Health and Honeybees: A Complex Connection

The air around us was specked black with bees as we stood in the lot behind Babe’s Honey Farm and watched an apiarist lift honeycomb frames from a box hive. Each frame crawled and dripped with calm yet industrious honeybees, (while my inner child, who’d once been stung inside the mouth by a courageous bee, squirmed at the sight.)

Babe’s opened their doors on Sunday, July 25th, as part of the Tour of Farms 2010, and people swarmed to the big yellow headquarters to learn what they could about bees and their honey. The bumbling insects have been big stars in the conversation lately, after all.

Besides being a more or less sustainable practice, extracting honey from honeycomb uses less energy than harvesting sugar from beet or cane, and can often be produced and sold locally, reducing the distance the product travels to get to our pantries. We’ve been swept away by how naturally honey can heal what ails us (whether a sore throat, a nasty cut, a lack of energy, and possibly hayfever); we’re thrilled that chemical-free beeswax candles can out-perform brand name fresheners in the clean air department; and the list of health issues that might be treated or prevented with royal jelly (the secretion bees feed their queen to ensure her a long, fertile life) is overwhelming. It’s amazing the way bees overflow with benefits. But are we doing them wrong by indulging?

The fact is the buzz around bees goes deeper than enthusiasm about vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. While I traipse around sucking earthy honey from a straw, Canada’s bee population is dropping. Thinking back to the fundamental “birds and bees” lesson anyone can get the idea that the striped insects have a role to play in the cycle of life, but the importance of their role is summed up in Einstein’s claim: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” Our bees have begun to decline 30% a year for the past four years. No wonder people are talking.

The dialogue about what’s harming the hives is shapeless and cloudy, however, making solutions difficult to discern. One issue that’s clear is that mites and viruses are being introduced, probably through new colonies being imported. And a virus is too much for a bee to bear when its health has already been compromised by the practices of queen rearing (which often involves inbreeding) and transporting colonies for crop pollination (which limits their food supply to a single, insufficient source). Add pesticides to the mix and you’ve got a sticky situation.

On the other hand, some theorize that radio waves from mobile phone towers are the major culprit, and petitions have been started to ban the use of cell phones during certain seasons. And then there is the notion that the invaluable insects have been targeted as an act of terrorism.

But if the decline in Canada can be traced at all to low pollen levels, which is a standard theory,  then we can help. By doing the dirty job of planting vibrant gardens, we can boost our bees’ diets. It seems too pleasant to be useful, doesn’t it? But since urban development has obliterated much wild growth, a lot of space is covered by concrete lots or grassy lawns, which just don’t compare to native, pollen-rich flowers when it comes to our crucial honeybees.

Another way some people are helping is by building their own hobby hives to help increase pollination and replenish the bee count directly. Though beekeeping isn’t for everybody, the experts at the beloved Tugwell Creek’s Honey Farm and Meadery in Sooke offer hands-on courses for those interested in maintaining their own colonies, teaching everything from the history of beekeeping to producing your own honey.

Now then, what about honey? Is it our responsibility to forgo the pleasure and benefits of a tart cranberry honey to reduce the pressure put on bees? The answer isn’t clear. Just remember when you dip into the honey jar or crunch an apple that it’s all connected, and when they hover around your garden, consider it a visit from royalty and wish them luck out there. Oh, and  try not to get stung in the mouth. That won’t work out well for either of you.

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