Becoming a Beekeeper:

Helping Pollinators Thrive and Reconnecting with Nature

Photo credit Jim

We are delighted to welcome our friend (and Catherine’s patient guitar teacher) as today’s guest blogger, sharing insights into his experiences and motivation to become a beekeeper, and in doing so becoming an important positive change agent for biodiversity and a sustainable Planet Earth for all.  Thank you, and welcome Brian!

Getting Inspired

“A few years ago my interest in keeping bees was sparked while I was working in a cafe in Toronto. A local beekeeper kept hives on the roof of the old two storey factory building turned cafe that sat next to the Don River in the city’s east end. By that point in my life I had already developed a taste and appreciation for local honey, as I would frequently pull over at roadside stands to buy a jar or two whenever I found myself driving through the greenbelt outside of the city.”

Learning

“When an online add for a beekeeping 101 workshop caught my attention I quickly signed up to learn more about these iconic insects. A one day workshop held annually by the Toronto Beekeepers Collective (http://torontobeekeeping.ca/) in the middle of winter offered an overview of a year in the life of a bee colony and how to care for that colony as a beekeeper. My desire to get more involved led to me joining their collective and excitedly setting off on my first season of hands-on experience keeping bees.”

Harvested Honey with Honeycomb Photo credit Brian

“The collective operates on a volunteer basis. It is run by two knowledgeable and experienced beekeepers. Members of the collective would join them on hive checks at the four beeyards around Toronto, help at educational events at the Ontario Science Centre and the Royal Winter Fair, and help plant pollinator gardens (St. John’s wart, northern wild raisin, low bush blueberry, elderberry, grey dogwood, and black chokeberry were among some of the pollinator friendly plants we planted in community gardens). We also helped build equipment, and my favourite part, helped with harvesting the golden yellow honey of the summer, and the darker honey in the fall. The darkness or lightness of any given honey all depends on the flowers and plants the bees have been collecting nectar and pollen from and what time of year they are in bloom.”

“The learning curve was steep that first year and I continue to learn and be fascinated by the lives and roles honeybees and native bees play in our ecosystem. Since that first year with the Toronto Beekeepers Collective I have branched out from the urban setting of Toronto to the more rural setting of Nova Scotia where I have set up hives of my own. Provinces in Canada have their own governing bodies when it comes to apiculture. The Ontario Beekeepers Association website is a great resource for anyone looking to learn more or find help with starting hives of their own (ontariobee.com). “

Frame of Capped Brood. Photo credit Brian

Queen Bee and the Hive

The life of the hive centers around the Queen bee, who will go out on one mating flight in her lifetime and then proceed to lay over a thousand eggs per day. The majority of these new bees will be female worker bees who forage and collect nectar and pollen, as well as keep things within the hive orderly and running smoothly. The male drone bees are larger, don’t sting and only serve the purpose of mating with the virgin queen on her mating flight. In the fall the drones are unceremoniously kicked out of the hive and a number of heartier winter bees will hatch before they hunker down for the colder months. Bees don’t fully hibernate during the winter. Instead, they cluster together around the queen, live off of honey and pollen stores, and generate enough body heat to keep the colony warm. When a queen starts to get near the end of her productive life or if a colony starts to get too crowded, worker bees will start to raise a new queen as covertly as possible to succeed the current one. When the new queen hatches there can be a fight to the death or one of the queens will leave and half the hive will swarm with her in search of a new place to start a new colony. This is how a colony naturally replicates itself and continues the important work of pollination to the diversity of plants in our ecosystem. 

Why Bees Matter

One third of our food supply depends on the role bees play as pollinators and most larger beekeeping operations make more money providing pollination services to food producers by driving truckloads of bees from crop to crop over many kilometers during the growing season. One of the biggest existential threats that bees, other pollinators, insects, and some bird species face are the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. These pesticides are engineered directly into the seeds of certain crops, neurologically weakens bees, and eventually leads to colony collapse. This underlies the importance of supporting less industrialized and more natural systems, and local food economies like farmer’s markets and seasonal diets. Nature continues to be a gift and the cleanest and most sustainable system for us and all the creatures and plants we share the planet with to nourish ourselves and lead healthy, purposeful lives. The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan) and A Buzz in the Meadow (Dave Goulson) are two books I’ve enjoyed that elaborate on the importance of biodiversity and nature’s incredible system of sustainability. 

Photo credit Lucy

Taking Care of the Bees and Ourselves

There is nothing quite as satisfying as opening up a healthy and thriving colony of bees. Hearing the buzz of thousands of bees working away, the smell of wax, honey, and nectar and pollen from local flowers and plants. It serves as a reminder that we are deeply connected to this ecosystem of tiny creatures, towering trees, and beautiful plants all around us. That we have a responsibility to care for and to ensure the survival and well being of these life forms, because it is also an act of caring towards ourselves and our own well being. In short, if the bees do well, we all do well!

Why Bees Matter – Part Two

We were inspired by Brian’s guest blog to learn more about bee-biodiversity-food-tree connections.

Thehoneybeeconservancy.org website offers these sharp numbers on the “percent of crops we’d lose without bees,” to show just what’s at stake: https://bit.ly/2QiTG7g

100%  Almonds. 90%  Apples 90%  Blueberries
90% Cucumbers. 80%  Cherries. 70% Watermelons

Bees Tending to Wax. Photo credit Brian

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), explains about bees as ‘tiny miracle workers’ and the vital importance of pollinators to life on our planet.

“Safeguarding bees safeguards biodiversity: the vast majority of pollinators are wild, including over 20 000 species of bees.”

“Pollination is vital to life on our planet. Bees and other pollinators have thrived for millions of years, ensuring food security and nutrition, and maintaining biodiversity and vibrant ecosystems for plants, humans and the bees themselves. Pollinators are essential to the production of many of the micronutrient rich fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and oils we eat. In fact, close to 75 percent of the world’s crops producing fruits and seeds for human consumption depend, at least in part, on pollinators for sustained production, yield and quality. The diversity of food available is largely owed to animal pollinators. But alarmingly, in a number of regions, pollination services are showing declining trends.”

Photo by Lucy

Threats to Our Pollinators

Bees and other pollinators are under threat. Present species extinction rates are 100 to 1 000 times higher than normal due to human impacts. Insects will likely make up the bulk of future biodiversity loss with 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species – particularly bees and butterflies – facing extinction. Though to a lesser degree, vertebrate pollinators (16.5 percent) are also threatened with extinction globally. Changes in land use and landscape structure, intensive agricultural practices, monocultures and use of pesticides have led to large-scale losses, fragmentation and degradation of their habitats. Pests and diseases resulting from reduced resistance of bee colonies and from globalization, which facilitates the transmission of pests and diseases over long distances, pose a special threat. Furthermore, climate change also has a negative impact. Higher temperatures, droughts, floods, other extreme climate events and changes of flowering time hinder pollination largely by desynchronizing the demand (flowers in bloom) with the supply of service providers (abundant and diverse populations of pollinators).”

Learn more from the FAO’s fact sheet on Why Bees Matter-    https://bit.ly/3aMdyck

Photo credit Jim

Bee Laws

Catherine is pleased to learn that Ontario takes bee protection and bee health seriously. There is an Ontario Bees Act, “legislation that regulates honey bees and beekeeping in Ontario. The main purpose of the act is to protect the health of honey bees, particularly from pests and diseases.

The main requirements of the Ontario Bees Act, as well as requirements for the safe production of honey under the Food Safety and Quality Act, are summarized here for beekeepers’ convenience (see figure 1).” https://bit.ly/3j5WqkK

She also is pleased to learn that her city – Toronto – is taking action for bees and biodiversity. 

 The Vision is: “Toronto is home to diverse pollinator communities that contribute to resilient ecosystems and enhance urban biodiversity.”

Photo credit Lucy

To achieve the vision, Toronto has adopted a Toronto Pollinator Protection Strategy and runs a Pollinate TO Community Grants Program. Aimed at “…the goal of protecting the more than 360 species of bees and more than 100 species of butterflies and other pollinators that call Toronto home, the City of Toronto has adopted a  Pollinator Protection Strategy. The Strategy identifies a set of guiding principles, six priorities and 30 actions that the City and community can take to protect our diverse native pollinator community.” 

“Grants of up to $5,000 are available (to create neighbourhood pollinator habitats) through the PollinateTO Community Grants program.”

Learn more at https://bit.ly/2Qn1yEJ.

Here are three of the Success Stories you will find there:

Success Story: Parkland Naturalization Program

“The City works with community groups and funding partners to restore degraded natural landscapes and establish new natural areas to create forest, wetland, and meadow habitats. More than 60,000 native trees and shrubs have been planted, as well as more than 50,000 wildflowers, herbaceous and aquatic plants.”

Photo credit Jim

Success Story: “Tickle Bees” and City Staff

“In the spring of 2015, thousands of gentle, ground-nesting native bees emerged with the warm weather in a City park. Being in close proximity to a playground, members of the public voiced their concern to the Park supervisor. City staff, having recently completed training on pollinators as part of the Horticulture Program of Excellence, identified the bees as Mining bees, nicknamed the “Tickle Bee” by school children, as they don’t sting and are very gentle.”

“Staff installed educational signage about the “Tickle Bees” and the vital role they play in pollination. The community was thrilled to host these important pollinators and often stopped to observe their activity. Educating City staff about this important pollinator led to this educational opportunity for members of this community.”

Success story: Celebrating National Pollinator Week

“In June 2016, an event was organized to celebrate National Pollinator Week and Toronto’s status as the first Bee City in Canada. A mural of a green metallic sweat bee was unveiled at Bloor Street and Howland Avenue and a proclamation declaring “Pollinator Week” in Toronto was announced. The mural was the result of a partnership between Burt’s Bees and the City’s StreetARToronto and Live Green Toronto programs. Painted by Toronto artist Nick Sweetman, the mural is about 65′ long by 35′ high and serves as a stunning reminder of the importance of pollinators in our city.” To see and learn more about Toronto’s offical bee – https://bit.ly/3hgIUKG

Bees and Trees

Photo credit Andrew

Thehoneybeeconservancy.org website suggest 10 actions to help sustain bees, including idea number four – Provide Trees for Bees

Did you know that bees get most of their nectar from trees? When a tree blooms, it provides hundreds — if not thousands — of blossoms to feed from. Trees are not only a great food source for bees, but also an essential habitat. Tree leaves and resin provide nesting material for bees, while natural wood cavities make excellent shelters. With deforestation and development on the rise, you can help bolster bee habitats by caring for trees and joining tree-planting parties in your area.”  https://bit.ly/3aOpsm5

“Plant for Bees, Plant for Change”

In our August 13 blog, guest blogger Shanthi shared her experiencies, tips and joys in growing a dedicated cut flower garden. To those pleasures and benefits, we share another reason for flower planting and the case for planting for bees, as offered here by thehoneybeeconservancy.org:

“They say flowers that attract bees also bring good tidings for the gardener. Okay, maybe they don’t say that, but there’s something undoubtedly powerful about planting pollinator blooms. The art of gardening is not only a form of relaxation, but also of creating change. With every haven we create for bees, we make clear our stance on their importance, we designate ourselves as their allies, and we become leaders in the movement to create a world that is nourishing to the very creatures that nourish us too. Gardening is no longer a hobby – it is a grassroots movement.”

Even as Lucy and Catherine are enjoying the summer harvest from this year’s novice efforts at vegetable gardening, our thoughts are turning already with excitement to what to plant next year.  We definitely will be inspired by Shanthi’s, Audrey’s and Brian’s guest blogs as we make our plans for gardening season 2021 – thank you. We have taken note of Brian’s list of pollinator-friendly plants. We are growing our awareness about the flowers bees love, informed by lists such as this one from thehoneybeeconservancy.org website:

21 Flowers Bees Love

https://bit.ly/3aMPeao

Early Spring

Pansies, Pussy willows, Siberian Squill, Snowdrops, Spring-Summer, Peony

Milkweed, Bee Balm, Lavender, Phlox, Zinnias, Marigolds, Goldenrod, Sage

Chives, Liatris, Mint, Nasturtium, Black-eyed Susans, Borage,

Thyme and Oregano

LCBO and The Buzz on Honey

“Even the LCBO is enamoured of bees and honey!
The summer issue of Food and Wine is now available – check out page 26 to learn the answer to questions such as: “How many bees does it take to make a jar of honey?” and, “How to use honey in cocktails?”.  Find the online version of this issue at https://bit.ly/2QCbZVr

Photo credit Lucy

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