“How does anything survive on that kind of a schedule? That’s not the way to keep bees, I don’t think.”
– MURRAY COX
Do you get stung a lot? That’s the question asked by 95 per cent of the public who stop in to check out the beekeeping display at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair.
“That’s an absolute guess,” said Bryce Fisher, who started running a 600-hive apiary near Wawanesa in 2006. Last week, he and longtime Virdenarea beekeeper Murray Cox were fielding questions at the fair’s Through the Farm Gate section.
“Everyone is always asking about getting stung, like how many times,” said Fisher. “Kids especially, because everyone gets their first sting.”
Media reports of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) around the world are slowly making their way into the public’s consciousness, said Fisher, and he noted that he had fielded some questions about it during the fair.
The jury is still out on what the exact cause or causes of the disorder, which causes worker bees to abruptly abandon the hives en masse.
“I had some questions about that tonight, whether they’ve found it in Canada yet,” he said, adding that most of the public confuses the bee situation north of the border with that of the United States.
So far, high wintering losses have been reported in isolated pockets in Canada in recent years, but the reported incidence of CCD has been mainly confined to beekeepers in the U. S. and other countries.
“They ask about that. But it’s still a ‘disorder,’ because the scientists don’t know what it is, whether it’s a virus, a bacteria, or pesticides. They are slowly narrowing down their options and I don’t think they’ve pinpointed it to one thing or another,” said Fisher.
Cox noted that the reason CCD hasn’t shown up north of the border yet could be related to husbandry practices. In the U. S., beekeepers tend to move their hives vast distances on trucks over the course of the year, from holding yards in Texas all the way to the California almond crop, then ship them to as far away as Maine for work in the blueberry and cranberry fields, then back to Texas.
“How does anything survive on that kind of a schedule? That’s not the way to keep bees, I don’t think,” he said. “I think (CCD) is happening because of stress.”
Canadian producers have the advantage of a long winter rest period each year, he added, which helps take some of the pressure off, especially with hives suffering chronic infestations of varroa and tracheal mites.
Some members of the public are quick to link bee survival problems with pesticides, said Fisher, who added that there may be some truth to that, particularly Lorsban on sunflowers.
Residues become impregnated in the wax of the hives and build up over time, noted Cox. Lately, industry experts have been advising beekeepers to replace their boxes and combs at least every five or six years, with some honey producers even going so far as to change them every year or two.
“If you’ve got a young healthy bee, and you expose it to a contaminated environment, it’s going to be set back right from the very beginning,” said Fisher.
The situation is worrisome for the public, he added, since it has been estimated that up to one-third of the food we eat comes from crops that need bees to pollinate their flowers.
Experts say that all insect pollinators are in general decline, from moths, butterflies, ants and flies, not just commercially farmed bees.
Fisher said that this could be fallout from the trend towards ever-larger monoculture fields, as well as tearing up ditches, hedgerows and bush, which reduce the available habitat for natural pollinators.
The increasing trend towards seeding canola has good and bad points. Beekeepers who don’t like the crop and its added risk of bee losses due to spraying have a hard time keeping away from it. On the plus side, the flowering plant adds bulk to the honey crop. But its tendency to quickly granulate affects overall quality.
Borage is the beekeeper’s dream crop, said Cox, with white clover, alfalfa and sanfoin close behind. Native prairie with its profusion of diverse wildflowers produces good honey, too, he added, although yields are lower.
“The old Polish canola plant, from years ago – that rapeseed – that sucker would give you good honey,” said Cox, who added that the new canola hybrids don’t seem to produce nectar of the same quality.
What’s the best cure for a bee sting?
“Biting your lip,” said Fisher. That, and keeping your wits about you despite the shock, so that you can scrape the stinger out – not pull it out.
“I tell all my employees that pain is 90 per cent mental. If you think about your finger hurting, it’s going to hurt.”
Cox, who describes himself as “too stubborn to wear a veil,” has lately taken to using a topical anaesthetic cream for nasty stings on his face, usually delivered by the cranky hive sentries which strike like deadly little bullets within seconds of cracking open the hive.
“They fly right at you, ass first,” joked Fisher. [email protected]