Published in Country Roads Magazine, Summer, 2013
I'm flying over vast grassy landscapes in my speedy little bee-mobile, focused on a giant Sunflower Supermarket ahead, beckoning me with neon lights flashing 'Food, Food, Food.' Almost out of gas and exhausted, I worry about my return flight. What if I don't have enough power to make it home? What will my babies eat? I push on.
It is a fever-induced dream, inspired no doubt by the interview I had yesterday with pollination biologist, Susan Chan. She described this very scenario. Except, of course, in her version it was a real bee, not a strange human-bee-car hybrid. In both versions though, the ending is the same.
Just when I think I can't possibly fly any further, I reach the Sunflower Supermarket, relieved, and anxious to stock up on pollen and nectar. But the lights are off. The doors are locked. The sign says closed. There is no indication of when it will re-open. I couldn't have known it from a distance, but this is a genetically modified pollen-less sunflower. It will last longer in a vase than a regular sunflower and won't shed that yellow dust that stains table cloths. But it also won't feed my children.
The plight of the bumblebee, and every other type of bee for that matter, is well documented. The decline is undeniable, and the internet is full of petitions to ban neonicotinoid pesticides and genetically modified seeds. For good reason. In some parts of China, high profit yielding fruits, such as Asian pears, are now hand pollinated by people, because the bee population has been all but wiped out. In the United States, bee populations have decreased by 50%. Since fruits and berries rely on bees for pollination, this is a major food concern, not just for people, but for birds and small critters. And the larger animals that prey on them. It effects the whole food chain.
When I wake up, groggy from sleep and fever, I sip some lemon ginger tea, and let a large spoonful of organic honey sooth my swollen tonsils. Ah, honey. I wonder if it is coincidence, irony, or perhaps fate that I am ill while preparing this article on the importance of bees. I am sick with tonsillitis and treating myself with one of nature's oldest antibiotics. The ancient egyptians used it; Sue explains that archaeologists have found vats of honey stashed in tombs, and that, incredibly, it is still safe to eat today.
“The reason they pasteurize honey is not so it doesn't spoil. It has such a high sugar content that things can't grow in it. It's the ultimate safe thing to eat,” Sue says. Rather, honey is pasteurized - that is heated and filtered - so it will stay in its liquid form and not crystallize. It's more attractive to consumers this way. Or at least it was. Gradually ideals are shifting. The demand for raw honey is increasing, as is the movement to protect diminishing bee populations.
Sue knows a lot about honey and bees. She first became interested in keeping bees as a child, inspired by her grandmother, who was also a bee-keeper. Sue is the author of A Landowner's Guide to Conserving Native Pollinators in Ontario,” a 40-page handbook that is available in hardcover, or as an ebook. She also teaches Sustainable Agriculture at Fleming College in Lindsey, Ontario, and travels across the province lecturing on wild pollinators. Last year alone she gave 25 guest lectures. On top of that, she's an ecological bee-keeper, co-founder of the Lakefield Farmers' Market, project manager of Farms at Work, and manager of the Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee Project. If ever I needed a bee expert, I certainly found one.
Although Sue and I try to focus our interview on ways to support native bee populations, we frequently wander off topic, discussing how fascinating it is that bees are really, in effect, an invisible work force, that works for free, contributing more to our eco-system than we can ever really know. There is still so much we don't know about native bees, because it's difficult to study them without destroying their nests in the process. Sue and I also giggle, even though it's a very serious matter, about how bees are sex workers.
“As far as we know, bees are being manipulated by flowers, and they have no idea that they play this much larger role,” explains Sue. “I love them because they're the interface between the plant and animal kingdoms. There's something about that. The bees show up to get nectar for the adults and pollen for the babies. But the flower won't give the bee everything it needs - not enough nectar - so the bee has to go to the next flower. Flowers have no need to produce nectar other than to attract bees to transport their pollen. It's a sex trade – a flower sex trade. Sex that involves a third party.”
When you get down to it, bees are just incredibly interesting creatures. There are over 400 native species of bees in Ontario, all doing different things, pollinating different types of plants, and ranging in size from a grain of rice, to a plump grape. Do they have any idea the huge role they play? Do they even realize, as they travel from flower to flower, collecting nectar and pollen for their own purposes, that they are also responsible for the survival of all these many species of plants? Sue and I get sidetracked by three or four philosophical conversations about interconnectivity and purpose, before coming back to the big question: what can we, as ordinary people, do about the problem of bee decline?
“Twenty-two years ago, when I was doing my masters, no one was interested in pollinators, but now people are riveted,” says Sue. “We've made great strides.”
While the wellbeing of all pollinators, including domestic and commercial bees, is best protected by staying informed, sharing information, writing letters, and signing petitions, there are plenty of things we can do to support our local wild pollinators, who are also at risk.
One of the easiest ways to support native bee populations is to provide an environment where they will thrive, by forgoing artificial fertilizers and instead improving soil quality with nitrogen-rich compost. Worm castings are a good option, and can be purchased at an increasing number of garden supply stores. Choosing heritage varieties of seeds that are not pollen-less and not modified, helps, too. A bee can only travel about 100 metres at a time on its little wings, and if it uses up all its energy to reach a flower that yields no pollen, it means disaster for that particular bee as well as its potential offspring (note: wild bees do not live in large colonies with only one reproducing female like honey bees do). Growing wildflowers and letting clover and dandelions grow in your yard is also a good way to support bees. If you want to get even more active, Sue says there are lots of instructions online for building little bee habitats, by placing reeds, straws, or even bits of wood with drilled out tunnels in low-traffic areas for bees to nest inside.
“This is not a message of doom and gloom,” says Sue. “It's a message of opportunity. A message of redemption. We've not gone so far that we can't recover.”
Organic farmer, Robert Snefjella agrees with her.
“I'm optimistic that the bees will be here for a long time,” says Robert. He has a close relationship with bees, both depending on them to pollinate his crops and doing what he can to protect them and provide an environment they can flourish in.
“There are a lot of little tricks you can use to create a summer of bounty for bees,” says Robert. He talks about how soil quality effects how much nectar plants produce, and recommends growing a variety of flowering plants, that bloom at different times, including basswood, which is plentiful in North Hastings, and makes exquisitely tasty honey. Pussy Willow is also an important food for bees, because it is one of the earliest flowering plants that emerges in the spring and is often a first food for young bees.
“Another trick, if you're planting an orchard and you want some fruit trees that flower late, is to plant them on the north slope,” says Robert. “Fruit trees on the north slope tend to flower a little bit later than those on the south slope.” By carefully planning your garden, you can ensure food will be plentiful all summer long for native bees.
Robert and his wife bought their North Hastings' farm in 1973, with the intent of living a more natural lifestyle.
“Back then when I told people I was going to farm organically, well...” he trails off, chucking. “At that time it was kind of lunatic fringe. But since then it's become much more mainstream.” Indeed, today in North Hastings you don't have to ask around very much before you find several people who are farming organically, and keeping bees.
Robert isn't bee-keeping on his farm currently, but fondly remembers keeping bees in the past, and hopes to again when the time is right. Because he has an orchard, bears are attracted to his property, and they can wreak havoc on a hive.
“When you're doing it for the first time, it's a bit scary,” admits Robert, but says this shouldn't stop people from considering bee-keeping because once you get the hang of it, it's really rewarding.
“I hadn't worked with a beekeeper before, so it was all new to me in the beginning. It was with some apprehension that I made my first moves. The bees were a little annoyed with me at first, but I learned a little bit of the art of how to treat them. It's truly a fascinating art and science,” says Robert. “It feels really good to go in among your bees without having to smoke them. Going in and working among them, and escaping without crushing any or getting stung.”
One of the biggest things Robert learned about beekeeping, is to understand that bees, like all creatures, have good days and bad days. They are content when it's warm and sunny, grumpy when it's cold, rainy or windy.
“A lot depends on handling the whole thing gently, and on good weather – if the bees are happy it's easy to work with them, other times I think, I'll come back later; they're not into this today,” explains Robert. “But sometimes, even if the weather is poor you'll have to go out there for some reason, and might end up with some stings or have to use a little bit of smoke.”
As Robert mentions bee stings I am reminded at once of childhood fears and homeopathic remedies. It seems even the bee's sting has a purpose. Bee venom therapy can apparently be used to treat multiple ailments including arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis, keloids, and shingles.
While I continue to successfully treat my own ailment, acute tonsillitis, with honey, I feel a great gratitude toward these amazing little insects. And I'm not alone. Since I started researching bees, it seems everyone I run into has some sort of interest in pollination, or organic farming, or raw honey.
“Consumers have a huge role because they're the ones buying the food,” says Sue. Yes. We vote with our dollars, and more and more people are voting for a healthy sustainable future.
“Throughout history we've always come to a place and then turned a corner. This insecticide stuff is old fashioned,” Sue explains. “It's all about farmers saying enough already we want to do it differently; its all about governments saying enough already, it's too dangerous to put our pollinator workforce at jeopardy; it's all about the insecticide companies listening to the increasing numbers of consumers that are asking for a change. We need to move forward with a different agenda. It's already happening. My image is a huge ocean liner with this tiny rudder. We're turning the ship very slowly.”
I want to help turn the ship faster. Now that I've regained my health, I have a new affliction. I've caught Bee Fever. I've been infected by a desire to do whatever I can, in my own little corner of the world, to support bee populations. I can only hope it's contagious.