We’ve been hearing a lot about honey bees over the past few years; declining populations, danger from pesticides or predators, and the threat of a weakened North American food system because of a lack of these valuable pollinators. Recently I discovered a wild and local link to this story right in my own backyard.
In a sense I've become a backyard beekeeper, but not in the ways we’ve been hearing about lately. I know that there is a resurgence going on with backyard hives that are used both as a way to pollinate agricultural crops and to produce delicious honey. But since I have had a bit of a phobia about bees since I was a kid I decided to take a more passive approach to the whole idea of beekeeping.
A phobia? Perhaps, although I was never stung by a bee when I was younger, all I know is that I was terrified of them, and whenever I saw a bee anywhere near me I would just run away as fast as I could. To this day I have never been stung by a bee. One wasp, yes. But no beestings. I have calmed down a bit. I know that bees generally won’t bother you if you don’t bother them, so I can hang out in a garden and stay put.
When I really started studying local food, I learned about mason bees. Bees that don’t build hives, don’t produce honey, but are very important pollinators. A couple of years ago a friend bought me a mason bee nest. It’s a block of about five layers of hard plastic with long holes in each layer. You put the block in a open-sided cedar box and hang the box near your garden. In the spring you can buy some mason bee cocoons, place them close to the nesting box and with any luck the bees will emerge, mate and the females lay eggs in the holes, four or five for each one, with pollen for food and a layer of mud in between. The eggs hatch, turn into larvae, which spin cocoons and then hibernate until the following February or so, when they tunnel out of the holes and start the whole process over again. This year my little mason bee condo is almost full. In the fall I need to remove the cocoons, clean them of any pests, and store them carefully so I can increase their chances of reproduction next year. Apparently it’s easy to do.
There is more of a buzz in my backyard, though. I was moving some fibreglass batting that I use to insulate the enclosure protecting my wellhead. As I picked up the fibreglass I heard it buzzing. I put it down. Then I studied it. In between the layers of insulation I saw one big bee and a few smaller bees crowded together. I managed to pick up the layers and put them into a garbage can so that the bees were still exposed.
And I didn't run away! But I did it after sunset when they had calmed down. Over the next few days I could see them building a hive of some sort, and that’s when I thought a stray honeybee queen had started a hive. I took a few photos and sent them to Bob Liptrot, the beekeeper at the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery near Sooke. He wrote back to tell me that they aren’t honey bees, but bumble bees, that they are important pollinators, especially during cool, damp springs, and that I should protect them without moving the nest more than ten metres from where I found it so that any workers out foraging can find their way back.
I ended up not moving anything. The garbage can with the insulation and the hive is under the shade of a huge blossoming chestnut tree I have on the property that is such good bee food whenever I walk near it I can hear the whole tree buzzing. So I have simply perched the top of the garbage can on the insulation to keep out the rain and the bees seem to be moving the insulation to close off any large gaps. At the end of the season the queen will lay some eggs that have some potential to become new queens, and when they hatch they will find hiding spots for the winter and then start their own new hives next spring, and the workers will die and my fibreglass will be abandoned.
To learn more about their life cycle and value as pollinators I called Gord Hutchings, a South Island entomologist who gives talks and lectures about native bees and helps people relocate bumblebees. He’s also working on a project with Merridale Cider to install dozens of mason bee condos in the orchard there so they will always have a great source of pollinators every spring when the trees blossom. He told me that we have really forgotten the importance of these indigenous bees (honey bees don’t exist naturally in North America) to pollination and that everyone should think about preserving habitat for them as well as encouraging nesting. He has a fascinating website so have a look at it and I will try to go with him on one of the visits he makes to Merridale to take care of the mason bees there.