radicle beets

Winged Resilience: Wheelbarrow Funerals and Long-lived Queens by radiclebeets
May 21, 2013, 5:29 pm
Filed under: Beekeeping

This year, we’ve been hearing more and more about the crisis of honeybees in many parts of the world.  California’s almond trees now require a massive human-coordinated migration of honeybees each year for pollination, and human workers undergo the massive task of hand-pollinating fruit tree blossoms in Sichuan, China, where pesticides and over-harvesting of honey have led to the loss of pollinators.  In the US, honeybee genetic diversity is decreasing significantly—there has been a 30% loss in alleles between 1996 and 2006 among the 300 queen mothers that provided the breeding for approximately 2.4 million hives in the country at that time.  On the bright side, activist beekeepers in Germany recently built massive public demand that contributed to bee-toxic pesticides being banned in Europe.

All of this makes our little apiary at the Purple Thistle food forest all the more important.  Contributing to the survival of these wonderful and fierce little creatures is constantly awe-inspiring and eye-opening, and I am continually grateful for the privilege of being one of their caretakers.


Our season started out with sadness amidst a small speck of hope—two of our three hives had died, with one making it through the winter.  Bringing the dead hives’ frames, wrapped in opaque white landscaping fabric, back to the Thistle in a wheelbarrow was a strange kind of funeral and really brought home the importance of building the knowledge we would need to sustain our hives.  Needing to take precautions against the spread of potential disease, we began the long work of hand processing the honey, pollen and wax, and learning how to use a blowtorch to sterilize the wood by superheating the potentially diseased wax.

Recognizing the crisis happening everywhere and connecting more than ever to the notion that we can’t always just rely on outside sources to rescue our bees, we decided to gain skills in raising our own queen bee.  During month of May, Brian Campbell, master beekeeper and the teacher for several of us former beekeeping apprentices from the Thistle, has been mentoring us in the fragile and time-sensitive process of queen-rearing.

Raising your own queen has several benefits—she will be better adapted to the local environment, less likely to pass on disease (as long as your own queen is healthy), and the process reduces the need to rely on outside commercial sources that themselves are never really stable.

The first day, we inserted a small cassette with the queen cell-like bases into the hive, for the bees to coat with their own wax.  Four days later, we returned, located the queen and put her into the cassette, and created a queenless nuc (small version of a hive) from our hive.  Four days after that, we returned, released the queen from the cassette, where she had laid many eggs, and chose five eggs to insert facing downward on a frame into the queenless hive, which had been three days without a queen.  Two days from now, we will return to remove any wax formations (as Brian says, the bees like to read architecture magazines on their spare time) and see whether the eggs have hatched into larvae, and will hope that they raise these larvae into queens.  The process will continue until early June, when we will hopefully have new queens ready to begin their mating flights.

There is, it seems, an endless amount of things to learn about bees and even then, they may bring unexpected surprises.  Brian would say that they don’t always read the beekeeper’s manual—I would hope at least that they don’t read the world news and lose heart over the fate of their fellow comrades in other parts of the world.  In any case, it seems as though for every difficult thing that we learn, there are many more inspiring lessons to take from the practice of beekeeping.

Last week, we looked into our now thriving hive and found, for the first time this year, our queen, who is looking healthy and well.  Long live the queen bee!  There is something so utterly amazing about witnessing this small creature who is the pivotal focus for a colony of 20,000-40,000 creatures working in an incredible coordinated dance for their entire lives.  Seeing her there amidst all the other buzzing creatures who make up this dance is an inspiration, at the very least, for all of us who work to make the world a better place yet sometime feel a little… small.  I hope we can all look to our buzzing, vibrant community, and take strength to keep at it–with a little dancing in between, of course!





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A lot of beekeepers have lost hives in the neighbourhood (Strathcona and Cottonwood) over the last winter. I believe the key is to develop locally bred bees. We are so dependant on the annual importation of New Zealand bees which I believe is wrong. Don’t lose faith. My bees seem happy and healthy this year. Good luck.

Comment by Bruce

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