On a warm, early fall afternoon above Kelowna, B.C., a delicate mix of flavours registers on my palate before I swallow. The faint hint of mint that wavers at the finish makes me smile. Now that's something different.
No, I'm not on a wine tour. Rather, I've just licked honey off a small wooden stick on which it was offered having already tasted a delicious, caramely concoction made from Linden tree pollen, and another — positively enlightening — whose genesis was in the surrounding lavender fields which lie like mauve carpets under the September sun.
The samples came courtesy of Helen Kennedy who runs Arlo's Honey Farm (arloshoneyfarm.com), an organic apiary of some 250 hives perched high on a hillside adjacent to numerous wineries. But I'm not here for the award-winning honey. Rather, I've stopped in on the recommendation of a friend to ask Helen about the general decline of insects in Canada, something she can speak to as a long-time tracker of pollinators like bees and butterflies. Despite confessing on her website to an inauspicious start "as green as grass and armed (only) with a beekeeping book my husband purchased," she's considered one of the most knowledgeable beekeepers in the Okanagan.
Following a decade of precipitous declines, it was no surprise this August when scientists announced that two widely used pesticide types — neonicotinoids and neonics — were indeed the smoking gun behind declines in a range of insects, earthworm and bird populations, and posing serious harm to the global environment. Most concerning, the 50-member Task Force on Systemic Pesticides' combined study of 800 research papers delivered conclusive evidence that these pesticides are behind the mass deaths of bees, butterflies and other crop pollinators. Such mass deaths — often labelled under the nebulous rubric "Colony Collapse Disorder" — have been documented in most European countries, U.S. states and Canadian provinces, including B.C.'s heavily agricultural Okanagan.
The normal loss rate for bee colonies once hovered around 10 per cent; the new normal is 30 - 50 per cent, though some in the Okanagan have lost close to 100 per cent in recent years. "Could you stay in business if you lost 30 per cent of your earning power every year?" poses Helen rhetorically. Of course not. Yet this is what lack of government oversight and continued inaction on the neonicotinoid front has forced beekeepers to grapple with.
Arlo's is faring well at a loss rate of about 15 per cent, mostly due to the attention Helen pays to the process. "Healthy bees are happy bees," is her avowed philosophy, and it starts with a clean environment of minimum stress (stress is the reason she eschews the usual moneymakers of contract pollinations or selling bees like most apiaries).
Like most apiaries, Arlo's are European honeybees, with queens brought in each spring from Kona in Hawaii. Because genetic heterogeneity is one way to maintain maximal colony health, Helen often crosses her bees with Italian blacks, which are somewhat more active, and makes her own queens in June (a process I don't have room to elaborate). Additionally, Arlo's keeps its hives whistle-clean, changing out wooden honey frames as soon as they darken where other apiaries might leave them in for years. "One reason for changing them is that old wax holds residual chemicals; the other is to keep colonies from swarming, which they normally do once or twice a year because of crowding or degradation of the hive environment."
The other role of cleanliness is to keep ectoparasitic bee mites at bay. These mites, which live exclusively on bees, must be kept on top of because they reproduce at a much higher rate than the bees. In addition to slowing bees down, mites carry debilitating viral diseases. Arlo's uses bottom screens in its hives to effect a 30 per cent reduction in bee mites: when bees groom themselves the mites fall down through screens and cannot climb back up. There's also help from the lavender farm next door. Bees love lavender but mites don't like essential oils, and when bees get lavender oil on their bodies it's harder for the mites to stick to them. Mites are ubiquitous in beekeeping, so it was unusual when they were suddenly implicated in colony collapses. As with other chemical effects (e.g. herbicides and pesticides on frogs), however, it's not always a direct connection. Bees could be more susceptible to mites and disease due to the chronic immuno-suppression of pesticide exposure or monoculture GMOs like canola, a sub-standard forage that bees are often forced to eat; not only does canola make bad honey, it has become disease-ridden, prompting farmers to replace it with peas, which have little nectar and make even poorer honey. "Bees don't forage hybridized plants," notes Helen. "When all our crops are hybridized and non-seeding, the pollen and nectar has no value for bees."
In addition, because their turnover rate is high, mites tend to develop resistance to anti-mite pesticides beekeepers treat colonies with — another good argument for the organic route. That includes planting clover for long-term nectar sources and transforming a market garden around the needs of bees: increasing berries, practising plant rotation, and finding crops to span spring, summer and fall. Another challenge is water. For their size bees require a lot of hydration, due to their high metabolic rate and use of water as an air-conditioner for hive cooling. If they can't find fresh water they'll drink from any source — like the axials of corn leaves etc., which usually have applied or GMO pesticides in the water.
The question is, despite all these measures, can Helen make a go of it with a 15 per cent annual loss? "I think so. Our bees are doing OK, in part because the surrounding area is a mosaic of organic farms with natural buffers in between. The bees' radius for food gathering is generally one to two kilometres, so it helps to have organic farming neighbours who are also bee conscious."
Helen is passionate about planting for the pollinators, so in addition to bees she also plants for butterflies and hummingbirds, of which there are at least a couple species. Arlo's bees were fine this year but the monarch butterflies Helen plants milkweed for didn't return like they usually do. That's a whole other story that I said I'd return to talk with her about — but, like any cadger worth his salt, I made sure I left with a small bottle of her mint honey.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.