The secret strife of bees

Urban hives are on the rise and beekeepers are abuzz

Bees produce a number of things including honey, beeswax and a substance called propolis that has anti-bacterial properties.
Bees produce a number of things including honey, beeswax and a substance called propolis that has anti-bacterial properties.
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It takes a trip to the moon and back for a bee to produce an ounce of honey for your tea.

Although there’s often a stigma and a fear associated with bees – on countless occasions I’ve found myself swatting at them or fleeing from the particularly persistent ones – they are integral indicators of the state of our environment.

“Bees are a canary in the coal mine of our environment. They're tiny flying dust mops that pick up everything that they come into contact with and they're suffering,” Gord Campbell, a system administrator in the department of physics, said. “We should be very scared that the bees are in such trouble, because that's an indicator of the toxicity of the world that we live in.”

For Campbell, an interest in beekeeping stemmed from a childhood fascination with insects. In 2008, Campbell teamed up with his best friend Greg Hounsell to start Seldom Fools Apiculture, a Kingston-area apiary that currently has 11 hives.

“It suddenly just popped onto my radar again and I came across sort of a different philosophy of keeping bees,” Campbell said. “Not quite organic, but a less invasive sort of thing and I looked into it and thought, ‘this could actually work.’”

Campbell’s philosophy involves a chemical-free approach, whereas standard procedures call for frequent fumigation of the hives. Campbell said they’ve never touched these treatments, which are typically used medicinally to ward off parasites.

“The bees are able to manage it. As long as you’ve got a strong colony they can pretty much deal with whatever,” he said. “[We] just let the bees do their thing.”

With a creed of minimal interference in the busy lives of the bees, I was dissuaded from visiting the hives as the bees have already begun preparing themselves for winter. Campbell told me that if we were to disturb the hive, we would only anger the bees.

“In the fall we don’t haul off every bit of honey that they’ve collected all year, and then feed them sugar to get through,” he said.

Campbell said that conventional keepers replace all of the bees’ honey with sugar to sustain them through the winter. However, since sugar isn’t a part of their natural diet, Campbell refrains from feeding it to them.

Seldom Fools Apiculture also strays from convention with the use of top bar hives rather than standard box hives.

Top bar hives use bars, instead of frames, along the top of a horizontal, hollow hive which prove less invasive for the colonies.

“In our experience [using top bar hives], the bees tend to be a little calmer with it so there’s less disruption when we do go in,” Campbell said.

However, a less invasive hive doesn’t always help with aggression – that much can depend on the colony itself.

“Personality can be a challenge: each colony has a personality that can change with time,” he said. “We've had hives that we could literally go into in shorts and t-shirts and one colony that required full gear because they attack the second we opened the hive.”

Last year, Campbell said that his record for being stung by bees was twelve times in one day, a record that he hit twice that season.

“Thankfully I’m not allergic to them, I have all kinds of other allergies but I have a couple of EpiPens in my bag just in case,” he said. “I barely react anymore; your body either builds up an allergy or a resistance and I’ve built up a resistance, so they don’t bother me anymore.”

Campbell said there are several ways that bees will inhabit an apiary hive, including buying them from another beekeeper, dividing an existing colony or catching docile swarms of bees from frightened people’s yards.

“We actually had a swarm move into an empty hive this summer. What was a dead hive is now thriving and we literally didn't have to do anything,” he said.

However, the placement of a hive can cause just as much concern.

“They need to be in an area that has enough nectar sources to feed them through the year. If not, they could wind up being light on stored honey and not survive the winter. They also need a good mixture of sources as well. Just as it's more healthy for us to eat a varied diet, the same applies to bees,” he said.

Urban beekeeping is on the rise and has city inhabitants setting up private hives on their properties, helping to sustain the bee populations.

“In a lot of ways, cities are better than the countryside for hives. Cosmetic pesticide bans are in place in more areas and the variety of nectar sources in an urban neighbourhood can't possibly be matched in farm country,” Campbell said. “Picture the countryside as a small restaurant with a limited menu, but lots of everything on that menu. An urban neighbourhood is more like the biggest buffet you've ever seen. Dozens of choices, each more exotic than the last. Where would you eat?”

However, the Ontario Bees Act specifies that all hives must be set back a minimum of 30 metres from all property lines, limiting the spaces in which urban hives might be a possibility. Campbell explains that this effectively renders most urban beehives illegal.

Cities pose more than property issues to beekeepers, but attitudinal challenges as well.

“Bees really frighten people and they think that a hive in a neighbour's backyard will flood the area with killer stinging insects,” Campbell said.

Campbell said he hopes that with further education and changes in city legislations, beekeepers will be able to take full advantage of the benefits offered by urban beekeeping.

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