Bringing home the bees

Honey bees need our help, and Newfoundland is one of the last places on Earth where they can still be raised organically.

As aspiring homesteaders and gardeners, Lisa and I take a lot of interest in where our food comes from. As we try to eat locally and provide ourselves with the food we eat and the lifestyle items we use, there has been a missing link in our homestead’s production, something that has long been on the list: honey bees!

Due to the prevalence of food adulteration and counterfeiting, we’re very keen to keep our own bees for honey. According to at least one study, 76 percent of honey sold in American supermarkets was found to contain no pollen, making it impossible to authenticate and likely that much of this honey is actually heavily adulterated or simply a counterfeit sugar syrup flavoured to taste like honey. Honey retailers have said the pollen filtration is done to ‘ensure shelf stability’ but this rings hollow; 5,000-year-old jars of honey found in the Egyptian Pyramids were found to have not yet spoiled.

Humanity’s fascination with bees dates back millennia, at least. A cave painting in Valencia, Spain, thought to be at least 8,000 years old, shows a person hanging from a cliff, extracting honey from a wild bee hive. Egyptian Pharaohs were titled ‘He/She of the Sedge and Bee’, and the honey bee was part of the Royal hieroglyphic motif. Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans took beekeeping to an industrialized level, with some places such as Syria and Ephesus thought to have beeyards with thousands of hives, providing honey to the far reaches of the Roman Empire. Bees were such an important part of Greek commerce that the honey bee was featured on ancient coinage from the region, and beekeeping was seen as a holy calling. Priestesses of Artemis (Diana) of Ephesus were called ‘melissae’, literally ‘little honey bees’, a remnant of pre-Hellenic bee worship in the region. The term stays with us to this day with the popular name Melissa.

2014 and 2015 were rough years for honeybees all over the world, and even our Newfoundland bees experienced heavy losses brought about by a long winter and late spring flowering. Our first attempts to get honeybees were fruitless; the beekeepers we knew had lost many of their bees over the winter, and thus focused their efforts on replenishing their hives. We took an introductory class put on by professional beekeeper Aubrey Goulding, and joined the Newfoundland & Labrador Beekeeper’s Association. We took some hive tours to see other beekeepers in action, tending their hives. And then we waited.

The opportunity to keep bees finally came about rather serendipitously, and with little notice. The recent commercial importation of 100 Australian honey bee hives to a site on Brookfield Road led to a voluntary quarantine zone, a move enacted by the NLBKA members to ensure no foreign pests, like the dreaded varroa mite, would enter our little island honeybee haven and spread. Until this site is fully established, inspected, and pest-free, a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach has been taken by beekeepers, a very important decision since we are pretty much the last place on earth where honeybees can live without being parasitized by varroa mites. Varroa mites are the scourge of honey bees: they spread through the hive, and suck the blood from bees and their young (, devastating the hive’s population. 

This exclusion zone, while bad news for beekeepers who live within five kilometres of the site, came as a blessing to us; it meant we could get bees immediately if we could prepare for them in about 10 days’ time. Fortunately for us, we already had the knowledge base and a little bit of experience, so we quickly agreed and put together a plan to prepare a ‘bee yard’ on our property, and get the necessary supplies.

A bronze coin from Ephesus, struck circa 390 BC. Photo by Lisa McBride.
A bronze coin from Ephesus, struck circa 390 BC. Photo by Lisa McBride.

It turns out there is a one-stop shop for all your beekeeping needs here in Newfoundland. Gerard Smith, who lives out in Placentia, manages over 80 honeybee hives and stocks supplies for his own use and to sell to beekeepers across the island. We took a trip out to Gerard’s, and came back several hours later, laden down with all the knowledge we would need to set up, and all the supplies required to begin our journey into the world of bees. For about $350, you can get set up with everything you need to get started: a bug veil, smoker, and the hive itself, complete with a top-feeder that gives the bees a supply of sugar syrup (an important step in building up a new hive, as the bees can consume the syrup instead of eating honey, leaving more honey stores intact for their first, and usually hardest, winter).

Our ‘bee yard’ was already taken care of. Our garden area had already been turned into a fenced compound, to keep our very determined goats out of our vegetables. This area would be perfect for bees, and their close proximity to our fruit, vegetables and flowers would be a great benefit to all parties. Our goats love to scratch their backs along fence posts, garden beds, and sometimes even against people. I imagined a nightmare scenario where an itchy goat would inadvertently knock over a hive, sending bees and goats in all directions. So we sacrificed the location of a future pair of garden beds in the compound and made room for our two newly purchased hives there instead.

A bee-eautiful journey

Two days later, after setting up the hives in our improvised bee yard, it was time. Our two ‘nucleus colonies’ were ready to be picked up, but we faced a long drive out to the other side of the island, all the way out to the village of Little Rapids, near Corner Brook, where the NL Bee Company is located. The NL Bee Company is one of only two places in the province where you can get a Queen Bee complete with a nucleus colony. Lisa woke up at 4 a.m. in order to make the drive there and back in a single day.

After a long, hot drive, Lisa returned home with the bees, after stopping every hour or so to spray the hive opening with some water, which the bees quickly gathered up for a drink. Letting the box overheat, or leaving the bees inside for too long, could result in fatalities, so we were aware of needing to balance caution with speed. Lisa returned home with two little cardboard boxes, both strapped into the rear seats of our van, snug as sleepy youngsters. I marveled at those cardboard boxes, listening to them buzz and thinking of the swarms of bees within. Like a new parent, I considered the weight of the responsibility before me, and briefly wondered if the bees would be able to sense my inexperience.

Our first test was to suit up in our veils and transfer the frames of the nucleus colony to our waiting hives. Lisa prepared the smoker, but it turns out it wasn’t necessary — the bees were very docile as we moved the frames into our hives, one by one. Being near dusk, no bees ventured forth from the hive. Job finished, we called it a day and felt immense relief that getting our bees home and installed had been so easy. 

The next morning was the closest I’d felt to the magical ‘kid on Christmas morning’ feeling in many years. Both Lisa and I woke up at the same time, literally leaping out of bed as we remembered that we had the newly arrived bees in our garden. We hurriedly dressed and went down to the hives for our first inspection. Once again, the bees were very docile and seemed blissfully unaware that we even existed.

We were able to make several key observations when we inspected the comb they had built: we could see the Queen in each colony, both colonies had a healthy supply of worker bees, and large ‘nurseries’ of brood, where we could see new eggs and small larvae, and covered comb where a young bee stays as they develop their wings, reminiscent of a caterpillar cocoon. Our colonies had been set up successfully and the population would increase significantly as these new bees hatched. Neither one of us had been stung, and the entire experience in maintaining our hives so far has been a lot more relaxing than I initially anticipated.

Now that we had our bees, I began to look at our yard, and in fact my entire community, a little differently. No longer was I tempted to cut the flower stalks off of our turnips to increase their size – or to weed clovers and dandelions out of the front yard. Those are now flowers for the bees. Fields of flowery ‘weeds’ such as golden rod, clover, or fireweed were now sights as welcome as a field of bright blueberries, as we pictured all the nectar and pollen our bees would need to thrive. 

The importance of bees

As excited as we were to contemplate the benefits of honey bees on our little garden compound, it was even more exciting to consider the role our bees would play in pollenating gardens, fields, berry bushes, and even bakeapple bogs, up to five kilometers away from our hives. I find myself looking around while out and about in my neighborhood, looking for ‘our’ honey bees doing their business. Pollination by bees is thought to increase production of berry crops by 10-40 percent, and pollination by honeybees is vitally important to about one third of the agricultural crops produced for human consumption. You may have seen the meme online or in grocery stores labeling some of our bee-dependent crops. Many foods would experience supply collapse without honey bees, some crops like almonds are 100 percent dependent on pollination by bees, and several fruit crops like blueberries and cherries are dependent on bees for up to 90 percent of their pollination.

Bee populations around the world are experiencing very heavy losses in recent years. Harsh changes to the climate, abnormal seasons, neonicotinoid-laden pesticides, parasites such as varroa mites, parasitic fungi such as Nosema Cerenae, and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) have all taken their toll on honeybee populations. In 2008-2009 alone, CCD led to losses of over one third of all honey bee hives in North America.

So far we have been extremely fortunate on our little island haven when it comes to bee keeping. The long winters are a small price to pay for having an island so loaded with berry bushes and wild flowers, ensuring a steady supply of pollen and nectar for our Newfoundland honeybees. The dreaded varroa mite, and the fungal pest nosema cerenae, are both absent from the island. In fact, Newfoundland is one of the only remaining places in the entire world free from varroa mite infestation, along with parts of Australia, some of Hawaii’s small islands, and an isolated pocket of Libya.

Neonicotinoid pesticides, another contributing factor to the decline of the bees, are largely absent from the island, given how little our province produces neonic-heavy crops such as soy beans and corn. Fortunately, jurisdictions from Europe through to Canada and the USA are now restricting the use of these pesticides, so hopefully we will be fully aware of the impact neonics have on bee populations before we see widespread use of them here.

Frame of honey comb with bees, brood, and nectar. Photo by Lisa McBride.
Frame of honey comb with bees, brood, and nectar. Photo by Lisa McBride.

Many municipalities are also responding positively to the plight faced by our honeybees. Major cities such as Seattle and Vancouver have undertaken programs to allow and encourage residential beekeeping in dense urban areas, which is both safe and necessary. Media outlets now report swarms in a much more docile, less alarmist way than they did in years past, helping to remove the fear those of us who remember the ‘80s can surely recall, when ‘swarms of Africanized bees’ led to some hysteria among the media and populace.

Have I enticed you to consider joining the ranks of the beekeepers of Newfoundland and Labrador yet? If not, let me tempt you with one final thing — your own artisanal beeswax, for making lip balm, waxing your own cheese, or making candles. And of course the golden, sweet deliciousness of producing your own honey. A single hive can produce 25 to 60 pounds of surplus honey (over and above what the bees need to conserve as their winter food stores) each season, once it has established and grown!

If you are interested in becoming a bee keeper, or learning more about the wonderful world of bees, please consider joining the Newfoundland and Labrador Bee Keeper’s Association (NLBKA). They offer resources, mentorships, and hive tours. Bees are also a topic of discussion in our social media group Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL. Join us there to see how our journey into beekeeping progresses!

Steve McBride is a CFA originally from Vancouver. He moved to St John’s for the fine climate, and to pursue a self-sufficient lifestyle through foraging, gardening, and keeping some backyard animals. He and his wife Lisa are now up the Southern Shore developing a sustainable homestead.

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