The unBEElievable life of a beekeeper

By Blair Matthews 

 

I’m standing in a lush field surrounded by wooden boxes stacked on top of each other and if I didn’t know better, I would think the collective hum that pierces this quiet countryside is electricity pulsing its way through power lines. Hundreds of bees are hovering around obviously much less concerned by me than I am of them. When Rimsky-Korsakov wrote ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, this is probably what he had in mind.

 

For a first-time bee yard visitor, it’s a little intimidating, but for Sharon beekeeper James Murray, it’s just another day at the office.

Murray is a little like a father figure to his thousands of bees. He tends to them meticulously, checking each frame of a hive and surveying its activity. He knows the personalities of many of his hives before he ever lifts the lid. Some hives are a gentle bunch, requiring no protection when he handles them. Others get the full bee veil and smoke treatment.

 

So how does someone like Murray become a beekeeping master, having had no bee aspirations earlier in life?

 

In 2010, Murray worked on a property where bees were kept.

Though he only saw them from the outside, he was smitten by the concept. He decided to give beekeeping – what he hoped would become a hobby – a try. He started off buying a single hive of bees from a supplier in Aurora.

For those unfamiliar, a hive consists of several boxes, ten frames of bees per box, and one queen who is essentially the mother of that hive.

 

Murray spent a great deal of time educating himself on how to keep bees by reading antique beekeeping books from the 1870s.

When you stop and think about it, the basic concepts of keeping bees haven’t changed much.

 

Sure, some of the equipment has evolved – more modern trays are plastic now instead of wood (Murray still prefers wood).

 

Much of his bee tracking is done the old school way, using a notebook he takes detailed notes. Whereas a spreadsheet might seem more efficient, Murray prefers his tried and true methods. When he visits the bee yard to tend to his hives, he carries a black Sharpie with him and writes down any issues with a specific hive right on the outside of the box.

 

The Queens, who Murray can spot almost instantly, get marked with a paint dot on the back of their thorax. This is done to identify the Queen and to keep track of her age (Murray picks a different identifying colour every year).

 

A brief biology lesson about a Queen bee: “When she’s born she’ll walk around the hive for a couple of days as a virgin; on the fifth day she comes out and mates. When she mates – she’ll only mate once in her life – she mates with about 15-30 drones (male bees) at once,” he says. The Queen stores and carries the sperm around for several years fertilizing the eggs in the hive.

 

According to the Permaculture Research Institute, Queens have two jobs in the colony: to lay up to 1,500 eggs per day and to produce a colony-uniting pheromone that lets every bee in the colony recognize by scent every other bee.

 

So far this year, Murray has 130 hives (which translates into roughly 8-million bees) – a far cry from what he started with 7 years ago.

 

With the number of hives he keeps, Murray says he is out there in the bee yard doing maintenance daily.

When he’s not harvesting honey, or doing bee upkeep, he sometimes finds his way to classrooms to educate kids about bees. His enclosed plexiglass colony of 10,000 bees is a favourite of youngsters, though some admit to being terrified of bees.

 

The most asked question from kids?

 

“Have you ever been stung?”

 

Answer: “All the time,” he says with a laugh. And when he says ‘all the time’, he’s not being facetious. In the past when he’s had routine medical blood tests, the results showed elevated levels of bee-specific substances.

He gives bee talks free of charge but asks for a small donation to his beekeeping group. Murray is a member of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, a group of about 80 fellow beekeepers who meet monthly in Vaughan to talk about all things bees. The group brings in guest speakers (next month is a provincial inspector). Common problems amongst the beekeeper group are always a hot topic at meetings. “This year it’s the weather. This year we’re having problems because it’s so wet that the flowers don’t have enough days of sun to actually produce a good amount of nectar. So our bees aren’t making much honey and they’re sort of getting up in strong populations but there’s nothing for them to do. It’s not been a good year like that.”

 

Murray says that unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done about the weather. The downside is that the crop of honey for the year will be much lower than in other years.

 

Most beekeepers rely on honey production and harvesting to generate their income. For Murray, honey from his hives is more of a byproduct since he’s also a registered Queen bee breeder and sells hives and/or Queens to others. His operation requires special permits from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

 

One very serious issue facing bees is the varroa mites. Statistics Canada reports that in 1989, varroa mites – a parasite that is one of the leading causes of bee mortality – first appeared in Canada, resulting in the lowest production totals in over a decade. By 1991, the number of colonies had fallen by one-third from 1986 to 498,780, while the number of beekeepers was also down by one-third to 13,096.

 

In conjunction with the University of Guelph, Murray is working to help find a way to combat varroa mites and similar bee threats. “We’re breeding for disease-resistance, over-wintering... gentleness is a big one. We want gentle bees that aren’t as angry and not as aggressive; that’s what you want.”

 

The past few years, there has been much concern over the health and future of honey bees in Canada. Bees are crucial to the pollination of a host of plants, including fruits, vegetables and crops, such as Canola.

According to Statistics Canada, Canola was by far the most important bee pollinated crop in 2014, with sales topping $7.3 billion, followed by soybeans at just over $2.5 billion. Blueberries placed third with $265 million in sales in 2014, followed by apples ($211 million), cranberries ($114 million) and carrots ($94 million).

Indirectly, bees are needed for the pollination of onions, almonds, and beef (because cattle eat Alfalfa).

 

All of this begs the question, how can we help the bee population thrive and survive?

“If you want to become a beekeeper, take a course, learn how to do it properly. If you want to help the bees, plant flowers. That’s the best way to go about things. You can’t just buy bees and put them in your backyard. They’re livestock – they’re not native to here.” The costs of beekeeping should be noted: there are insurance requirements; supplies; glass jars; labels; permits and paperwork. Because of the high U.S. exchange rate, the cost of supplies has sky-rocketed. Glass jars aren’t made in Canada, but Murray buys the lids from a Canadian source.

 

The other challenge is that supply costs are up but the price of honey isn’t. That’s because so much of the commercial honey sold in stores right now is imported from China.

Last year, Murray took a big financial hit when 17 hives died off suddenly – neonicotinoids (a new class of agricultural insecticide) was believed to be the cause. At the time, it was heartbreaking for him to see, but he emphasizes that he’s not advocating for a ban on pesticides. “Farmers need to make a living and they need to use something if they’re going to lose their crop.”

 

Up until recently, neonicotinoids were being used as a precautionary treatment, instead of being applied only when absolutely necessary. Thanks to government intervention, in 2017 and beyond, all Ontario farmers wanting to use any neonicotinoid-treated seeds will have to prove they have pests before they’re allowed to proceed.

Murray says despite the hardships, raising bees has many rewards. Being able to produce a finished product in the form of honey is one of the nicest things, he says. In the summer months, you can find Murray most Thursdays at the East Gwillimbury Farmers’ Market selling honey and spreading a little bit of bee education wherever he can.

 

A life of bees is, in a way, much less a career and more of a rewarding lifestyle – and Murray knows it.

 

“I love to see my bees happy and healthy and strong, especially in the springtime when the pollen first starts coming out. They’ve survived the winter, they’re coming out and bringing the pollen in; it’s just the most exciting thing to see.”