By Kimia Gharagozloo
Behold the bees, for they are the most overworked and under-appreciated helpers of our planet. They work all day long collecting nectar and pollen while pollinating a vast variety of plants along their way. Besides being an important part of the food chain, these tiny arthropods also play a crucial role in improving sustainability and biodiversity, both of which are needed to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Many individuals and organizations, including our very own Marianopolis, keep beehives in their backyards and on rooftops as an eco-friendly way to reconnect with nature.
Last month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Prof. Michele Saumier, winner of the 2017 Association of Private Colleges of Quebec’s Innovation Award and initiator of Marianopolis’ beehive project. She is also planning to hold a conference on the basics of urban beekeeping on April 20. Send her a MIO to reserve your spot at the event!
Q: What inspired you to take up beekeeping and put hives on the campus?
A: I think it roots from the Cégep Vert meetings, where a majority of environmental technicians get together. The meetings are kind of nice because you find out what other cégeps do and I found out that some cégeps had bees. Backtracking to this, my dad had bees when I was about 17 years old and I couldn’t care less. I guess I was too busy moving away to university to do beekeeping with him. Then I went to McGill Macdonald College and took a university-level course on beekeeping with this really charming man, who would come in and say “oh you sound like busy bees” to tell us to quiet down so he could start his lectures. I took three different courses after that. The first one, which I highly recommend and think they’re teaching it now in English, is from Miel Montréal. Then I did a small weekend course with Alvéole because I was curious. The best bee breeder, in my opinion, is a woman called Annie Patenaude and she offers courses as well. She’s awesome at growing bees and I took an advanced online course with her last summer, which was for people who were trying to start beekeeping businesses. That was kind of neat to rub elbows with, you know, pretty cool beekeeping people. Those were the three courses I took and I’m lucky that the college paid for them eventually because they counted as pedagogical advancement. I feel like beekeeping is like playing chess; you could learn all the pieces but you aren’t really good at it. So, I still feel like there’s always more I could do. For those interested, there’re different places that offer a variety of courses and I believe now English courses are available too, compared to when I started almost six years ago when there were only French beekeeping courses.
Q: How did you get your hives? Is it a big investment?
A: There are two companies that put hives for people or schools. Miel Montréal is one, and they let you own the hive and help you service it and extract it. There’s also another company called Alvéole; they’re pretty popular for putting hives with schools but they won’t let you own the hive and would lend it to you instead. So, at the end of the year, you won’t have anything and will have to start all over the next year. Both companies come, inspect your hives, and can show you how to take care of them a little bit, so I wouldn’t recommend just buying bees, as some people do. It sure is an investment. Starter equipment would be about $500 and that doesn’t even include the extractor. All the beehives in Quebec have to be registered by the MAPAQ (Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation). It costs about $19, but if you have disease in your hive, they provide vets.
Q: Do you take care of the hives yourself, or do you have help?
A: Last summer, I did it all by myself because of the pandemic, but the idea is to show the students and get them involved. The problem is that beekeeping is mostly done during summer. I used to extend the feeding so people could come and see the bees until much later than labor day but recently an expert told me not to do that, because in the fall you open the hives to feed syrup to them and if you wait too long, the nights get cooler and it brings too much humidity over the winter into the hives. So, the period for showing the beekeeping process to the students is almost when the students aren’t around unless people want to come during the summer. I inspect the hives every ten days, so there’s a commitment and I’ll be on campus in summer.
Q: Is it hard to do it alone?
A: It’s heavy. There’s a box with ten frames in it and each frame, let’s say they’re full of honey, is 3 or 4 kg. So, we’re talking about a box that weighs about 40 kg. What I used to do, though the bees weren’t happy with me, is that I’d take some out and then lift the box when it was about half full because it was then that I was physically able to move the box to check the box below it. That’d mean that the hive and the boxes were all open and the bees were all over the place and they didn’t like that.
Q: Do you accept help from students if they want to volunteer?
A: Yes, for sure! I have a few people who asked to. In late May, early June, I might seek people who can come and help me clean up the equipment and look at the bees a little bit. It’ll probably not be more than two people at the time due to the pandemic, and I have to get approval from the college, but it’d be outside with everybody wearing a mask, and we have suits and gloves as well. When I do a bee inspection, I have to write them all down, but I never end up doing it when
I’m in there because it’s hard, and I’d love to have a student who can be behind me and see everything and fill in the sheets for me. Also, it’s a good practice of gathering data and doing research, noting down the progress, and thinking of changes if necessary.
Q: What type of bees do you keep?
A: They’re mostly Russian but some people prefer the Italian ones. The Russian honey bees are tough during winter and with disease, but they’re quite aggressive; while the Italian bees are more docile. You don’t want your bees to be too docile because some parasites can take advantage of that, but you don’t want the beekeeper to get attacked too much either. Honey production is another important factor. The queen, when she’s born, has to do a nuptial flight during which she flies in the air and breeds with hundreds of male bees, called drones, from all over the neighborhood. This causes diversity. She has in her abdomen a kind of bag full of sperms for her lifetime. A bee breeder told me to change the queen every two years, but I didn’t have the heart and it was the pandemic, so our queen might be running out of sperms. When the queen bee runs out of sperms, she lays unfertilized (haploid) eggs and those become male drones who do nothing; they even spread disease because they go visit other hives to mate with their queen and bring diseases. They don’t pollinate or make anything and in the fall; and when it gets cold, the others kick them out and kill them. What’s funny is that when they’re in the air with the queen, they lose their penis and die. Female worker bees and queen bees are fertilized (diploid) eggs, but what determines which eggs are going to be worker bees is that they’re fed a plant-based food, called honey bread, which affects their genes and their development. Worker bees are the most numerous. They go and pollinate, bring pollen, make honey and do all the tasks. They live about 38 days in summer and a bit longer during winter. The queen is bigger and lasts 4 years or so. Queen bees are fed royal jelly and scientists used to think it was this royal jelly that made them turn into the queen, but now they’re starting to think it’s all the flavonoids in the plants that inhibit the worker bee from developing a reproductive organ.
Q: Does the queen run the hive? And do bees ever plot against the queen?
A: There’s only one queen per hive. If you don’t kill the queen when she gets old, the rest of the bees will leave their hive with a new queen, which you have to absolutely avoid in urban beekeeping. Bees are smart. They can make a new queen in secret and hide it from the older one. If my queen is, say too old, they’ll feed an egg to become queen. Queen cells look different and I can recognize them and remove them. Their development takes maybe 10 to 12 days, and that’s why you have to visit every 10 to 12 days; to prevent them from making another queen and swarming. Bees communicate by pheromone, which is a chemical signal. I believe the queen produces less pheromone as she gets older and then starts to produce unfertilized eggs, which look different. So, you’ll start to see an abnormally higher number of drone cells. That’s a sign that you have to change your queen. A good young queen bee makes her bees behave properly,
preparing her lots of empty clean combs for her to lay; she lays about 2000 eggs per day and they have to give her the space. If they start putting honey where she’s supposed to lay, then that’s another sign that the queen bee doesn’t have control over her bees. As a beekeeper, you have to kill the queen eventually. If I see the queen is laying alright, I might leave her be and start a new hive with new bees. The problem with having two hives is that if one is really strong and the new one is weak, the strong ones steal from the weak ones and the new hive will have trouble getting strength. There are different techniques to avoid that, like adding frames of brood to the weak hive.
Q: How many hives and bees do you have?
A: I had two hives. They both survived last year, but the weak one didn’t survive the cold spring. I had purchased it at the end of the summer and it hadn’t had time to get strong. I just bought new bees and if my queen is still looking alright, I’ll install the new ones in another hive as far from the old hive as I can. There’re different ways to calculate your number of bees. I think a frame covered with bees will have at least 2 000 bees. So, if you have two boxes of that it’d be maybe 40 000 bees, which is a good size for a hive. Ours was a lot, so I estimate 70 000.
Q: Is there enough food for the bees in an urban area?
A: That’s an issue. There’re maps that show you the number of hives in each area. Some areas have too many hives and not enough green space. When I started beekeeping at the college, I got my bees and then did the gardens, but when you plant the garden you don’t get all the flowers right away. So, it’s better to build your gardens the first year and then get your bees, because they need a lot of flowers of different kinds. For flowers to produce lots of nectar, the plants have to be fairly watered. In hot summers, like the one we had last year, flowers don’t produce as much nectar, so the bees’ honey wasn’t that great. It might come as a shock to some people, but bees need water. I have bought a small fountain and I change their water whenever I visit them. A fun fact is that bees know which flowers have already been visited and pollinated. There’s a charge on the flower and there’s a charge on the bee and when they meet it neutralizes the flower, and the bees can see that.
Q: Which is better for the bees: being in the countryside or urban areas?
A: Urban areas with enough flowers would be the perfect thing because you don’t have monocultures. In agricultural sites, they grow the same thing, and sometimes the seeds are coated with a type of pesticide that’s bad for bees. This pesticide is inside those plants, we’re talking corn and soy mostly, and when the bees bring back the pollen to the queen, it has the pesticide and can kill the queen. Monocultures of agriculture grow only one thing and they usually use herbicide to kill weeds, but the weeds are the flowers that the bees like. If you’re
talking about organic farming, a smaller scale with a diversity of things, and leaving the edges for weeds, then that’s alright, but there’s lots of herbicide and pesticide in conventional agriculture and that doesn’t feed bees. For bees, you grow flowers that are high in sugar index. The one that we grow a lot at the college is hyssop, which is why our honey tastes like lemon and mint.
Q: Do bees have any predators that are specific to urban areas?
A: The biggest threat right now is the small hive beetle. They were closer to the States and there were some in Ontario, but last summer a company imported bees from Ontario to Montreal. Once this thing poos in your hive, you have to throw away all your honey, and apparently it nests in the ground so it’s really hard to get rid of it. Some animals could be a threat, too. We don’t have bears in Montreal, but bears are the worst enemy of bees. Skunks can also go in and open your hives. There are wax moths that come and lay their eggs in beehives, resulting in caterpillars growing and feeding in the combs. I had that the first year because my hive was weak and it’s a really bad parasite to have.
Q: Do bees get sick?
A: Yes. The worst thing is this one bacterial infection that you have to report and burn the whole hive. The thing that we have to check for inspections is varroa; it’s a mite that was imported from Asia. It sucks bees’ hemolymph and transmits a virus to the bee. If you don’t manage your count of varroa, they can suck your bees dry. The queen lays an egg and a larva develops, which then caps the cell with wax. The varroa goes into the cell before the larva caps it and sucks on the larva pupa. The funniest thing is that they prefer to feed on male drones’ pupae, which can be used to trap them and get them out of the hive.
Q: Do bees recognize their hive and you, their caretaker?
A: Bees have something like a GPS and if you move the hive you have to do it slowly over a couple of days. When they come out of the hive, they align themselves with the sun and, when they come back, they communicate where they found flowers through a dance and the wiggle tells you the angle of where to turn when you get out of the hive. Their communication is very dependable on smell, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they recognized me by smell. One funny thing is that bees hate alcohol because it smells like fermentation and the bees are terrified of their honey fermenting. Drinking alcohol before visiting the hive is the worst thing to do; the bees will attack you fiercely. Another thing that people don’t know is that it’s better not to visit your hives late in the evening because all the bees are in the house since they’re not pollinating.
Q: Do bees collect other things than nectar and pollen?
A: They also collect the sap of trees, the propolis, which is a disinfectant and is good against disease. They put a goop of propolis everywhere and glue everything together. There’re a lot of people who like to eat propolis because it’s estrogenic.
Q: Were you afraid of bees when you first started out as a beekeeper?
A: I don’t think so. I didn’t get stung the first year, but I did the second year and my hand really swelled up. I got worried because some people can have quite allergic reactions. Now I carry Benadryl spray in my purse. You have to take the dart out and spray right away.
Q: Would you say that beekeeping is dangerous?
A: Some people can be deadly allergic to stings; it could be wasps, but it could also be bees. Apparently, pre-puberty boys could get the worst allergic reactions. However, bees are herbivores and they sting you only if their hive is threatened.
Q: How do you prevent your honey bees from stinging you when you take their honey?
A: We have full suits and gloves, and tell the students to wear closed shoes. Beekeepers also use smoke and there are two hypotheses as to why smoke makes bees calmer. One is that the smoke hides the communication of pheromones of bees that notice the intruder to the rest of the hive, and the other is that the bees think that the fire might be in their hive. As a result, they take a big meal because they think they might have to evacuate, so they’re full-tummy and more docile. I think both of these hypotheses are true. But the minute you’re stung, you’re tagged and, therefore, they go after you.
Q: How is this pandemic treating the bees?
A: I’d say poor, weather-wise. The spring was unusually cold and the flowers were delayed, and summer was very dry and hot. There’s an optimal temperature for the queen to lay and the bees are always trying to keep that temperature. So, when it gets really hot they have to fan the heat out, and when it’s too cold they have to stay close to each other and fan the heat in. If the queen overheats, her egg-laying would be negatively affected. I built a cabana because my bees literally froze to death in winter for two years. The data shows that the mortality rates are quite high. Last year around forty or fifty percent of the hives died.