Plight of the Honeybees

Local beekeepers work hard to ensure the future of the valuable and irreplaceable honey bee

“The Comox Valley is a prime location for beekeeping,” says Daniel Ludwig of Big D’s Honey. “Our climate is great. Our environment is one of the cleanest. People here are much more conscious about avoiding chemical sprays and doing things organically, which is good for bees.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Everyone knows bees are interesting. But what most people don’t realize is that once you start learning about them, taking care of them, living with them, bees are actually fascinating.”

So says Del D’Arcangelo, a Royston beekeeper. “The drama, battles, sacrifice and organization in each hive is truly amazing. There’s nothing I like better than sitting among my busy hives, coffee in hand, and enjoying the industry, harmony and calming sound of the bees at work.”

At a time when the news about bees is predominantly bad—very bad—D’Arcangelo is seeing something positive: a renaissance in beekeeping. The Comox Valley Bee Club, of which he is a long-time member, is thriving, with membership more than quadrupling in recent years.

“I remember about five years ago at our monthly Dove Creek Hall meetings we’d have 12 to 15 members. Now our membership is up to 70! Interest in beekeeping is growing exponentially, mostly because of increased awareness of the plight of bees,” says D’Arcangelo.

It’s hard not to be aware of the global decline in bee population over the past 15 years, with organizations ranging from the United Nations, to Greenpeace, to General Mills (with their Bring Back the Bees marketing campaign for Cheerios) letting us know the stark facts and urging us to take action.

Albert Einstein was once quoted saying, “Mankind will not survive the disappearance of honeybees for more than five years.” At the time, “the disappearance of honeybees” was a purely theoretical idea. Today, it is an undeniably real threat. Since 2006, the global honeybee population has declined sharply—in the United States it’s down 40 per cent, in Europe 25 per cent and in the UK 45 per cent. This is mainly due to habitat loss, poisoning by pesticides and other chemicals, and climate change.

The North American bumblebee population has plunged almost 90 per cent since the 1990s, and earlier this year, the rusty patched bumblebee, a native species that is a key pollinator of blueberries, tomatoes and wildflowers, was listed as an endangered species. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks the rusty patched as one of 47 species of native US and Canadian bumblebees, more than a quarter of which face a risk of extinction.
Why this matters so much—why Albert Einstein linked it to the extinction of humans—is bees’ role as pollinators. One-third of our food supply—you could think of that as one in every three bites we eat—is made possible by bees and other pollinators. Without the pollinators, we’d see massive failure of all flowering crops—apples, cherries, grapefruit, broccoli, carrots, onions, canola, and much much more.

Without pollinators, we’d have no more chocolate or coffee. Farm animals wouldn’t have hay, and we’d have to find an alternative to cotton for our jeans and t-shirts. Also, we need bees for plant-based medicines. If it lowers cholesterol, boosts your immune system or improves your eyesight, it was probably pollinated by a bee.

If the spectre of a loss of 1/3 of the global food supply doesn’t scare you, you might try looking at the situation through the lens of economics—pollination services furnished by various insects in the US, mostly bees, are valued at an estimated $3 billion each year. The global estimate ranges from $9 billion to hundreds of billions.

So while most of us, like Winnie-the-Pooh, associate bees primarily with honey, this golden liquid is just a sweet byproduct of bees’ main job as pollinators.

“Small scale beekeeping is important in that most of us are interested in the welfare of our bees over any monetary profit,” says D’Arcangelo. “We all like the benefit of surplus honey at the end of the season, but honey is seen more as a measure of the success and health of the hive.”

The focus on pollination holds true not just for hobby beekeepers, but also for the bigger commercial operations

“It’s all about sex, right?” says Stan Reist with a chuckle. Reist, along with his wife Cheryl, is proprietor of Flying Dutchman, one of Vancouver Island’s biggest commercial beekeeping operations. Flying Dutchman is based in Nanaimo and has close to 500 hives in strategic locations from Duncan up to Campbell River.

“Scientists and researchers are making crops that are self-fertile but they are never as good as what good old Mother Nature can do,” says Reist. “In nature, flowers and plants have evolved to sexually attract pollinators, whether hummingbirds, bees or butterflies.” It is the bee’s role as, um, a sexual helper that provides the foundation of Flying Dutchman’s business.

Reist, who started out as a hobby beekeeper with two hives back in the late 1980s, travels up and down Vancouver Island with his bees to pollinate blueberries, cranberries, apples, nuts and more. One of their biggest clients, Iron River Farms on Cranberry Lane just south of Campbell River, has one of the largest cranberry bogs on Vancouver Island. “We provide about 175-plus hives for pollination in this bog, plus we also provide hives for five other bogs.”
Reist explains why pollinators are a farmer’s best friend. “If you go back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Okanagan was the fruit basket of America. But the harvest date was always in the first part of September, by which time all your tourists were migrating back to the cities. So they brought in the honeybees to pollinate the trees. And now you are going to set that fruit a lot quicker. You can cut off five to eight days till ripening. And you can get a more consistent fruit, and a bigger fruit, and more fruit.

“If you’re talking about blueberries, if you pollinate a field you would be looking at an $18,000 increase in crop value between pollinated and unpollinated. And an advanced harvest date as well. But you need guys like me who will go out and play with the little suckers and try to get them to do what we want,” says Reist.

Honeybees are under threat worldwide because of virulent viruses against which they have no natural defences. Nearly all colonies in the wild have died out and without beekeepers to care for them, honeybees could disappear in a few years.

Photo by sumikophoto - Fotolia

Pollination was one of the main reasons Daniel Ludwig got into commercial beekeeping. Ludwig is founder and proprietor of Big D’s Honey, another major Vancouver Island beekeeping operation. Big D’s is based in Black Creek on a 600-acre four-generation family farm that includes Coastal Black Winery and a sawmill and lumber business, and also produces market fruits and sweet corn. As well, for the past four years the farm has hosted the Comox Valley Pumpkinfest, a month-long harvest festival that draws 15-18,000 visitors each year.

In a previous incarnation, the property was a thriving dairy farm run by Ludwig’s parents. As Daniel and his two siblings reached adulthood, each found their own way to contribute to—and in the process, transform—the farm. Ludwig chose honeybees.

“Ever since I was a kid I’d been interested in bees. As I got older and started doing more on the farm, I saw it would be useful,” he says. “I could see there was so much potential to help our farm if we had bees to pollinate all the blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and everything else here.”

Ludwig got started with two hives he bought from a neighboring farmer.

“I knew nothing,” he says. “The day after I brought the hives home me and Abel [his brother-in-law Abel O’Brennan, who runs the winery] went to check them. We had no protection gear on of any kind. Abel got stung in the face. That was it for him. He said, ‘I’m out,’ but I kept going.”

In 2007, at age 22, Ludwig launched Big D’s. Today, Ludwig and his wife Justine, who runs the business side of things, have close to 500 hives and produce up to 60,000 pounds of honey per year. They like to offer variety and currently make Fireweed Honey, Blackberry Honey, Wildflower Honey, Creamy Honey, Creamy Cinnamon Honey, and Cocoa Honey, which are sold at major grocery chains on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, along with health food stores and farmers’ markets.

The Comox Valley is a prime location for beekeeping, says Ludwig. “Our climate is great. Our environment is one of the cleanest. People here are much more conscious about avoiding chemical sprays and doing things organically, which is good for bees. They plant things that are bee friendly. This helps with the quality of the honey and the assurance that our product is clean and organic.”

Also, the mountains that shelter the Valley provide wonderful habitat for bees. Like many local beekeepers, Ludwig takes hives up to the mountains every summer, so the bees can feed off the copious salal, fireweed, wildflowers and salmonberries. Regular trips into the backcountry are part of his working life. It’s something he loves, but it has its downsides.

“The worst part of this job is the bears!” says Ludwig. “Three years ago I lost 60 hives to bears. So I do everything I can to protect them. I play the radio; I have noisemakers connected to motion detectors; I have electric fences.”

The best part of the job is the knowledge that the bees are contributing to the whole farming operation. “It’s awesome to know that wherever I am working, if I’m picking blueberries or working in the sweet corn, thousands of bees are working away, pollinating and making honey.”

Ludwig has been watching the burgeoning interest in beekeeping in recent years. “I think for most people it’s about the joy of learning how bees interact with people and with the environment around them. And people are worried about bees, so more and more people are taking up beekeeping.”

Denman Islander Eli Hason, founder of the Denman Island Bee Club, is one of those people. A beekeeper for three years, Hason formed the Denman Island Bee Club early this year, inspired by the Comox Valley Bee Club, which he is still part of. The club has about 15 members, about half old-timers with experience to share, and half younger people.

Hason moved to Denman Island in 2012 from Montreal where he worked as a DJ and a sound designer for video games and film. He’d been interested in bees for years and with the move from urban to rural, buying a couple of hives made sense.

“I wanted to do something for the environment around me and to have bees to pollinate our garden. One cool thing I didn’t expect is that neighbors tell me they have more bees around. They fly up to three miles away,” he says.

Keeping bees helps balance the impact humans have on the natural environment, says Hason. “I look at what we’ve done to the ecology here. I live in a clearcut. Whatever natural habitat that was here is gone. There are, I’ve been told, 22 kinds of local bees on Denman. They get a lot done but there’s been so much rearrangement of their natural habitat. Just cleaning up your yard kills their habitat, because they live in the ground,” he says.

Hason says the highlight is getting to know the bees. “The coolest thing is just watching he bees. You can tell the season by what they are bringing back to the hive. I love learning more about bees and how they live, and also reading about the history of beekeeping, which goes back 10,000 years.”

This is the ongoing fascination beekeepers talk about—the endless learning involved, the complexity of the bees’ social structure, and the magic of how they communicate. D’Arcangelo can talk endlessly about how bees share information about the location of pollen sources by performing what he calls a “waggle dance” inside the hive.

Reist, who runs Flying Dutchman as a business, not a hobby, still loves to watch his bees come back from harvesting. “If the bees are into the Scotch Broom, they come back absolutely yellow and smelling like Scotch Broom. It’s really nice!”

The current renaissance in beekeeping is clearly matched by a growing interest in buying locally-produced honey. Retail sales of honey in British Columbia almost doubled in 2015 over 2014, to almost $16.5 million, thanks to more people buying direct from beekeepers, according to the BC government. This in itself is not enough to “save the bees”—government action, changes in individual gardening practices and commercial agriculture, and a significantly more careful approach to how humans alter landscape and use resources will be needed for that—but it’s a good start.