Urban swarming

Allen Garr reflects on changes with the bees and people's perception of them

Credit: Flickr Commons / sstrudeau

Beekeeping is a tricky thing. Until two years ago, it was illegal in the city, and harder to keep secret than a grow-op.

I still recall my first swarm. It was a roaring dark cloud, cre­ated as half the hive followed the old queen out to set up a new colony. It first filled my backyard and then started to drift east. I was sure the neighbours would either flee into their basements or call the cops.

The swarm settled in a huge ball on a pear tree a couple of feet above Gus and Dot’s carport, two doors down my lane. As these things go, it was in easy reach.

A quick buzz on bees

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Six Things to Do for Our Bee Friends – Learn what you can do

That evening as I gathered up the swarm, I heard a noise in the lane behind me. I turned to see a small group of neighbours and their kids. Someone had a video camera. They were far from fearful. If anything, they were amused and curious. They actually liked the idea of having bees around.

That’s what I noticed about bees and beekeeping. They connect us to the earth, much like gardening. I am rarely asked why beekeeping is going on in the city. If anything, people see honeybees as creatures that complete the picture of a sustainable environment.

Let me tell you what it has done for me.

For starters I notice the weather more. I keep a log and record warm days in January when my neighbour’s winter heather is blooming and the bees are on it gathering pollen to feed to the queen and increase her egg laying.

I catch the first bit of green on the maple trees that line the street just south of me and hope for sunny days. Until the temperature is well above 10 degrees Celsius and it is dry, the bees won’t be able to gather the nectar to produce honey that is thick and almost as clear as water.

And I’m not alone in keeping an eye out. One neighbour will tell me when her crocuses are open and my bees are burying themselves in the blossoms, returning home with full pollen
baskets on their hind legs. Another will wonder about the difference between wasps (carnivores) and honeybees (vegetarians).

So it goes as spring advances and summer begins. Next the bees are on to chestnuts then linden and blackberries that erupt on vacant bits of land. For bees the city is a buffet of endless blooms.

But this year I have noticed a change in how we see honeybees. It comes in the form of a question, one I am being asked repeatedly. Most notably it came from a man standing naked in the locker room at my gym, frozen between disrobing and putting on his swim trunks: “So how are your bees?”

What I find most interesting is that this question is actually asked with more than idle curiosity. There is real concern. It’s as if folks are inquiring about an ill friend or a relative in critical condition. People who know very little about honeybees know there is a problem. Not just with bees, but somehow, with the whole planet. Honeybees have become our canary in the coal mine.

What was once an esoteric discussion among the middle-aged eccentrics who make up most of the beekeeping community has been vaulted into the public consciousness. Bees and their welfare are making front-page news.

Honeybees are disappearing. Not just dying, but disappearing. Nobody is certain why. Speculation ranges from diseases to cellphone signals.

The New York Times talks about agricultural crops being “in peril.” The Globe and Mail speculates this “may spell disaster for the economy.”

People are quickly realizing the resulting problems have little to do with the loss of honey. Pollination is what it is about. Bees generate 10 times the economic value of their honey through pollination. Pollination is required for one-third of the stuff we put in our mouths.
So how are my bees? I’m glad you asked. They had a rough winter. Some hives died. They spent the year rebuilding, working in the neighbourhood gardens.

I have completed this year’s honey harvest, left the bees enough for themselves, and hope they will do better next year.

Allen Garr is a Vancouver journalist and commentator who has made time for his passions: birding, gardening and beekeeping.