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Plan bee 

Operating in a legal sweet spot, Halifax’s backyard beekeepers are helping urban agriculture, bolstering the world’s declining honeybee population and finding beauty in a perfect swarm.

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It’s early June, and Michelle McPherson is standing in an empty backyard in the north end. McPherson is a beekeeper. Until 10 days ago, her first and only beehive, almost one year old, stood under a pine tree in a corner of the yard.

“A month-and-a-half ago, I realized I had a very, very strong colony, which is wonderful,” says McPherson, “I was thrilled to have my bees come through winter so well. That meant I was kind of mentally preparing.”

McPherson was mentally preparing because, when the hive gets strong enough, it procreates. While individual bees reproduce via breeding, the colony as a whole (a “superorganism”) reproduces by dividing. Half of the hive flies off en masse---that’s thousands of bees---to find a new home.

McPherson had tried to prevent the swarming, but the hive was too prolific. It had grown so quickly that she didn’t have time to explain the situation to the neighbours, one of whom was already annoyed with the number of bees in her yard.

By May 29, McPherson knew she couldn’t stop the bees from swarming, so she found a new home for them in the country, where they could swarm without causing problems. In the next 24 hours, she hustled together everything she needed to move the 100-pound beehive.

She arrived at 7pm on Thursday the 30th, with two friends. The bees were settling down for the evening.

McPherson and her friends practiced moving an empty hive, and then got ready to move the full one, when one of her friends looked into the neighbour’s yard.

“Hey, what’s that up in the tree?” he asked. “That blob, up there.”

Thirty feet up in the tree was a basketball-sized cluster of bees, dangling like a gourd from one of the branches. The hive had swarmed.

• • •

McPherson is a member of the Halifax Honey Bee Society. The society started five years ago as a book club and gradually grew into a focal point for the Halifax beekeeping community.

There are more than 200 beekeepers in Nova Scotia, with about 20,000 hives. At about 50,000 bees to a hive, that’s a billion bees. Halifax is home to a tiny fraction of that---tens of beekeepers, keeping perhaps a few hives each.

Most of those beekeepers are involved in the HHBS. They use it as a venue to collaborate, share skills and equipment, and educate the public about bees. For them, beekeeping is about a lot more than honey.

“For me,” says McPherson, “honeybees really bring together everything that 
I’m passionate about. Agriculture, sustainability, medicine, caring for animals, insect ecology.”

Bees pollinate one-third of the food we eat. In Nova Scotia, they’re vital to the economy. Apples, berries and many vegetables depend on honeybees for pollination. Oxford Frozen Foods, the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries, is Nova Scotia’s largest beekeeper, with more than 10,000 colonies---10 times as many as the province’s largest honey producer.

To make one pound of honey, the bees make two million flower visits, pollinating on every stop. They travel a distance equivalent to circling the globe---twice.

Some cities have banned urban beekeeping, while others welcome it. Paris has had a beekeeping school in the city for more than 150 years. Vancouver encourages beekeeping on their city website. New York City famously legalized beekeeping in 2010, and it’s a thriving industry. NYC honey goes for a couple dollars per tablespoon, and reports say it’s delicious.

Most supermarket honeys come from chemically-dusted monocultures, while urban honeys come from multifarious gardens, giving them unique, exquisite flavours.

In Halifax, beekeeping falls into a legal grey area. It isn’t referenced specifically in the city’s land-use bylaws, so, by default, hobby beekeeping is legal, while commercial beekeeping isn’t.

For now, that grey area works fine. Urban beekeepers avoid complaints by being nice to their neighbours, and no one is keeping bees on a large scale, yet. But interest in urban beekeeping is mounting. If, in the future, anyone wants an urban beekeeping business, they’ll have to challenge those bylaws.

And the importance of beekeeping is growing. Global honeybee populations are falling. The USA has reported a 30 percent decline in honeybee populations per year. Last month, a beekeeper in Ontario announced that he lost 600 hives in 2012--- 
almost 40 million bees.

McPherson notes that fears and allergies are workable, but a bee-less planet isn’t. “We’re not going to get very far if we don’t have pollinators,” she says. “We’re not going to last very long.”

• • •

Heather McKinnon is in charge of the Museum of Natural History’s live collections. She puts her face close to the museum’s beehive---a display of honeycombs covered in bustling bees behind glass. She traces her finger over it, looking for the queen.

She finds her, surrounded by a ring of worker bees.

“They’re directing her,” says McKinnon. “The queen, even though we call her the queen, she’s actually not really the leader.”

The queen, larger than the others, lumbers over the comb to an empty cell and sticks her abdomen into it. “She’s laying an egg,” says McKinnon.

McKinnon gets a buzz of excitement as she talks about bees. “Did you see Bee Movie, with Jerry Seinfeld? Don’t watch that. It’s entertaining, but it’s totally not scientifically accurate. First of all, two guys are males, and they’re doing work. Not true.”

Scientists don’t really understand the purpose of male bees (drones). They don’t work. They don’t have stingers, and their only job is to mate with a queen from another hive, but they can make up more than one-tenth of the population of the hive. They can also visit other hives and eat their food.

“Secondly”---McKinnon is back to the movie---“they go get their assignment---they’ve graduated bee high school, which they don’t have, of course---they get their assignment and that’s their job for the rest of their life. Not true.”

Females (worker bees) do all of the jobs in the hive throughout their lives. First they clean, then feed and make wax, and eventually they go out to forage before they die.

Next to the beehive, a colleague of McKinnon’s is showing kids different pollinators under a microscope, comparing them.

“We did a program, last summer, showing the differences between wasps and bees,” says McKinnon. “Even with Winnie the Pooh
---the cartoon, Winnie the Pooh---shows something like this,” she picks a grey material up off the display table. “That’s a wasps’ nest. It’s like paper. Whereas this,” she holds up honeycomb, “is wax.”

Unlike bees, who only eat honey, wasps are omnivorous predators. They’ll eat human food and other insects. They also don’t die after they sting, unlike bees, and are quite aggressive.

Canadian honeybees also get confused with their angrier cousins---killer bees. Killer bees are descended from African strains, which are more aggressive than the European bees that we have in Canada. Last month, a swarm of killer bees infested a farm in Texas. They attacked the owners and killed two of their horses.

Scientists say it’s unlikely killer bees will migrate to Canada, because they can’t survive in the cold climate.

European bees have evolved for just that. They store up honey through the summer and autumn. As winter starts, they kick the drones out of the hive. The workers form a cluster around the queen and run their wing muscles, disconnected from their wings, to generate heat. If you put your hand over the entrance to a beehive in the winter, it feels like a heater.

Even with their evolutionary advantage, the bees are vulnerable. The greatest challenge for bees in Canada is the Varroa mite. The parasitic bug became a problem in Asia in the ’50s, and traveled around the world, arriving here in the early ’90s. It’s thought to be one of the leading causes of the global bee die-off, along with various chemicals and industrial processes. If enough of the bees in a hive are killed by mites, the hive will get too cold, and die. It will also die if it runs out of honey or gets wet.

If the bees do make it through and flourish in the spring, then they have to reproduce. They do that by swarming.

In the late spring, the queen lays a few baby queens. Then she takes half of the hive’s bees and most of the honey and flies away.

When the first baby queen hatches, she kills the others in their cells. Then, the hive is left with a single virgin queen, and their survival depends on her. Her first task is to fly to a drone congregation area to mate. Once she does, she’ll have all of the sperm she needs for the rest of her life, if she doesn’t get eaten or squashed.

The museum’s hive has lost its virgin queen before. “We had them swarm at the end of August. By the end December, we had just one bee in the hive,” says McKinnon. The exhibit was closed through the winter, until the museum could buy a new colony in the spring.

Swarming is part of the bees’ DNA. All beekeepers try to prevent or mitigate it, but there’s only so much humans can do. Beekeepers give their bees more room, kill the baby queens before they hatch and clip the wings of the queen so she can’t leave.

But, even still, “We had one with her wings clipped,” says McKinnon, “and she was like, ‘OK, we’re gonna swarm.’” The queen walked out the tube from the hive to the outdoors, and fell to the ground. The swarm of bees landed around her.

“They were just all out there, like ‘What’s up? Where are we going?’” The museum put the clipped queen and her swarm back in the hive, but she just kept trying to leave.

“The bees need to swarm,” says McKinnon. “That’s how they reproduce. The bees cannot live on their own. It’s like Star Trek and the Borg. You know Star Trek? It’s all for the good of the hive.”

The museum’s hive swarms every summer. One summer, it swarmed four times. Each time, McKinnon goes out into the yard, where the bees have clustered on a branch or in a bush, and puts a box underneath them. With a swift shake of the branch, the bees plop into the box, and McKinnon dumps them back into the hive.

• • •

When Michelle McPherson’s bees swarmed, they gathered in the neighbour’s maple tree and stayed there for about 12 hours. During that time, they had no hive or brood to protect. It was the least likely they would ever be to sting.

“Slowly, gently, you could stick your bare arm right in the middle of a swarm of bees and not be stung,” says McPherson. Still, beekeepers recommend that if you see a swarm of bees, you should keep a safe distance and, if possible, contact a beekeeper (try halifaxhoneybees.wordpress.com or novascotiabees.com).

While the colony is clustered, scouts fly off to search for potential homes. They return with their findings, which they convey through dance. They dance-debate the alternatives until the colonies reaches consensus, then they all fly off to their new home.

As the sun rose over the north end the morning after the hive swarmed, the cluster was still dangling in the neighbour’s tree. Soon after, in the middle of rush-hour traffic on the last Friday in May, a neighbour watched a cloud of bees fly across Agricola Street.

At 9am, a kilometre-and-a-half away, Adam Foster Collins noticed a lot of honeybees around his front porch. Collins is another beekeeper. For the last four summers, he has kept an empty bee hive on his porch, with food and honeycomb, as bait for a rogue swarm.

Collins says you can tell a bee’s attitude by the sound of its buzz. The buzz of a hive that has lost its queen is called a “queenless roar.” A bee in danger sounds like a tiny chainsaw.

A bee in a flower has a happy buzz. As Collins watched the bees investigate his front porch, he heard that happy buzz, far off in the distance, multiplied 1,000-fold. In a moment, it grew to a roar, as a cloud of thousands of bees descended on his home.

Filming the event, he walked outside in shorts and a t-shirt. “It’s really an incredible sight,” he said in the recording. “But, to people who don’t know what it is, it could be a bit scary.”

• • •

Two months later, Collins is on a large property in central Dartmouth. He is an obsessive bee hobbyist, and he’s working on a grand science project here, with 20 colonies. A thunderstorm is on its way, so he has come over to move his newest hive into a weather-tight box.

The property is lush and isolated, with plenty of space for the bees to roam without bothering the neighbours. On the side of a gravel lot, almost in the bushes, is a row of eight stacks of beehive boxes.

Collins puts on his white beekeeping suit, complete with army boots, rubber gloves and a full facial veil. Beekeepers are the only people likely to get stung, but, if they follow protocol (wear the suit, watch the bees’ attitude, be nice to them), they can go years without it happening.

Seven of the hives are two boxes high. Each box is about the size of a kitchen drawer. Collins hoists one of the boxes up to feel its weight---almost 50 pounds. A hive can generate anywhere from 100 to 200 pounds of honey in a season.

But Collins doesn’t really care about the honey.

The eighth stack is more than twice as high as the others. That’s the swarm Collins caught in his bait hive May 31, which likely came from Michelle McPherson’s hive. It’s still thriving.

That’s more important for what Collins is working on. “I’m really interested in the gene pool of local bees,” he says.

This is the first year of his project. He collects colonies by buying them, grafting them from other hives, taking them out of homes that they’ve infested, and catching swarms. He’s trying to breed bees that thrive under natural conditions in Halifax.

He stuffs some pieces of burlap coffee sack from Just Us! into his smoker---a pump full of tinder to smoke the bees. He uses the coffee bags because they’re chemical-free. He also rejects the use of chemicals and designs his hives---from the size of the entrance to the spacing of the comb---off of natural ones.

The success of a hive is dependent on a relationship with the local environment: the flowers, the pests, the microorganisms, the weather and countless other factors. It’s important to have bees bred for those specific conditions, but most bees are imported from the Pacific region each year.

Last fall, Collins had 11 hives. He lost five of those through the winter and spring. This summer, he’s added 14, up to 20. With all of these hives, he’s trying to develop as much genetic diversity as possible.

Collins takes the lid off of one of the hives, revealing nine frames, crawling with bees. He slides one of the frames up and out. He’s just moved these bees into a new hive, and is checking on the queen.

The honeycomb has empty cells, cells with tiny eggs or plump larvae in them, cells full of liquid honey, and some cells capped over, with honey stored inside. Collins takes out one of his tools and chips off a little bit of the honeycomb to taste the honey within. It’s light, fresh and sweet. Delicious. “Good,” he says.

“Here’s a drone, here,” says Collins, grabbing a larger bee by its wings. “Big eyes. His eyes are for finding queens in the air. He can see really well.” Collins looks closer. “He also has a mite on him.” There’s a brown spot the size of a pin-prick on the bee’s left side. “That’s a Varroa mite.”

The mites carry diseases the way mosquitoes carry malaria. They feed on baby bees while they’re developing, and infect them with diseases like deformed wing virus. When the young bee emerges, deformed, it’s useless to the hive, so it leaves to get as far away as it can.

Collins puts the lid back and notices a dead bee curled over on top. “That looks like a bee that was sick,” he says. “See how its got a shrunken little rear end? It probably left the hive and just crawled off and keeled over here.”

Collins finishes up his work and heads back over to the car. He gets out of his bee suit and packs the trunk just as the rain begins. By the time he’s driving out to the road, it’s pouring.

“Really, it’s a personal obsession,” says Collins, from behind the wheel. He’s a fourth-generation beekeeper, and was raised around bees. He’s not in it for the money, he’s in it because he likes the bees.

“In the future, maybe even next season, I’ll start to sell some bees. It’s something I could imagine doing to make it OK that I spend so many hours on bees.”

Next spring, Collins will evaluate his colonies based on their health, honey yield, mite resistance and aggressiveness, and choose some to propagate. Once he’s confident that he has bees that are thriving, he’ll start selling those locally.

In April, Collins and a partner started novascotiabees.com to encourage dialogue around beekeeping and to foster the local beekeeping community. They also offer swarm catching and hive removal services.

Without any promotions, people started contacting Collins through the website for help with insects on their property. Some of them had honeybees, and Collins removed them and added them to his collection. Other people had bumblebees or wasps, and Collins happily explained the differences. It makes him optimistic to meet people whose first reaction isn’t to call an exterminator. More and more, that’s what he’s finding.

“Mostly, people are really interested in it,” he says. “And it wasn’t like that when I was a kid. Keeping bees didn’t get you dates.”

Driving by Mic Mac Mall, Collins looks around at the flowers along the highway. His bees keep these flowers alive. And these flowers are where his bees get their honey.

He notices a straggler bee, crawling on 
his arm. He opens the window and it flies away. a


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A shocking sting Halifax is reeling from the loss of Palmira Boutillier, a beloved cook, farmer, activist and journalist. Last week, Palmira had an allergic reaction to an insect sting. She died a few days later, in hospital. An editor at the Halifax Media Co-op, and a member of the extended Coast family, Palmira was upbeat, cheerful and kind. Our thoughts are with her friends and family.

For more information on severe stinging insect allergies, contact Anaphylaxis Canada, at 1-866-785-5660 or info@anaphylaxis.ca.

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