Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Meeting Cora's Bees

Cora Suits Up
To watch the bees in action, check out this video of Cora opening the hive.

Quick quiz: What do you do when something black and yellow buzzes by your head? If you’re with my neighbour, Cora McLachlan, you better not swat at it- McLachlan is a beekeeper and keeps four hives on a Camrose area farm.  Her hives face a field of swaying gold grain heads. It is a short commute to work for her busy bees.

Last month I had the opportunity to watch thousands of her honeybees. Standing in their flight path from their hive to the field was surreal; the bees, like a lazy house cat, gave me no notice. “Things to do and flowers to see,” they buzzed.

Their homes are innocuous, simple wooden boxes stacked two to five high. Each one houses an average of 60,000 bees. Their door is a narrow, horizontal entrance at the base of the stack.
The hives on the left are healthy.

This year, only two of McLachlan’s colonies are strong. One weak hive was over exposed to winter gusts and the bees starved to death, huddled together at the base of the hive, too cold to venture to the food in the box above. The other colony has mites. These tiny parasitic creatures are wreaking havoc on Canadian bee colonies and in some areas are threatening the beekeeping industry. McLachlan doesn’t like medicating, but this year she must do it or face an extinguished colony in the spring. Prevention is her main interest in combating the mites and she is experimenting with a variety of methods.

Most honeybee colonies in Alberta travel from New Zealand in a capped tube, narrow in diameter and as long as a small car is wide. Eight to ten thousand bees are in this tube; there is one queen. This lucky lady will spend her life laying eggs in cells and secreting a pheromone that ensures all other females remain sterile. In the larger cells she lays drones (the male, minor characters in our story). The virgin queen will mate once in her life, mating with multiple drones. After the festivities, the lucky guys romantically, literally, drop dead.

From the smaller cells, females will hatch. As a beekeeper, you hope that most of the eggs laid are females because it’s the ladies who do all the work. In fact, too many guys can seriously weaken your colony by eating food the females spend their life collecting. In their short life span of about 6 months, the females will cycle through most roles in the hive. The queen must be cared (she will outlive her compatriots ten times!). Then there are the drones to run out and keep from the hive, the combs to build, the colony to defend, the collection of pollen and nectar from the field, and the honey to make. Most of their life will be spent in the fields.  

I'm feeling a little nervous.
To peek in the hive, I suited up like a real bee keeper- white coveralls smelled deliciously sweet, elasticized elbow-high gloves and a safari hat surrounded by netting that was tied securely around my collar. McLachlan suited up as well. She has kept bees for two years and has never been stung in that time. She’s careful, but the bees are also very docile when she opens their hive, thanks to the (legal) smoke she puffs into the top box a minute before entry.

Inside the boxes, plastic combs hang like file folders in a drawer. The combs fit tightly together to ease the bees’ work filling the cells with nectar (their carbs) and pollen (there protein). When the time is right, they cover it all with a preserving layer of wax. One box can hold 75 lbs of honey.  As one box is filled and capped, they work their way up. McLachlan’s September’s harvest was slim considering the number of stacked boxes, garnering her just over 100lbs of fresh, free flowing honey.

While McLachlan keeps her bees outside the city, an urban bee movement is gaining momentum.  Many cities including New York and Vancouver have overturned bylaws restricting beekeeping in the city limits. In Edmonton, Patti Milligan, aka Lola Canola, told the Edmonton Journal, “My feeling is, if we go the way of most cities that have had this discussion, the bylaw will be changed.”
The buzzing field.

My trip to McLachlan’s bees was a reminder to think a little differently about buzzing creatures.  Wasps and hornets are important predators in our gardens. Honeybees not only produce their sweetener, they and other pollinators are critical for apples, squash, strawberries and other plants to fruit.  The makings and mysteries of life are in the hands and feet of much smaller creatures than I.

Their gift is a miraculous one to our incessantly swatting race.

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