The Death Of Our Honeybees

Our spring thaw began two weeks earlier than average this year.  This allowed us to inspect our honeybee hives.  What we found did not surprise us.  They had both died.  There was no sign of disease.  So adding that to the one that did not survive even into last fall means that we are now effectively through keeping bees.

We have been raising bees since 1987 and reading about them since 1975 when a friend of Craig’s in university took a course on beekeeping.  We have had incredible production with our hives throughout the years.  It was not uncommon to harvest eighty to a hundred pounds of honey from each hive each year.  A few times we got one hundred and twenty pounds.  But no more.  Honey production started dropping ten years ago and has steadily dwindled.  Last year’s production only netted three gallons from two hives.  We headed into the fall knowing that these would be dead by spring.

Nothing in our basic practise has changed.  We monitor our hives closely throughout the year.  We know how to recognize and treat disease and bee mites and have done so successfully in the past.  We have used the same overwintering methods for over two decades.  But what has changed is the environment.  More, much more than I can describe.  Twenty years ago this region was diverse in crops: wheat, canola, flax, alfalfa, clover, pasture, and wild lands and woodlots and marshes.  Elk roamed in herds out across this valley; you never knew where you would come upon them.  Deer ranged in large herds.  Now?  In spite of our nestled away location if you drive any distance you would think that you are on the prairie somewhere.  Fence lines are all gone.  Farmers plant out into the road ditches.  Brush and woodlands are confined to the places that are truly inaccessible to farming equipment.  All but the most stubborn swamps have been drained.  Incredibly steep hillsides are under the plow.  The wildlife is all on the run, measly populations of what it once was.  Geographically it does not look even close to the same place as thirty years ago.  And those old farming methods are long gone.  New tractors and combines are huge and cost into the millions of dollars.  Much of this has been moving in this direction for a couple of decades.  But the biggest change in the past five years is the mono-cropping of GMO-ed canola and the chemicals used to treat it.  These have intensified and encroached to the point where now cropland in early July is nothing but a sea of bright yellow as far as you can see in every direction and the stink of insecticide and herbicide comes on the wind several times each year in season.  The effects of these chemicals on honeybees are well documented.

  • Canola holds the premium place for farmers making money.  In Manitoba the average cost of production is now $408/acre.  The provincial average was 48 bushels/acre which is roughly 1 metric tonne.  When canola was at $550/tonne, that was good money, but now it is dropping toward $400/tonne because of the USA extraditing Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou from Canada, and China has stopped all imports of canola from Canada.  Nevertheless, with the worldwide banning of crude running ocean going ships and their being converted to diesel and hence the sharp increase coming in diesel fuel within two years and no multi-billion dollar crackers being built to supply this need, perhaps, and since canola is already being used for a biodiesel source, who knows what will happen?  In any case it will of course mean a dramatic rise in food costs at the grocery store in any case.

The upshot of all of this for honeybees is that canola nectar crystallizes.  Since this a ready source for the bees they flock to it…and then they starve because they cannot feed on crystallized honey over winter, only liquid.  Most commercial beekeepers in our area have gone to early harvest of this honey crop and then they begin feeding bees medicated sugar water in August.  This source does not freeze.  But we have chosen to not do so; it is not a sustainable practise. Furthermore, the chemicals used in treating canola both kill and confuse honeybees.  Many do not make it back to the hive.  The hives collapse (like the one we watched wane away last summer in spite of having a laying queen) and the tainted nectar that manages to make it back to the hive is toxic to the colony that is trying to overwinter.

When we started keeping bees in the 1980’s a package with a queen was $25.  By 2000 the price had risen to $75.  And last year we paid $250 per package, $500 for two hives, which now are dead, along with a viable hive that had survived four years, but which petered off to a miserable death.

But do not feel sorry for us; do not send any condolences.  We are getting older.  We do not have many more cycles of seasons before we ourselves will be dead.  We fondly remember the beauty and viability and love that held the natural cycles of the earth together.  With only 2% of the population of North America now being farmers, most likely, you never have.  And anyway, that is all gone now, and it is not coming back, at least in no time soon.  Picking wild berries from fence rows and road ditches is now a thing of the past; they are all sprayed and dead.  We still have great projects on the go here, growing food communally for the poor and disadvantaged, although it will be interesting to see what effect the loss of our tamed bees has on that.  We maintain a woodlot and protected riparian areas so that wild pollinators can survive, and we actually see these more at work in our haskap and apple orchards than the honeybees, so there is still some promise that if we further promote our wild land that our vegetable fruit production will continue.  But we definitely feel sorry for you who are not farmers and who are reading this.  You likely do not know the extent that all of the grain that you eat is heavily sprayed with chemical from planting to harvest.

  • Did you know that all wheat is now sprayed with Round-Up once it is mature and ready to harvest in order to kill the plant so it can be more easily combined?  …which means that there’s definitely glyphosate in your soda crackers.  And we feel sorry for you that you have lost the personalist aspect of community and your connection to authentic life…earth, animals, plants, forests, fields, agri-culture, food, communal life, and culture.

A few weeks ago I had a woman at a church function ask me, Why should I care about being compassionate?

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Indeed.

P.S. – Here’s the latest study by Environment Canada that describes Canada warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.