By Jody Scott
It is just another BEE-utiful summer day in the garden. Or is it? The flowers and plants look strikingly similar to the ones we recall gracing the gardens of our parents and grandparents. The soil is rich, sweet-smelling and dark; the weeds relentlessly grow strong and steady. But where are the flitting, flying garden critters that were prominent in the days of our childhood? They seem to have flown off to parts unknown.
Years ago, bees were prevalent. Today, it is hard to find a one among the blossoms, blooms and clover. Increasing use of pesticides, and ever more harmful ones, on corn and soybean fields are killing the very bees these crops need to survive.
In July of this year, a government-initiated group was formed in Ontario to discuss the risk to honey bees from exposure, to provide advice and solutions to prevent apian losses. It will also seek alternate insect and pest control for farmers who want the best for the environment today and for future generations. May they achieve great success. Flowering plants rely on bees to pollinate them, producing fruits and seeds. This keeps the important life cycle of food plants in motion.
Pollination occurs when pollen is moved from flower to flower on the feet and bodies of bees, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies and even bats. By planting abundant flowers in our gardens, and those which particularly attract our flying friends, refusing to use harmful pesticides and allowing dandelions, which bees view as wildflowers, to bloom before digging them out of our yards all help the process. Pollination increases the quantity and quality of crop yield; a full 70 percent of our food crops rely on this process. Every third mouthful of food we eat is produced by bees pollinating across farmers’ fields. Pollinators are necessary to the health and longevity of our agricultural resources for the future; it’s gravely important that they be both protected and given every opportunity to thrive.
Three thousand registered beekeepers in Ontario manage approximately 100,000 honey bee colonies, contributing $25 million to the province’s annual economy. Though very small, honey bees play a remarkably significant role in food, farming and the environment; they also produce nature’s sweetener.
Honey is a natural, unrefined, sweet fluid produced by honey bees from the nectar of flowers which they may travel many kilometers to collect, depending on the availability of food in any given area. A source of quick energy, honey is 25% sweeter than sugar with fewer calories. It can replace sugar in baking, canning or cooking, or as a sweetener or spread day-to-day. This delicious treat contains vitamins C, B, A and D as well as minerals potassium, niacin, riboflavin, calcium, zinc, iron and more. In recent years, it has been found to contain important antioxidants which help prevent cancer and coronary heart disease. It also has antibacterial properties so that spreading it, diluted, on a moist wound, can aid in keeping bad bacteria out.
Within the hive live a single queen, plus drones and worker bees both of which are the offspring of the queen. Together a single colony can number between approximately 40,000 and 100,000 bees. The sole purpose of the queen is to lay eggs. She may produce as many as 2,000 in one day and may live for as long as three years. While she does not act as a governor, she is waited on by the workers. Drones are male bees whose single duty it is to mate with the queen; they do not work and number in the thousands. Worker bees are mostly sterile females and, though being the smallest dwellers of the hive, from them the most work is required. They live only 35 to 45 summer days in which they first emerge from their honeycomb cells to nurse the baby larva, clean the comb and brood cells where the queen lays her eggs, build cells, make honey, store protein-rich pollen, feed and clean the queen bee, and guard the hive from intruders. After her work in the hive is done, there is still no rest for the worker bee. She moves to the last job in her life cycle: as a field bee she collects pollen, nectar and water to feed the entire colony. She does not live long because with so many trips to and from the hive her wings literally wear out and she cannot return. As the summer season draws to a close, worker bees who have survived force the drones out of the hive now that mating is done. This reduces the number of bees in the hive, conserving food for themselves and the queen.
It is a marvel how nature has its own wonderful way of protecting itself and ensuring survival. This has been so for as long as time itself. Archeological finds in ruins located in Jordan Valley indicate that a successful honey industry existed in ancient Israel as far back as 3,000 years ago, while in pre-historic and ancient Greece and ancient China, writings allude to honey and beekeeping practices. Mentions of honey, flowers, fruit and harvests are found throughout the pages of the Holy Bible beginning in the Garden of Eden.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw progressive stages of a revolution in beekeeping, which allowed the bees themselves to be preserved when the honey was taken. Advances were made over the destructive old skep-based form of beekeeping; skeps were hives made from straw or by inverting a wicker basket and were destroyed when the honey harvest was extracted. In the 19th century, the revolution was completed through the movable comb hive, created by Lorenzo Langstroth, a descendant of farmers from Yorkshire, England who immigrated to the United States. He designed a series of wooden frames within a rectangular box, carefully maintaining appropriate spacing between frames where the bees would build parallel honeycombs in the box without bonding them together or to the hive walls. This enabled the beekeeper to slide any single frame out of the hive for inspection without harming the bees or the comb, and protecting the eggs, larvae and pupae contained within. It also meant combs containing honey could be gently removed, the honey extracted, and then returned to the hive for refilling by the bees.
Common characteristics in these types of hives are their square or rectangular shape, floor, brood-box (or nursery area), crown-board (to keep the bees from sticking the roof to the hive), super (where the honey is collected on 8 to 10 movable wooden frames) and roof. Hives have traditionally been constructed using cedar, pine or cypress wood and their parts may be found today in antique shops or at old, abandoned farmstead apiaries. In recent years, however, injection-molded dense polystyrene has become an increasingly popular building material for hives.
A thorough knowledge of bees and their behaviors is a beekeeper’s first line of defence. Second is the wearing of some form of protective clothing when working around the hives, including gloves, a hooded suit or hat and veil. Gloves may make fine operations difficult and a full suit may be uncomfortably hot. However, since the face and neck are the most important areas to protect, most beekeepers wear a veil, at minimum.
All protection is light-colored and of a smooth material. This provides the maximum differentiation from the colony’s natural predators, such as bears and skunks, which tend to be dark in color and furry. Smoke is the beekeeper’s third and last line of defence. Most beekeepers use a “smoker”, made of cylindrical-shaped metal with a small nozzle and bellows attached, which is designed to generate smoke from the incomplete combustion of any of a variety of fuels. Smokers have developed and changed over the years, from basic and crude to sleek, heavy-duty and high-quality, but their function is the same. Fuel, comprised of things like pine needles, paper egg cartons, and punky or rotten wood, is placed in the smoker’s burner (the cylinder) and smoulders slowly. The smoke must not be hot. When puffed out of the smoker, it calms the bees and causes confusion, allowing the beekeeper the opportunity to open the hive and work without triggering a defensive reaction. Older models may occasionally be found while antiquing and there are collectors of such items. Besides honey, beeswax is another product of the hive. Excreted from the bodies of worker bees, honeycombs are made inside the hive, filled with honey then capped with wax.
At harvest time, the wax covering the pockets of honey is removed and may be sold for use in candle-making, make-up, shaving cream, furniture and shoe polish, chewing gum, crayons, waterproofing components and more. Modern-day society is not so advanced that we don’t continue to need the ancient and marvelous process of pollination by bees to maintain and grow our food. Let’s all do our part today, however we are able, on behalf of our busy, buzzing friends, and for future generations.
:1 – Busy bee doing its job of pollinating
2 – Vintage bee smokers, photo courtesy of Berwick Apiaries, Madoc