June 20, 2012

Beekeepers helps farmers improve crop yields

As published in Country Routes

For Stacey Holland, beekeeping is not just about the joys of tending these fascinating little creatures and harvesting some wonderful honey. It is part of an organic farming lifestyle and an effective means of boosting the output of nearby crops.

While collecting nectar and pollen from flowers, honey bees pollinate the plants that supply about one third of the human diet, from apples and almonds to strawberries and soybeans, as well as cotton.

Stacey in her protective suit
"Humans need bees more than bees need humans," said Stacey. Bees have been around for about 30 million years, but the normal lifespan of a female worker bee in the summertime is less than 40 days.

Honey bees are not native to North America, and would probably prefer a warmer climate if they weren't being tended as a semi-domesticated species.

For humans, bees have always had a special status, since they produce a food that is packed with more energy than sugar, plus vitamins and minerals. It is ready to eat out of the hive and doesn't go bad. Stacey was always fond of bees and honey, and impressed by their sense of community.

"The colony is a community that relies upon each other. It amazes me, what it can achieve. I love the fact that they are hard workers, how they build comb, how they attend to the queen – it's just this one big entity. Especially after living in Toronto, I didn't feel a sense of community any more there."

Pulling a flat
She encountered the folks from Everdale Farm back in 2005, when they were selling organic produce at Cabbagetown in Toronto, and she saw a notice about farming internships. She ended up taking a leave of absence from her job at CBC in 2007, to learn how to be a farmer. She spent seven and a half months at Everdale near Hillsburgh, and chose beekeeping as an extra activity

"Farming and beekeeping go hand in hand," said Stacey, who comes from a family of farmers on her father's side. "This is definitely my avocation – getting people excited about food. I'd always wanted to learn how to grow food on a larger scale."

She got beekeeping advice from mentors such as Erin's Jay Mowat, and decided to keep her own bees, working with the Toronto Beekeepers' Cooperative. Unfortunately, she lost her first hive. The bees used up their store of honey and did not make it through the winter.

Separating the hive
Bees become more dormant and cluster together for warmth in the winter, with the help of well-wrapped hives. But in a warmer winter they can be more active and eat through their food supply more quickly than expected, resulting in the need for a sugar water rescue.

"It's 40 per cent science and 60 per cent intuition; and I'm still honing in on the intuition," said Stacey. Although she's been in the business for a few years now, she still thinks of herself as an apprentice, relying on the advice of experienced beekeepers.

"It doesn't cost a lot of money. It's one of the cheapest livestock that you can invest in," she said. "In my first year, I broke even after selling my honey."

She was surprised that she could get 250 pounds of honey from one hive. Bees are bred to create more honey than they need for themselves.

She was also pleasantly surprised to win first place when she entered her honey in the Erin Fall Fair in 2010. She's been able to sell all of her product through the farm where she keeps her bees and to co-workers at CBC. Her honey is sold raw, as opposed to that which is heated to improve liquidity.

"People really, really like the honey," she said. "There are a lot of floral notes in raw honey, and I encourage people to taste the difference."

Honey connoisseurs (like wine experts) can taste the traces of the plants that helped create the final product. Stacey's bees draw their nectar not only from garden crops, but from apple blossoms, asters, dandelions, wildflowers, clover and sunflowers.

She gave up a city lifestyle for a rural home north of Rockwood. She has maintained her full-time duties doing program scheduling for CBC Television, but takes Fridays as vacation days from spring to autumn, to work at Bernway Farm just north of Ospringe.

She maintains two hives there and does other chores with farmers Cathy and Kaj Hansen, who specialize in organically-grown vegetables, and eggs from free-range hens, and have a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) operation. They had been looking for a way to improve their crops yields, and knew bees could help.

"Having honey bees so close to our garden has made a big difference in the rate of pollination of our cucurbits (cucumber family of plants)," said Cathy. "These include cucumbers, winter squash, zucchini, watermelon and other melons. Raspberries are considered self-pollinating, but the fruit set has been much heavier since the bees arrived... We are happier farmers knowing our community is more diverse."

Other fruiting plants like tomatoes and peppers are not pollinated by honey bees, but do benefit from being "buzzed" to shake the pollen loose.

Lighting the smoker
"I try to stick with as many organic practices as possible, not using man-made chemicals to treat your hives," said Stacey. "Because we are providing them a home, there are responsibilities that go with that."

Organic-based compounds can be used, such as formic acid to combat Varroa mites, carriers of a virus which is a serious threat to the bee population. Chemical treatments are not to be used when bees are producing marketable honey.

The Climate Change Action Group of Erin recently presented the documentary film Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us. It examined the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, in which the normal behaviour of bees is disrupted. They stop maintaining their hives and die off in large numbers.

Stacey has not experienced this problem, but it has been a major issue for beekeepers in the past five years. The causes are not certain, but could be a combination of viruses, parasites and the stress of various agricultural pesticides in the environment.

Smoking the hive
A beehive in the summer can have 50,000 to 80,000 honey bees. Almost all are female workers who cannot reproduce – that job is reserved for the queen. She gets a constant diet of a special food called royal jelly, and lays 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day. Only the females have stingers – used only in defense, since a sting will result in the bee's death.

There are relatively few male drones, who do no work in the hive, since their only responsibility is to mate with a virgin queen. In the fall, the drones are forced out of the hive by the workers, to lower the population and conserve food for themselves and the queen.

Worker bees start out as nurses for the larvae, then graduate to housekeeping, queen-tending and hive-guarding. Finally they become field bees, collecting pollen (protein), nectar (carbohydrate) and water for the colony. They communicate with chemical scents called pheromones and a special dance that conveys the direction to nectar sources, based on an angle relative to the position of the sun.

It takes about 2 million flower visits to make one pound of honey. Ontario had about 2,900 beekeepers last year, tending 87,000 colonies. They produced 8.8 million pounds of honey, valued at about $22 million.

The top of the brood chamber
Hive populations soar in the spring and summer, and beekeepers try to ensure there's enough room. If the queen senses overpopulation, she will signal the workers to create a new queen, then lead half of the bees away to create a new hive somewhere else.

Queens can also be purchased, either at the stage when they are almost ready to make their mating flight with the drones, or ones that are already mated (artificially inseminated).

Stacey expects to do two harvests, in August and September. She borrows an extractor, a machine that spins the wooden flats. She scrapes off the wax that seals the honeycomb cells, and the machine extracts the product with centrifugal force.

She skims off any foreign matter such as wax, plant bits or bee parts, and the honey can be put into jars for customers. No pasteurization is required, since bacteria and fungi cannot grow in honey.

The other products that some beekeepers produce include pollen, which is a beneficial food supplement for humans, and beeswax, which is used for candles.

Stacey Holland can be contacted by email at beehive_communications@sympatico.ca.