in particular.

As a beekeeper, consumer and citizen, I have been dismayed at how farm and apiary practices have made the honey bee an agricultural orphan, and an abused one at that. It would be difficult to understate how egregiously we have used and abused this essential pollinator, this most useful insect.

In the hurly burly of 20th century modernization, we began using agricultural sprays to expand farm footprints and obviate the need for human farm labourers. Agricultural sprays equal lower production costs for farmers, but levy an extreme expense on the land, the biozone, and on the pollinators. Farmers not only apply herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers to their fields, they apply them prophylactically (as a matter of routine, not just when needed, to prevent disease and pest conditions ever arising), and they apply them as tank mixes. Mixing two or more field applications in one tank spray saves time and gasoline….but we know that many sprays, once mixed, synergize one another, making them much more toxic than the individual sprays. And unpredictable, since detailed studies of the compounds created by tank mixes have not been made.

This situation is bad enough for end consumers who eat the crops from sprayed fields, but it is catastrophic to the pollinators.

dead bees

(image from http://eastvanbees.com)

Farmers are literally betting the farm that pollinators will somehow weather the combined onslaught of ever increasing monocultures, which make huge expanses of farmland pollinator wastelands, with no forage available outside brief bloom times. We are all familiar with the California almond orchards, miles and miles of a single crop, not another flower in sight. But there are other monocultures, just as large and potent: blueberries, canola, corn, soybeans, raspberries, pumpkins. Miles and miles of open land, not only devoted to single crops but with fields cleared margin to margin. No hedgerows, no trees or the weedy wildflower margins so beloved of pollinators as a year round buffet and habitat.

And that is just as well: pollinator forage close to sprayed fields is, thanks to spray drift, just a toxic banquet table.

drift 42412display

Field spray drifting on the breeze…

There are well known policies to guide farmers. But they are widely ignored. Farmers have an economic incentive to farm this way: labour to mix and apply the sprays is available in the daytime, so they spray when pollinators are foraging (flowers deliver their nectar and pollen during daylight hours), and when the labour is available (even if it is windy). They apply tank mixes, they apply off-label.

How do they get away with this? Because there is no effective inspection and regulation structure set up or funded. And little public education. And a strong farm lobby.

Which brings us back to these two:

Justin Trudeau  Lawrence MacAulay

image courtesy of THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

We need to lobby Prime Minister Trudeau, and the Minister of Agriculture, along with the Ministers of Agriculture for each Province, to revitalize the inspection mechanisms, and push pollinator friendly education and farming practice. Write them. Email them. Show up at public appearances and ask: what are you doing for pollinators?? Tell them what pollinators need, because by and large, they do not know what pollinators need.

Beekeepers also have a responsibility here. We have, thanks to our drive to do what is best for our bees, been pushing ourselves to find new ways to keep bees alive and thriving in a world now filled with bee-specific adversities and challenges.

In spite of Varroa infestations, Varroa vectored diseases, increasingly degraded and fractured forage, pesticides and agri-sprays, and increasing costs, we keep delivering bees on contract to the farmers who are bee-dependent, but who are effectively out-sourcing the whole issue of bees and pollination. They are blind to what is happening to bees, but they are entirely bee dependent.

Bee dependent. Utterly. And when they ask if we can deliver enough bees to pollinate their bee dependent crops, we say “no problem”.

Maybe we should stop saying that.

Farmers need to know just how marginal bee survival has become, particularly in bee-dense and agriculturally dense areas. Farmers have no incentive, and lots of disincentives, to change their practice to make things safer and better for bees and pollinators. We need to be honest with them: 30% (or more) winter losses from impaired bee health is not a reasonable situation for beekeepers.

And more than that, it is simply unsustainable.


Beekeepers and farmers are, incredibly, on opposite sides of the farm fence.

But so are beekeepers and beekeepers.

There are beekeepers who run stationary apiaries: the bees do not move to follow crops or nectar flows. And there are beekeepers to run migratory apiaries: bees are rented out on the pollination circuit (almonds, tree fruits, berries, vegetables, canola, soybean) and only come to rest in the winter yards.

Migratory beekeepers create problems for stationary beekeepers.

At least some of the migratory beekeeping operations, like farmers, cut labour costs by applying bee medications and mite treatments prophylactically and off-label. This drives resistance in the pests and diseases they are trying to prevent. And when they place their colonies in the farm fields, these over-treated bees compete for scarce local forage with the hives of resident stationary beekeepers (and native pollinators) and infest them with super pests and diseases.

Which brings us back to these two:

PM and MacAulayimage

image: Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Beekeepers need to ask for more bee inspectors and toothier regulation of pollination apiaries. We need to ask for subsidies for pollination operations so they can stay in business without adopting practices that are bad for other bees, beekeepers, and pollinators. We need to ask for better and more sustainable farm practices. We need to have land development policies that are pollinator friendly. We desperately need to push research to develop safer field sprays, and to focus on eradicating Varroa mites: not only are Varroa the single biggest threat to bee survival (including the critical wild bees), in the absence of Varroa mite pressure, bees would do much better at weathering poor agricultural policy.

There is so much to be done. We have new captains at the helm. Let them know what has to be done and why. Because they have another election to win in 4 short years.

And the bees need a win, too.



Winter Prep: how to tuck the girls in for winter

winterFall prep for winter is almost done, and we are looking ahead to see what the weather holds. Once daytime temperatures fall to consistent 10C/50F, winter in the beeyard has begun. By then, the hives should be set up in their winter configuration.

Here on the coast, we may only get a few days of hard freeze a year, and rarely get more than few light snowfalls. But we can expect non-stop rain, often with lots of wind, from November to March. It is generally not the cold that kills Pacific Northwest bees, but the wet. So winter prep is all about keeping the bees well fed so they can stay warm, and setting up the hive so they can also stay dry.

This method has given good results:

  1. In late summer, all hives receive a mite treatment, allowing winter bees to be raised with as little Varroa pressure as possible.
  2. In late summer, all hives are fed up such that they have ample winter stores of honey in the hive. I prefer to err on the side of generousity, so aim to leave the colony in two deeps topped by a shallow full of honey. And in the deeps, I like so see honey on the shoulders of most frames, and solid honey frames for the outside 1 or 2 frames. Any honey they don’t use over the winter can be harvested after the maples bloom in the spring.
  3. In the last good (15C+/59F+ and sunny) days of October, I put on the winter equipment.

The winter equipment consists of:

~the mite counting sheet, which goes back in the screened bottom board (it reduces the draughts when the wind blows, but allows any water in the hive to drain out…plus in late winter you can slide it out and see by the pattern of the hive debris where the cluster is in the hive, and get a sense of how big it is)

~the entrance reducer, turned to give the bees only a small entance (note the entrance should probably be turned away from the direction of the prevailing winds, if possible)

~a screened shim that goes directly over the top super (essentially a short eke with one screened side)

Lauri Miller screened innner coverThe screen above, from Miller Compound Bees, is sized to fit a nuc. But you can buy or make one that fits your supers. 2 x 2’s work well for this.

(**If you purchase, be sure it is not a ventilated summer cover, I mistakenly put in a link for those earlier!! The summer screened covers have two sides open to give a lot of ventilation. That equates to a bee door and will not work in the winter, and would not be wise here in the Pacific Northwest either as robbers would make hay with that kind of access. If you bought one of these, nail on a strip of wood to close those side openings)

As you can see, this setup gives you room to place a sugar brick on the top bars of the top super, under the screen. On decent days, you can lift the quilt box (discussed below), peek at the sugar brick and see how much the bees have eaten. If the brick is almost gone, you can slip in a new one. The screen allows you to peek without bees flying out at you, and on warmish days you can see how many are foraging up on the brick, giving you a sense of hive strength.

Here is another discussion of sugar bricks and their variations.

Over that screen goes your quilt box. I make mine from an empty honey super, into which I drill one or two ventilation holes high on the sides, and I screen the holes. I then staple a burlap floor onto the box, and fill it with small animal bedding, ie fine wood chips. Note the box is filled well above the screened vent holes:

Quilt box filled and ready to go.

Quilt box filled and ready to go.

The quilt box is what keeps the bees dry. As warm, moist air rises off the winter cluster, that air percolates up through the wood chips in the quilt box, drawn upwards and out by the air flow through the ventilation holes.

Over the quilt box goes the inner cover. Let me stress…the inner cover goes over the quilt box. That prevents the usual winter situation, where the warm, moist air off the cluster hits the cold inner cover, where it promptly condenses and drips down on to the bees. That makes it very hard for the cluster to keep dry and warm. And a cold cluster is a dead cluster.

Over the inner cover goes your outer cover. I am a very big fan of the Ultimate Hive Cover, by Bee Smart Designs:

HiveCoverOutsideViewOver the outer cover goes a 3′ x 3′ sheet of plywood, or something like that, to act as a rain hat.

On top of the rain hat goes a nice, heavy cinder block. In locations that might get the odd winter wind storm, the hive is strapped down.

Finally, you need to consider your wrapping. The BC Apiculture department advises that no wrapping is necessary in our biozone, and I am sure that is true.

But I fuss about my bees and prefer, when and if disaster strikes, to be able to tell myself I did everything I could to prevent that disaster. So in winter, I wrap my hives. I think at the very least, wrapping helps minimize temperature swings in the hive. And I sleep better at night!

I am devoted to the Bee Cozy, a thick pad of insulation sealed in heavy mil black plastic, formed into a tube that slips over the hive. You slide it on, bungee or stretch wrap it in place, ensure the lower entrance is unobstructed (I prop a wide popsicle stick or two into the entrance reducer’s top edge), and that. Is that.

bee-cozy-stepsbee cosy nod global

from Tillysnest.com

from Tillysnest.com

(Note for the photo above, I add a sheet of plywood on top as a rain hat, and that sheet is weighted down or strapped down)

And once that is done, I spend all winter fretting. I find winter the hardest of all the beekeeping seasons. The hives are frosted, and still. If something goes wrong, there is nothing you can do about it. Once the hives are wrapped, the die is cast, and you must wait until spring returns to know if all your hard work and winter prep has paid off.

And more than that, I just miss the bees.

I do check the sugar brick regularly on our frequent sunny winter days. The bees usually leave it until January: at that point they begin brooding up in earnest and begin to run through their winter stores at an alarming, sometimes fatal, rate. They share their food until the day they all starve at once, so keep a sharp eye on that sugar brick, and if it dwindles, have another ready to put on right away.

And on sunny winter days, particularly in late winter, stand in front of the hive and watch the activity. Not only does that give you an idea of hive strength, it is good to see if pollen is going in, and how much. Here on the coast, thanks to the English Ivy, bees haul pollen most sunny days of the year.

Whenever you are in the beeyard, have a peek to be sure dead bees are not clogging up the lower entrance. Using a stick or rod, sweep out the dead and clear the entrance.

They cannot be fed syrup again until days are reliably 10C/50F or above. For us, that is early-mid March. The bees are not safe from starvation until the Big Leaf Maples bloom in April.

And then, we are smack into swarm season! So spend the winter preparing your extra equipment for next season.

But first, do your winter prep.

Winter is nearly here.

As always, wish the girls luck.


Why I Love Rescue Wasp Traps!

pollinator paradise

It has been a terrifying year for wasps in the community farm and garden. It may be the exceptionally warm 2014-2015 winter/spring/summer, plus the extended drought. But we’ve had a record summer and now record numbers of wasps are infesting the beeyard.

To be fair to the wasps, they are useful as Mother Nature’s garbage detail, and patrol the beeyard in small numbers all season, taking away the dead.

But in the late summer and fall, the colonies grow to such a size, they are perfectly capable of, and willing to, attack a hive in numbers and clean out every last shred of protein (larvae, adults) and carbohydrate (nectar, honey stores). Many, many beekeepers lose hives in late summer/fall, particularly smaller hives.

This year, I stocked the student apiary with 7 hives left over after repeated nuc production. They were all small, but had time to rebuild to winter-worthy strength. Their small size was not lost on the wasps, and we had to put robbing screens on in July, wasp numbers were so extreme. Every time we opened the hives, we were being stung…not by bees, but by wasps, who love to light on unsuspecting beekeepers, then sting as soon as the beekeeper moves. And because they have smooth, retractible (multiple use) stingers, wasps can afford to be trigger happy. And they are.


Mercy, that hurts!

We have tried various traps and strategies to deal with the wasps without killing the bees. The best by far has been the Rescue Disposable Wasp Trap. We tried the WHY reusable trap (which contains far more plastic) and it was only weakly effective.

To demonstrate how effective the Rescue trap was (and we set multiple rounds of the trap over the late summer), I filmed it yesterday, showing how the trap begins attracting wasps as soon as it is filled and hung. No other trap seems to do this. And it caught hundreds within hours at the peak of wasp season (July/Aug this year). Today, September 28th, is late, very late in the season and our wasp trapping has been very effective at keeping the numbers down. But there are still lots around:

And here is a photo of the trap, two hours after being set out:

2 hours later

Earlier in the season, we would find 100-200 trapped within that two hour window. Still, the 20 I counted was impressive.

I am not happy to kill things, especially other social insects. And I regret the plastic consumption, not to mention the expense of setting out multiple runs of traps. But beeyards are such a wasp magnet! I think these traps saved us this year, saving this beekeeper many wasp stings to boot! I will now be able to take many more colonies with lovely, productive queens into winter than would otherwise be possible.

It is nearly time for winter wrap-up.

As always before winter, wish the girls luck.


14may26_santropol_bees_02This is my second year in the local community garden, Earthwise Society Garden and Farm in scenic Boundary Bay, BC. I finally felt I had my beeyard and beekeeping under control. I had decided in the winter that the 30 hives I ran in 4 beeyards in 2014 was too many for me to manage: I am the family home-maker and we’d gone short on hot meals and folded laundry (not to mention general tidiness) in 2014. The bees took all my time, and not in a nice way. I was racing from hive to hive, feeling out of control and never able to catch up and just enjoy the bees.

So my winter plan was to try my  hand at making and selling spring nucs, thereby reducing my beeyard load down to a more pleasurable and manageable 10-15 hives. I love making new colonies and had made lots of nucs for myself in my noob swarm control methodology (hence the 30 colonies). But I had never offered them for sale. I consulted with a kindly mentor, Brian Campbell of Blessed Bee. He suggested if I felt my skills were under-market, to price my nucs accordingly. So I did, and the whole enterprise was a roaring success. Such a success that I decided my skills were not under-market after all, and I raised my prices to reflect that!

It was one of the many apprenticeships I have served in my journey as a beekeeper.

But side by side with me at Earthwise was another crop of apprentices: the farm interns and apprentices, there to learn organic, sustainable farming and market garden methods, adding to their agricultural resumés. They were, as a group, unusually drawn to the beeyard, and I decided to offer them an authentic Apprentice Beekeeping course, including practical experience, as a resumé builder and value add to their summer work experience.

Never pass up the opportunity to infect a new generation with the beekeeping bug!

Having just completed my Washington State Journeyman Beekeeper level, I felt confident I could put together a good Apprentice level course. And I did. Complete with an exam and certificate of completion upon a successful pass!

I went with web-based content to save us all the cost of printing out texts and the arduous task of typing in web links. There are so many fine resources on the web for beekeepers of all stages, it is a shame not to share and use them.

The aim of the course was to give these young beekeepers the critical information necessary to avoid becoming the 80% of beekeepers who give up on beekeeping within three years of tackling their first hive. Most quit because their bees keep dying. So the course was focused on colony health and survival, meeting weekly to discuss issues and questions.

In addition, I took all those colonies I had harvested repeatedly for nuc sales, and moved them into a newly cleared space in the garden. These colonies, now small, formed our first Student Apiary. They varied a bit from the very tiny (three frames and a queen) to the rather large (bees who, in spite of multiple rounds of queen rearing were still populous colonies…it was a great spring for queen rearing and colony building!). The twin objectives were to give the Apprentice beekeepers a hive to manage for the 7 weeks of the course (there is nothing like opening up your very own hive to spur bee learning!) and to build these weak colonies up to overwintering size and strength.

We also ran one extra colony, headed by a completely useless queen (named Queen Aergia, for the Greek goddess of sloth). Aergia gave us all a look at what happens when a queen hardly stirs herself to lay, but the workers mysteriously opt not to supercede her. Maybe she was damaged by Nosema? She was a source of lively and amused discussion.

It was a great experience for us all.

To explore the web based content created, here is the link to Newbees 2015!


Palestinian beekeepers collect honey at a farm in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip...Palestinian beekeepers collect honey at a farm in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa (GAZA - Tags: SOCIETY)

Palestinian beekeepers collect honey at a farm in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip…Palestinian beekeepers collect honey at a farm in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa (GAZA – Tags: SOCIETY)

Beginning Beekeeper Resource

Randy Oliver

Randy Oliver

There is probably no other beekeeper alive who has generated more diversity of opinion…if not outright conflict…than Randy Oliver of Scientific Beekeeping.

In his own words:

I started keeping bees as a hobbyist around 1966, and then went on to get university degrees in biological sciences, specializing in entomology.  In 1980 I began to build a migratory beekeeping operation in California, and currently run about 1000 hives with my two sons, from which we make our livings…What I try to do in my articles and blogs is to scour scientific papers for practical beekeeping applications, and to sort through the advice, opinion, and conjecture found in the bee magazines and on the Web, taking no positions other than to provide accurate information to Joe Beekeeper.

Randy is a scientist, and that is nowhere more clear than in reading through his information dense site postings. Mercifully, his writings are simple and clear, easy to understand.

In the face of near insuperable challenges to bee health, the beekeeping world has become increasingly dogmatic. Beekeepers have become iconoclasts, sometimes right, often wrong, and as such make daunting mentors. In the face of dogmatic statements, the question always is: you may be right, but how can you be sure?

The answer there lies in good research technique, and love him or hate him, Randy has that.

For the beginning beekeeper the site is a treasure trove. Begin at the beguin, his first year with your nuc instructions:


And follow the embedding links to his pages on Beginners’ Pages.

Bon voyage!


The Trials of Summer

June 29, 2015

June 29, 2015

It was a golden summer’s evening last night, and the bees were working well past 9:30 at night. It was incredibly warm yesterday, a record 29 degrees C/ 84 degrees F.

I have made a couple of modifications this year, as you can see in the photograph. I now place all the colonies on bases I make myself, which feature cedar 4×4 legs. And I am now using pavers under the base to keep the colony from shifting: insurance against the effects of frost heaves in winter, and issues with increasing hive weight in the summer.

The lowest box is a shallow, a honey super, and an experiment! I call it a Baffle Box. Similar in function to a slatted rack, it gives the hive a kind of vestibule, a bit of extra room at the front door, a place for excess bees to hang out, particularly useful in hot weather when bees must open the cluster and fan to keep cool.

Inside the Baffle Box are crossbars/supports meant to encourage the bees to fill that box with freely drawn wild comb. I have read reports from a few beekeepers who do this, and leave the boxes on for the winter as effective wind baffles. The hive remains ventilated, and the bees pass through the bottom box freely, but the graceful, wavy forms of the free-built comb provide some protection from the elements…not just wind here but the splashing of rain. By spring the sides of the bottom boxes are always marked with mud splashes, and the lower edge of the combs in the bottom box are apt to get a soaking. This should stop that.

The Boardman feeder you see on the doorstep of the hive is not being used as a feeder. Boardman feeders filled with syrup are an invitation to rob! Instead, on the advice of Linda Tillman, I am using the Boardman to provide clean water. Not only do I not want my bees foraging for water in my neighbours’ pools, hot tubs and bird baths, I want to keep them out of the local ditches, which carry runoff from sprayed farm fields. Into the water I add a pinch of agricultural salt. You could also put in some Rooster Booster Electrolytes, à la Lauri Miller. They tell me the bees like that sort of stuff.

I am also using queen excluders over the brood nest for the first time this year. It does mean I can be pretty certain the queen is not going to be in the honey supers, which I move on and off a lot to facilitate another change in practice this year, under-supering the honey boxes. When I need to give the bees more nectar and honey curing room, the new box goes on under the full box(es). Grant Gillard recommends this practice, along with “baiting” the new box with partially filled frames from the nearly full box above, as a method of boosting honey production. Seems to be working!

Finally, you will note there is a deep super on top of the hive. Not my usual practice, and not my preference! But this year’s maple and hawthorn flow seemed much stronger than usual, so in April I was finding full frames of ripening nectar appearing in the brood nest. I plucked these out once the maple was done, and replaced them with heavily waxed frames to encourage expansion of the broodnest. I want egg laying down there, not honey production! And took all the nectar filled frames and put them in one box, over a strong hive, for finishing.

I won’t even try to lift that monster off! I will pull the frames out one by one (standing on a stepladder!) and put them into a handy empty deep super.


On the advice of my local bee supplier and mentor, Lindsay Dault of Urban Bee Supply, my final change in practice was using PseudoQueen sticks, photo above, in the hives marked out for honey production. A synthetic slow release queen mandibular pheromone product, PseudoQueen has a number of uses. I wanted to see how well it suppressed the swarming instinct. Early results are promising, although alas the parent company distributing the product is in bankruptcy proceedings.

Good luck to you all in your beekeeping experiments! Post your successes for us in the comments section!

Spring Tonic for Mason Bees

A thoughtful, beautifully written article focusing on mason bees, but with critical information relating to honey bees as well.

The Bee School

The relationship between plants and their pollinators is complex, not usually straight forward.  Pollination Syndrome, the method by which plants have managed to attract some pollinators and discourage others is both fascinating and not fully understood.

Pollination is the mechanical transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower.  Could be the same flower, could also be a flower of a completely unrelated species of plant.  In other words, pollination is pollen moving around, not necessarily resulting in fertilization, even though we use it to mean that.

Why bees are great pollinators and why plants use Pollination Syndrome to encourage some pollinators over others is because bees don’t know how to pollinate.  I know!  Who’d have thunk it?

There is an incredible array of floral structures, colours, scents, pollen types, nectar and nectaries for bees to choose from and figure out.  When…

View original post 1,173 more words

What do you need to start a hive?

from Beverly's Bees!

from Beverly’s Bees!

Aside from the bees, what do you need? A bit of equipment for sure!

I can do no better than to point you at the wonderful Beverly’s Bees, which includes a set of very helpful videos:


Other things to consider:

–setup costs run about $150 for a basic hive setup, and bees cost about $150 – $250, depending on your area

–do you have a place to put the bees out of the way of neighbours and foot traffic?

–you will need a bee suit and veil, smoker, hive tool, benadryl and epipen, and always have in your pocket a charged and working cell phone (and I now also own an astonishing number of Rubbermaid Roughneck 65L tote boxes!).

It helps to take a course, and taking a local course and/or joining a local bee club can be a useful source of information, bee friends (handy at honey harvest time!) and mentoring.

–get a really good beginning beekeeping book or two; my favourite is the British Beekeeping Association’s Guide to Beekeeping


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