New Internationalist

Backyard beehives

Issue 425

They’re booming on Canada’s west coast with everyone from high-end hotels to apartment dwellers joining in. Hadani Ditmars reports from Vancouver.

Photo by <b>Hadani Ditmars</b>.
Vancouver’s apiary missionary Brian Campbell: ‘If you care about grizzly bears, help the bees.’ Photo by Hadani Ditmars.

‘We have a special responsibility,’ says master beekeeper Brian Campbell, ‘to create and preserve bee-friendly habitats.’ Campbell is preaching the bee gospel to a rapt group of mums, tots and members of a local non-governmental organization called the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) where he is a mentor for apprentice beekeepers.

We’re in a garden in the Hastings Sunrise area of Vancouver on a sunny Saturday morning, where large lots and new immigrants make for an enthusiastic gardening community – and a natural habitat for many native bee species.

Campbell is a low-key missionary of all things apiary with an arsenal of props at his disposal. One is a jar full of an old subterranean bumblebee nest, which he passes around, explaining that many bees live underground. Some like gravel, some like packed soil, some like grass, so ‘a diversity of soil types is ideal’. Next he exhibits a cluster of bamboo sticks – the former home of a group of cavity-dwelling bees.

But creating bee-friendly habitats in urban environments is largely a question of awareness. As the group moves from a garden inspection to a back lane stroll he points out that unpaved laneways often make ideal bee habitats. He stops to examine a rose bush growing over a fence where he notes a bee has recently used part of a leaf for nesting material.

A stop in another backyard garden offers a close-up of a fertile bee environment, packed with fruit trees and flowers. Here a young mother gets out her power drill to demonstrate how to make a quarter-inch hole in a piece of 2-inch plywood, so attractive to some bees as an egg-laying site. The children are fascinated. One five year old asks: ‘How can you tell if bees live somewhere?’ ‘You just have to watch for them,’ explains Campbell.

Indeed, as we drive to a nearby park, site of the EYA’s ‘community hive’ programme, Campbell’s lecture has awakened a whole new way of viewing the urban landscape. We cruise past shop fronts and houses, our eyes peeled for bee-friendly plants and hospitable habitats.

While it may seem limited, restored habitats can have a wide-ranging effect on overall bee populations, explains Campbell. He cites the decline in bees in the northern town of Bella Coola, which resulted in a low yield of berries, which meant that local grizzly bears couldn’t hibernate due to lack of food. ‘So in that part of British Columbia, if you care about the plight of the grizzly bear,’ says Campbell, ‘you can help by restoring native bee species in your own backyard.’

Over at the ‘Means of Production’ community garden, on the edge of a park and opposite an industrial waterfront, the concerns are food security, the importance of pollinators and urban agriculture. ‘Over three-quarters of what we eat wouldn’t exist without bees,’ explains community hive coordinator Rhianna Nagel. The crucial connection between bees and plants – many of which have co-evolved together – is brought home by a ‘bee-friendly’ garden full of clover, poppies and sunflowers. Other plots are part of an initiative by local artists to grow their own materials – plants for dyes and other uses.

A few ‘bee condos’ – small rectangular plywood structures built for mason bees – hang on a nearby tool shed, remnants of the EYA programme that distributed them to individuals, schools and parks last year.

A few yards away a group of young volunteers tend the garden while others learn about beekeeping from Campbell. Today’s lesson is about hive inspection and mites. ‘Even a few can destroy a colony,’ he explains as a small group in protective gear looks on. He then shows them a ‘sustainable’ method of getting rid of mites, without hurting the bees, by using a small amount of tobacco smoke.

His students hang on his every word. One is a young marketing executive, hoping to gain a greater sense of connection to the land. Another works at a nursery and studies environmental science. Still another dreams of starting his own Buddhist monastery and raising bees for honey.

The young Buddhist asks Campbell if he can recommend any books on sustainable bee keeping. ‘They really don’t exist,’ he says, which is why his passing on his knowledge to the apprentices is so crucial.

Hadani Ditmars is a New Internationalist co-editor.

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