Beekeeping Through the Eyes of a Pathologist

Written by: Dr. Jim Cupples

When asked to write about my experiences as an amateur beekeeper, I reflected about Dr. Bill Chase, an accomplished pathologist who retired many years ago from VGH. Around his retirement there was an article, presumably in this same newsletter, about his hobby of raising llamas for which I now remember him.

It was about 7 years ago that I took up beekeeping. I have a farm on the Gulf Islands which seemed ideal for this pursuit, but had always felt that I had too much to do already. Obviously I had been too vocal about my interest when one day my wife asked if I wanted to raise bees and I responded that I would like to “someday.” She then let me know that she had signed me up for a course and it was being held in a couple of weeks. The course, which was held on two weekends, went well. I would strongly recommend taking a course before starting beekeeping or even just for personal interest. There are a number available in the lower mainland and are generally well taught. I then lined up the purchase of two starter hives called “nucs,” i.e., nucleus hives. They are small hives consisting of a laying queen and about 15,000 worker bees. Beekeepers makes these by splitting large rapidly growing hives and adding another new queen. An active hive has about 40 to 50,000 bees.

To keep bees, there is a requirement to register with the Provincial Apiary Office, listing how many hives and their location, at no charge.

It has now been 7 years, having as many as 12 hives and a low of none, after wasps in one year killed them. In general it has been successful and rewarding. Measuring success needs to be defined. Keeping the hives alive except for that one year has been easy, but I have learned a lot about producing or not producing honey. When I lost the hives, I bought one replacement hive but kept it at my Kitsilano house instead of the Gulf Islands. To keep bees, there is a requirement to register with the Provincial Apiary Office, listing how many hives and their location, at no charge. In Vancouver up to two hives can be kept with certain requirements as listed on the city website. I had been told and proven that keeping bees in Vancouver was much easier than on the Gulf Islands where there is the lack of flowers and water in the later summer. In Vancouver, that one hive produced 90 lbs of honey, equal to the combined total in the previous six years! This amount is far more than I can consume and the majority is either sold at my small farm store on Galiano or gifted.

There have been many other experiences and lessons which can be listed:

Not all hives are the same. I only started to wear protective gear only after I got a more aggressive hive the second year and decided that I preferred not to be stung. The sting is noticeable but better than a wasp sting. I get localized itching for a few days which is more irritating than the actual sting. Supposedly after hundreds of stings and years, this is likely to lessen. I could not wait that long! Without a serious allergy, beekeeping should not be dangerous.

Bees have cranky days and some hours of the day are much better to work with your bees. Midday on sunny days, when a lot of bees are out foraging is best.

There are many ways to keep bees. There is logic to the methods with elements of superstition, but overall is best described as an art. Although we can all paint, there are good and bad painters.

Vancouver is loaded with well watered flowers all summer including extensive flowering trees like fruit, chestnut and catalpa (12th Ave by Kits High) trees.

Galiano honey is better than Kitsilano honey (still very good) which is better than most store honey. Different honeys have differences in taste. A stronger flavour is preferred by most.

Joining a beekeeping club is probably useful for mentoring, but not essential. Youtube has many informative videos. Some of the presenters give multiple videos which are a great resource.

After a few years with a few hives, I have experienced many of the issues associated with beekeeping. Swarming is something to be controlled. It is when half the hive bees “decides” that it would be best, possibly due to crowding, to leave with the existing queen to greener pastures. In preparation the hive will have created multiple new queen cells to regenerate, however the net result is a much smaller hive that will not produce honey that year. Other issues faced are a queen less hive, hives robbing other hives of honey, starvation, poor colony growth etc.

I have not experienced “colony collapse” but introduced mites and other diseases can take their toll on the hives survival. The true cause of colony collapse is open to discussion but avoiding the use of herbicides, and in particular pesticides, is to be encouraged and in Vancouver, their use by homeowners is prohibited.

Over the years I have become extremely aware and appreciative of the flowers that honey bees prefer and those that the native bees like. This is often not obvious and bee tastes can vary from year to year. I wander around noting that the bees on a given flower do not belong to me as there is colour variation in bees from hive to hive. You also become sensitized to the presence or glaring absence of native bees. Overall I have felt a connection to the hives and stress about their success. It does make you appreciate the abundance of flowers and the bees’ role in nature.