This photo shows a varroa mite on a bee. The mites are a major issue to beekeepers./Photo submitted by Juliette Arsenault and Ray Martin

Beekeepers give a glimpse inside the hive

Minden Hills beekeepers Ray Martin and Juliette Arsenault have been running their business Honey From The Hills for three years and Martin has been keeping bees through work and as a hobby for a decade.

They are involved in next week’s Honey Week at Abbey Gardens and have been part of training staff there on keeping their own bee yard. We sent them some questions to find out more about the world of beekeeping.

What is the difference between wild bees and honey bees?

Honeybees are not native to North America so we do not have any established species of wild honeybee. Occasionally a honeybee colony will swarm and survive in a tree or in someone’s house so these could be considered “wild bees” but they are still not native. The biggest difference between honeybees and most of our wild bees is the forage. Honeybees are known as generalist pollinators because they visit and pollinate many different species of flowers. Most of our wild bees are specialist pollinators meaning they only pollinate certain flowers. A good example is the squash bee which is a native bee that evolved with squash plants and will only pollinate squash.

Bumblebees are an example of a native wild generalist pollinator as they will visit different kinds of flowers offering excellent pollination services. Bumblebees create a very small amount of honey essentially just enough to sustain their colony so we are not able to extract honey from bumblebees the way we are able to with honeybees.

What is the least understood part of beekeeping/honey production?

The least understood aspect of beekeeping is honeybee survival in our opinion. There are so many things that threaten honeybees with the largest barrier to survival being disease and parasites. To survive the colony has to be in peak health when that first snow hits the ground and that depends on what the beekeeper has done for them in August! It takes a lot of work and observation to successfully keep hives and it can be an expensive endeavour.

There are a number of health challenges that can affect honeybees such as tracheal mites nosema European and American Foulbrood; but the most serious health challenge for overwintering colonies are varroa mites and the virus complex they vector. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 viruses that Varroa destructor can transmit from bee to bee. Bees can’t tell you they don’t feel well so the symptoms have to be observed by a beekeeper (or the “beek” as we call ourselves in the industry). The beek has to act and treat the symptoms with the appropriate medication. There are also pests of honey bee hives for example the wax moth species and a new pest a beetle called small hive beetle which is slowly making its way here we believe the closest confirmed case is Niagara Falls area and it is causing havoc on hives.

If colonies are not re-queened often enough they have a tough time surviving winters as the queen ages loses strength and research suggests emits less queen pheromone which is similar to scent and is what the queen uses to give instructions in the hive. A bee colony is only as strong as its queen and if she starts to weaken it is up to us as hive managers to replace her with a younger queen to reintroduce some vibrancy to the hive.

A particularly bad winter can be deadly for honeybees. They minimize their population before winter by kicking out all the males and then the remaining females cluster together flapping their wings to create heat. They do not defecate in the hive so they need warm days throughout winter to leave the hive empty out and return to the cluster. If they don’t have that opportunity eventually they have to go in the hive and this creates disease. Last winter was really tough on beekeepers all over the province. The extreme cold temperatures in December created stress that lasted all the way until the late spring and it was too much for most colonies to handle. We can do everything right: treat for mites leave enough honey for them to eat throughout winter wrap and prepare hives for winter; and still experience huge losses based on weather.

We are lucky that there isn’t a lot of agriculture around here but in areas where beekeepers are surrounded by agriculture it is even harder to keep bees alive for a variety of reasons. Large monoculture crop lands lead to less pollen diversity and poorer nutrition for bee colonies agrochemicals applied to crops and a lack of understanding by some users regarding the interactions between pesticide families. The family of pesticides known as neonicotinoids has been shown to cause colony collapse but is still widely used in Canada. We operate a pest control company as well so we know that pesticides can be used in a responsible manner and not affect honeybees.

Why are bees important? What threatens their populations?

The above answer touches on some of the things that threaten honeybee populations. Bees are important because of the pollination services they provide. There is a huge push for organic farm fresh foods and a lot of those are possible only because of insect pollination. Without these pollination services our options for fresh fruit and vegetables will come from test tubes in a laboratory rather than a seed in soil.

Will you be participating in or helping with Honey Week at Abbey Gardens?

We are excited to be a part of Honey Week at Abbey Gardens! We will be leading a workshop on beekeeping on Monday Aug. 27 and will be helping the AG staff extract their honey that day as well. We will also be leading a hike as part of Hike Haliburton on Sunday Sept. 23 where we will hike between the bee yards at Abbey Gardens and talk about bees.