A photo of honeybees.
A photo of honeybees. Credit: William Brehl

I was trying to think of something magical to write about bees in honour of National Honeybee Day and then I realized … bees are magical enough, all by themselves. Bees exhibit not only empathy, joy and compassion, but self-sacrifice as well. They are miraculous not only in what they are, but also in what they do for us and all other living creatures. They are one of the linchpins of our ecosystem, a fundamental connection through which the patterns of life on our world have grown and continue to exist. Without bees, this planet would be an entirely different, and most likely, a desolate place. 

There are two ways in which I look at bees. First, as another living creature sharing the earth with me and deserving of survival. I have watched bees be born, struggling out of there wax cell, fully formed and aware. I have also watched an ancient forager, her stripes faded with age, grow listless on the petal of a flower and fall silently to the ground, completing the cycle of life. I have marvelled at their efficiency, at their beauty, and been moved by the caring they show each other. I also experienced an epiphany of sorts, the very first time curious bees crawled about on my bare hand, without aggression. There is beauty to a bee. A beauty that is so easily recognized and so often overlooked. 

I also consider these honeybees as an integral part of life, performing a necessary function within the grand scheme of things. I recognize their importance, as well as their connection to mankind. Without bees cross pollinating the plants, the verdant forests and lush fields would diminish, as would our food.  And I realize that we, as a species, are callously destroying bees without thought of what that will do to us, but more importantly without caring what it is doing to them.    

These tiny highly intelligent creatures have existed for roughly 120 million years, 400 times longer than we have. They have developed a complex social structure and production processes, which are unique within the world, and we are only just beginning to understand the rudiments of them. Yet honeybee society, which is governed by the collective, is fully understood in all its aspects, by each and every bee from the moment of their birth. Unlike people, bees are born with the ability to communicate and to understand communication. Each bee emerging from the wax of their cell does so being fully aware. Within seconds and without any visible prompting, they actually go to work cleaning and preparing the cell for its next occupant. When this is done, they then head off to begin a rather short, but extremely productive, life within the hive. Each bee only lives for around 45 days and during that time they are assigned a multitude of specific duties. 

For their first couple of days, a bee will help with the ventilation of the hive, strategically moving air for heating, cooling and dehumidifying. Next, they are involved with the feeding of larvae. We call this the nurse bee stage. For their second week, they are producing wax, carrying food, building comb, cleaning out waste as well as fulfilling undertaker duties. Then they spend four or five days protecting the hive entrances, as guard bees. Finally, after three weeks they begin their daily foraging excursions from the hive to collect pollen, nectar and water, visiting thousands of plants in a day and cross pollinating as they go. They will continue to do this until they die.   

In a community with as many integral moving parts as a bee colony, communication is key.  Hives are populated with anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 occupants, making the transfer of vital information a monumental task. However, bees have mastered this. Whereas we may never know every specific nuance of their language, we understand that they primarily communicate through the release of pheromones coupled with movement, or dance. I once had a friend ask what we burn in our ‘smokers’ that puts the bees to sleep when we are inspecting the hives or harvesting honey. The fact is, the smoke doesn’t pacify the bees. It simply masks the pheromones used to warn the bees of a danger. If they can’t communicate that there is a threat, the bees just continue to go about their business.

Just imagine the highly evolved and sophisticated sensory equipment these girls possess, that allows them to instantaneously discover, and act upon, messages hidden within all the scents swirling about in a hive. 

‘Bees do have a smell, you know. And if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.’ – Ray Bradbury

There is a smell to our bees, especially when you venture within their hive. Bees are fastidiously clean little creatures, so it always smells fresh. There is never a trace of must or decay. When spring comes and the bees are just beginning to forage, tree sap is their primary nourishment. On those crisp early evenings when they return home, they bring the woodsy rush of alder, ash and pine, which mingle with the bouquet of new wax and rebirth. 

As spring advances towards summer and the world begins to blossom, within the hive wildflower fragrances blend with the sweet, rich aroma of honey. And come autumn, the goldenrod adds its distinctive signature to this intoxicating mix, this tapestry of scents, this rich perfume. 

These are just the scents which our clumsy noses can detect, but underneath it all, are the wafting pheromones which are a deeper conversation shared only by the bees. 

The success of a colony depends on thousands of individual bees working together continuously within this confined space. It is a female dominated culture with no specific leaders, and is instead governed by consensus. Bees are not ruled by a Queen, as commonly believed. It is not a monarchy within the hive. The Queen has a sole purpose and that is to procreate. Though she can live for up to a year and a half, she mates only once and then lays eggs for the rest of her life. That’s it, that’s all. She, like all other bees, receives any instructions from the collective. 

The workers, both hive builders and foragers, are all female and it is these proletariat bees that run the hive. They are in charge of everything from design, to production, to ventilation, to protection, to nursing, to feeding, as well as a score of other essential duties. The workers decide, through group communications, where the colony will live and how it will be set up. They figure out the design of the comb, built not only for capacity but also for adequate ventilation controlling the humidity, the temperature and the air quality they breathe. A bee colony is a self-sustaining society of sentient beings whose structure has remained basically unchanged for thousands of years.

As humans, this is almost incomprehensible. But to bees, it’s natural. This is the way it is and the way it has been for over a million years. Bees have remained virtually unchanged in all that time, physiologically as well as socially. It’s as if they simply stopped evolving once they reached their present state. A hundred thousand millennia ago, bees watched as the dinosaurs disappeared. They saw mammals emerge, and the continents drift apart. While most of the earth was covered in ice and man was almost wiped off the face of the Earth, bees thrived in the small portion of warmer climes. For the last 60,000 years, they have also seen civilizations rise and fall, and still bees flourished. In the human world, religions came and went, and bees paid no mind. While human beings waged wars on each other, on the environment, on all other species … bees survived and kept on pollinating the world. 

Actually, none of the follies of man had affected the honeybee very much, until now. Though man has been heading in this direction for centuries, he has finally put the continued existence of the bee in serious jeopardy. 

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.”  

I have heard this prophecy repeated many times over the years and it seems that even though we have been predicting this dire future, man has now begun to actively bring it to fruition.

Nearly half of Canada’s honeybee colonies did not survive the 2021/2022 winter. Bees are pollinators. They are an integral part of the ecosystem and their role is inherently crucial to the survival of all living things, not just plants. It is crucial that bees survive. Remember, bees do not just pollinate the fruit and vegetables which we eat; they also pollinate the plants that the rest of our food eats. With man’s increasing population and insatiable demand for more and more food, we definitely need the service the pollinators provide. Without them, we truly will be in serious trouble. 

There are currently eight species of bees found on Canada’s risk registry. There are also three species of bees who have lost over 50 per cent of their total population and are now classified specifically as ‘endangered’, which hopefully will grant them some protection. However, protection itself is unlikely to be enough to reverse the extinction spiral of bees. We must actively work to replenish their numbers in an environment conducive to their survival. 

But first we have to understand what the reasons for the decline are.

Here are the five main causes of declining bee populations. As you can see, man is directly responsible for four of them.

  • Decrease in biodiversity as well as habitat loss: Urban/building development, widespread logging practices and vast, intensive farming/ ranching wreak havoc on wildflower meadows as well as hedgerows. The minimizing of fields and meadows not only causes the quantity of available plants for foragers to shrink, we are also seeing a steady decline in key wildflower species, mainly containing vital nutrients which bees thrive on. Also, as habitat is destroyed, integral habitat can become increasingly isolated thereby affecting genetic diversity. When the drones of various colonies do not mate with different queens, inbreeding becomes more prevalent causing genetic defects, which can severely weaken the colony. The problems occurring as habitats become scarce are obvious. Without a decent home (hive) and/or enough stores saved, a colony cannot survive the winters or predators.  
  • Insecticides/pesticides: These chemicals can not only directly kill bees, some can cause sterilization, while others weaken immune systems allowing disease to run rampant.
  • Mites/diseases: Varroa mites are in epidemic proportions in many commercial hives. These mites can wipe out entire colonies in a single season. With proper care and attention, the mites could be kept under control but sadly, many commercial operations have put short term gains ahead of long term sustainability. 
  • Pollution: Like insecticides, pollution (soil/air/water) can have many negative effects on a bee colony, ranging from a quick death, to disease or starvation. Also, as bees communicate through and are guided by pheromones, pollution can mess up everything from nursing, ventilation, and ‘danger’ instructions, to keeping foragers from finding a food source using flower scents and also from finding their way home safely.
  • Climate change: The current weather extremes that we are experiencing globally are probably the single biggest challenge that honeybees face. Longer winters mean greater stores are needed to survive. Shorter flowering seasons mean minimized pollen and nectar availability. Though climate changes can be devastating in the short term, it is believed that bees may be able to adapt over time, as long as the other factors (mentioned above) are improved. 

“Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you cannot help them, at least don’t hurt them.”    – The Dalai Lama

My wife, Andrea, and I wanted to help bees. It was not enough that we would do our best not to hurt them, we knew that they needed help and we wanted to do what we could. 

Our children are grown and have moved on, each with families of their own. So last year, as Andrea and I prepared to ease into retirement, we decided on one last great adventure, within a life that has been full of exceptional adventures. Mid-pandemic, we searched online and found a rural home with some property in the Maritimes. Packing up all the belongings we could not part with, we headed east. We now live, with our dogs (Sully, Frasier and Henry) and three chickens (Joyce, Eleanor and Pearl) on a few acres in New Brunswick. We are surrounded by woods and fields, above a beautiful lake. We have no neighbours except the wildlife and the trees. And we could not be happier. 

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou

Together, we built a couple of hives and started to learn everything that we could about bees. We took courses, we read books, we watched tutorials and we spoke at length with other beekeepers. The more we learned, the more we realized how vital bees are to the survival of mankind,and the more determined we became to help them. 

Last June, we acquired two nucs (nucleus colonies) from an established apiarist. We set up the hives down between two apple trees, and Andrea gently sang bee songs to the inhabitants of the nucs as we introduced them to their new homes. We joined the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association. We registered the hives with the government of New Brunswick, and got to know the agents. We fed our bees, we treated them for mites, we protected them from predatory insects and from dangerous mammals. We planted flowers and we left the bees their own large, uncleared swath of clover, dandelions, daisies and later, goldenrod. And, not unlike proud parents, we watched the colonies grow. 

Our goal has never been about the honey (though we did harvest a small amount this year). Our goal is, and always has been, about the balance of nature within our small patch of paradise. We know that life is fragile. Our lives and the lives of all around us are intertwined, precariously dependent on each other, and on the foundations we lay and maintain. Everything affects everything else in varying degrees and when one aspect is disturbed, the tremors can be felt throughout the structure. We know that if we can help to strengthen one facet, we help to strengthen all. 

This spring, after both colonies survived a very harsh winter, we would sit out by the apple trees and watch in fascination as the bees went about their day. While thousands buzzed symphonically in the apple blossoms, we couldn’t help but feel that all was right in our world. That isn’t to say that it’s not an ongoing effort to keep things safe and secure, but instead I want to reiterate that the effort is worth the result.

We can all have a positive part in easing the struggle of bees, if we want.  I have come to realize that in bettering the lives of other creatures, we always better our own. 

If you have the space and the time, educate yourself and set up a hive. When you do, care for these bees with proper mite treatments. Feed them prior to the winter months and give them shelter from the harsher aspects of the environment.  The effort needed is minimal because the bees are pretty much self-sufficient, they just need a few hours a month of your time. And the rewards are huge!!

If you cannot have hives of your own, leave out a dish of water for bees to drink at, with rocks or pieces of wood in it so they don’t drown. Don’t be afraid of bees, they will only sting when threatened. Whether on an apartment balcony or in a yard, you can plant flowers and/or plants that are native to your growing zone and which are bee friendly. You can try planting a garden, which will not only yield food for you but also for your bees. Don’t use weed killers, insecticides or pesticides. And please, don’t kill the dandelions during their first few weeks of blooming. They are an initial food source as the hives open up and are necessary for the emerging bees, especially when the honey stores are depleted. Always remember, a well groomed lawn is far less important than a beautiful life. 

Almost every problem has a natural solution and with a little research you can find and utilize those. 

Good luck and have a wonderful National Honeybee day on August 20th and hopefully every day thereafter.

Namaste.

 World Honeybee Day is an awareness event celebrated annually on the third Saturday in August.