New Internationalist

Everything is a world market

Issue 425

Charlie Parker operates Charlie Bee Honey near Niagara Falls, Ontario. He reflects on his 50 years as a beekeeper.

I saw a television programme about bees when I was about 13 years old. I’m now 62. I thought, boy, that’s great so I got some books from the library. My dad knew a beekeeper that used to work at the plant where he was an electrician. This was in Hamilton down the lake from here. So I got one hive of bees and that was the beginning of it. When I got out of high school I read more about it and I thought it would be a really great way to make a living. I thought if I could just do that I’d have it all, so that’s what I shot for. I was fortunate enough to be able to realize that. By the time I was 20 years old I had 100 hives at different farms around the area. I used to get paid something like $15 a hive back then for pollination services in the orchards. In 1970 we moved out here because I got a job teaching school in Beamsville just down the road. I left that after a few years when the honey business started going well.

Working together

Now I’ve got 6,500 hives so there’s a lot more work. It’s seasonal of course but there’s still a lot of building and maintenance during the winter. When I was young there was just myself. It’s just like a disease, beekeeping; once you’re stung it injects something into you and you’ve got the bug. My mother says it’s her fault, she says when I was a kid she gave me and my brother jars and we’d got catch bees in backyard and then watch them. They’re amazing creatures. Nobody’s in charge but everyone works together; it’s pretty extraordinary. And they’re not doing it for you, they’re just trying to produce enough food to get them through the winter, just like a bear fattening up for hibernation.

It’s just like a disease, beekeeping; once you’re stung it injects something into you and you’ve got the bug

You used to be able to make a living on 500 to 800 hives but now it takes a lot more. As far as the business end you’ve got to be on top of stuff or the bees don’t survive. I’m fortunate that I’ve got people working for me who I can rely on to do a lot of the work. It gives me a chance to look at the big picture because we always have to be on guard and be watchful of the disease situation. It wasn’t the same in the past. It was always a challenge to winter your bees but it’s been a huge challenge over the past six or seven years. Some years the loss was substantial even before, but not like it is now. Now you can be wiped out. This year I had maybe 30 per cent loss compared to 10 per cent years ago.

Money in honey

The biggest problem is the mites, varroa mites. At first the chemicals seemed to work, the miticides. You put the strips in the hives, it was no big deal, you followed the directions but the miticides that first came out don’t work anymore. You have to get new chemicals that are even stronger because the old ones don’t work. You’ve got to be monitoring your hives constantly with a sticky board in the bottom to check on mites. If you find 50 or more in 24 hours then you’ve got a problem. At the moment we don’t have a problem but we could at any point, they can really spike.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that the chemicals farmers are using could affect the bees

In the early days we made our money in honey but now it’s mostly in pollination. We move about 1,200 hives into the orchards here in Niagara in mid April. Later we ship 6,500 hives down east to New Brunswick and to northern Quebec to pollinate the blueberries. They go around 26 May and they’re all back by the end of June. We’re the largest operation in Ontario. This is year number six for shipping bees east.

We thought we’d make some money from the pollination and then get the bees back to Ontario and still make something on honey. But it didn’t work out that way. It stresses the bees so badly moving them around that they’re not in shape to get a good honey crop. So we started two years ago feeding the bees pollen patties when they get back and it’s made a big difference. We can keep on going. When they come back stressed, they can’t rebuild the hives and the honey store so they go into winter in poor shape. The winter of 2006 we had a 90 per cent loss and that was devastating; that was the same year Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) hit the news.

Stress

Guys like me who’ve been at it all their lives they ought to know for sure what’s causing that kind of loss. It’s a combination of a whole bunch of things. Varroa mite is a big part of it but it’s the stress that’s critical. So you say to yourself: if I move ‘em they pay me, if I leave them here I’ve got a chance to get a better honey crop and not stress them so much. I don’t know for sure if I’m going to get that honey crop but I do know for sure I’m going to get that pay cheque if I move them. I get about $130 per hive out of which I pay the transport. That’s over $800,000 gross.

They say they’re not using pesticides on the blueberries but my friend in Maine who’s been at it as long as I have says they are. He says they’re using stuff and he’s of the mind that this CCD is caused by chemical residue, either beekeeper inflicted, in other words when he’s treating his hives, but mostly from the environment, from the farmer dumping chemicals on the land and the bees picking it up. And it could well be: think about your DDT. Look at the robins, the bluebirds, they all started to disappear, the shells of their eggs got so thin. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that the chemicals farmers are using could affect the bees. The chemical companies don’t test beyond their needs, they only find what they want to find and then they’ve got a saleable product that they’re going to make millions from.

World market

Everything is now a world market and that’s just a fact. But what happens when all the farmers get squeezed out of business and all our food comes from China or other countries?

I don’t like the genetics. I’m better to raise my own from my strongest hive. But I’ve lost control

Even the bee business is a world market. We got the varroa mite from Europe and we can’t buy queen bees now from the US like we used to because of mites and other diseases like small hive beetles. So we buy from Australia or New Zealand or Hawaii and Chile because they’ve got fewer pests. We can raise queens but I need them in the spring when the hives have to be rebuilt after the winter and before we ship them out, so they’ll be strong enough to go to the blueberries. That’s why I have to import them. The schedule means I just don’t have an alternative. At one point I swore I’d never buy queen bees because there’s too many problems with them. I don’t like the genetics. I’m better to raise my own from my strongest hive. But I’ve lost control. I have to make up my winter losses to keep going. Before we started shipping bees across the country for the blueberries we raised all our own queens; we’d split the strongest colonies and let them raise their own queens. We’d be working with our own strength. We can get local queens now but not till June and that’s too late. If you’re going to move your bees for pollination you’ve got to have live hives so you’ve got to make up your winter losses. When we lost the 90 per cent a couple of years ago we got our numbers back by the fall to 6,000 hives. I can’t take three years to rebuild my hives. What do I do for an income in the meantime? You bite the bullet, spend a lot of money and that’s what I did.

If the bees get a poor crop and they’re undernourished to go into the winter it doesn’t matter if they’re varroa free. They’re not fat; they’re stressed. They’re not going to make it.

Look at the changing climate; that has an impact too. The dryer areas are dryer and the wetter areas are wetter. When we get wet years we don’t get a very good honey crop. It all affects the bees, there’s not enough blossom and honey yield goes down. Damp in the summer also helps the mites; their numbers explode. That’s been my experience over the years.

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