All Beekeeping is Local Beekeeping

Pretty much every beekeeper on the planet is telling me how much honey their bees are making and how many swarms they’ve managed to catch this year — while here in Newfoundland my bees are still waking up from winter. It’s an acute reminder that all beekeeping is local beekeeping.

Let’s compare the weather forecast where I live with the weather forecast in Iceland.

St. John's, Newfoundland, weather forecast for May 16, 2016.

St. John’s, Newfoundland, weather forecast for May 16, 2016.

Considering the windchill factor, the average temperature in St. John’s for the next week is 7°C (45°F). The average amount of sunlight per day is 5.8 hours.

Reykjavik, Iceland weather forecast for May 16, 2016.

Reykjavik, Iceland weather forecast for May 16, 2016.

Considering the windchill factor, the average temperature in Reykjavik for the next week is 7°C (45°F), exactly the same as St. John’s. The average amount of sunlight per day is 6.8 hours, one hour more than St. John’s. Even Iceland, a place that’s named after ice, has more bee-friendly weather than St. John’s.

Just for fun, let’s take a look at a province that’s relatively close to Newfoundland: Nova Scotia.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, weather forecast for May 16, 2016.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, weather forecast for May 16, 2016.

Considering the windchill, the average temperature in Halifax for the next week is 17°C (63°F), 10°C more than St. John’s. The average amount of sunlight per day is 8.6 hours, three hours more than St. John’s. While Reykjavik’s climate is nearly identical (though still sunnier) than St. John’s, Halifax might as well be another planet compared to St. John’s. And I don’t even have to go that far to experience a difference in climate. Other places on the island of Newfoundland are vastly different (and warmer) from where I live too.

I’m not trying to feel sorry for myself. Here’s my point: When I first got into beekeeping in 2010, I followed a beekeeping group out of southern California called the Backwards Beekeepers. I’m thankful for having discovered those beekeepers because they inspired me to pursue beekeeping. Like everyone else, I was guilty of idealizing beekeeping like it was heaven on earth, but I was also profoundly misinformed by taking my lead from a group of beekeepers who live in a climate so much sunnier and warmer than mine that they could virtually ignore their bees most of the time and the bees would survive. I could never do what they do. I can’t even do what beekeepers in other (warmer) parts of Newfoundland are doing right now.

So I’ll say it again: All beekeeping is local beekeeping.

If there are any rules in beekeeping for me, that one is close to the top. I do what works in the micro-climate of my backyard, my little beeyard, which is not necessarily the same as anyone else’s.

Except maybe Iceland’s.

I often get asked these kinds of questions: Should I start/stop feeding my bees now? Is now a good time to add/remove honey supers? Should I wrap/unwrap my hives now? My answer is I don’t know what anyone should do right now because no one else has their bees in the specific micro-climate of my backyard, where it might be warmer, colder, sunnier, or shadier than your backyard. 10 million flowers could be in bloom in the area of my beehives and only a million might be in bloom in the area of your hives. My bees might not be able to forage often because of strong winds, whereas yours could be foraging all the time in a sheltered glade. All of these local environmental conditions effect the health of a honey bee colony, which determines when and what individual beekeepers can do with their bees.

Just because some beekeeper in California can build up a three-deep colony with foundationless frames from a nuc in two months doesn’t mean I can do it here in Newfoundland. Just because some beekeeper in the cold windy prairies wraps their hives for winter doesn’t mean I need to wrap my hives in a sheltered wooded area. The same can be said about a beekeeper down the road from me. When someone says that all beekeeping is local beekeeping, that’s what they mean. As much as we’d like to know exactly what to do and when to do it, beekeeping just doesn’t work that way. Not from what I can tell.

4 thoughts on “All Beekeeping is Local Beekeeping

  1. With your observation that all beekeeping is local beekeeping; what are your thoughts on the recent announcement that honeybees will be imported from Western Australia, to Newfoundland?
    Personally, as a beekeeper, I am disappointed in this announcement , I’m sure Western Australia would not allow imports from Newfoundland, and for good reasons from their perspective. Do you suppose any beekeepers were surveyed on this decision ?
    I appreciate your work,

  2. Hi Howie,

    I spent my first year of beekeeping in 2010-11 trying to follow the example of beekeepers in California and learned the hard way that Newfoundland is not California, that all beekeeping is local beekeeping. I first heard the phrase from Rusty Burlew, though she’s not the first to emphasize the importance of local conditions in one’s beekeeping methods and decisions.

    As for the importation of honey bees into Newfoundland from Western Australia (here’s an article from the CBC), if I’d had a vote on the matter, I would have voted against it. I would have encouraged the build up of colonies through the use of the disease-free honey bees already present on the island — the way it’s been done by most NL beekeepers in a safe and self-sustaining manner for years. But I suspect the opinions of people motivated by large-scale commercial interests will speak louder than my view on the matter.

    Beekeeping in Newfoundland now has the appeal of an untapped resource for certain people with the means to exploit it. The beekeeping apprenticeship that arises from building up one’s beeyard over time is unnecessary for people who choose to import their bees. They can simply import as many packaged bees as they like and then pass themselves off as beekeepers. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

    Regardless of the supposed safeguards, now that commercial-scale importation is being allowed, it’s inevitable that some diseased bees will slip through and make it to Newfoundland. It only takes one virulent honey bee disease to destroy decades of beekeeping on the island. Safeguards are often overlooked when there’s quick money to be made. (Update: Sacbrood virus was detected in Newfoundland honey bees in 2016 shortly after 130 packages of bees were imported from Western Australia. I hope that’s just a coincidence.)

    I say don’t rush into it. Take it slow and build up Newfoundland honey bee colonies in a self-sustaining and guaranteed safe manner by using our local disease-free honey bees. The Newfoundland government through Agrifoods NL should put money into that, not into helping out people who want to take short-cuts by importing potentially diseased honey bees.

    Note that when I say disease-free, I mean relatively disease-free. Yes, Newfoundland honey bees have some diseases that have been present for decades in honey bees everywhere. But varroa mites and some of the more virulent diseases that are destroying honey bee colonies all around the world are not present in Newfoundland. So compared to about 99% of all honey bee populations on the planet, Newfoundland honey bees are virtually disease-free. Such a unique population should be protected. Bee importations of any kind should be prohibited. That’s obvious in other disease-free places like the Isle of Mann, but it’s unfortunately not obvious to the Newfoundland government that can’t see beyond its immediate tax revenues.

    You asked, “Do you suppose any beekeepers were surveyed on this decision?” Nobody was consulted. Other beekeepers were not informed about the importations until after the bees were flown in from Western Australia. While the importation of the bees wasn’t illegal, every beekeeper I’ve spoken to feels it was carried out in an unscrupulous manner. Agrifoods might justify their actions by arguing that market demand for honey bees has exceeded Newfoundland beekeepers’ ability to supply it, but did they even consider providing the resources for local beekeepers to create nucleus colonies or even packages to meet that demand — a viable solution that likely requires considerably less taxpayers money to fund? It does’t look like it. The people involved in the importation aren’t fooling anyone. I’m confident most other beekeepers on the island would have argued against the importation as I am now had the process been more transparent and honest.

    Whichever way the decision was made, I’m concerned that commercial interests have disallowed any discussion of safer and more sustainable methods of beekeeping in Newfoundland. It’s the kind of short-sighted behaviour that serves as a nuisance to the majority of beekeepers on the island who approach beekeeping with a greater sense of responsibility.

    I don’t claim to be a master beekeeper, but I’ve done my homework and I know that Newfoundland as a safe haven for honey bees is unique on the planet and deserves exceptional protection. I understand the appeal of making lots of money from beekeeping, that there’s more money to be made when there are more bees on the island, but the risk of importing diseased bees from anywhere is too high. Any risk is too high. Why risk it when we already have the resources to build up a healthy population of honey bees ourselves? It may take a little longer, but it’s entirely possible. I’m not sure the importation of honey bees from Western Australia, or from anywhere, is necessary, or wise.

    If they’re bringing in only a small number of queens to increase the genetic diversity of the Newfoundland stock, a small number of queens that can be inspected individually, then that’s not so bad. But importing nucleus hives or packages of honey bees — that won’t end well.

    UPDATE: The Newfoundland Beekeeping Association has posted a PDF document, NLBKA Research Priorities, that states: “In April 2016, Trevor Tuck of Tuck’s Bee Better Farm [in Grand Falls-Windsor], and Chris Lester [of Lester Farms in St. John’s] imported 130 packages of bees from Western Australia.” 100 packages were quarantined in Grand Falls-Windsor and 30 were quarantined in St. John’s. Word around the campfire is that at least a portion of the imported bees were quarantined in St. John’s well within even 5km of healthy established honey bee colonies. Considering that honey bees can forage anywhere from 5km to 11km, the bees quarantined in St. John’s could have already mixed with disease-free Newfoundland honey bees. But that’s just speculation because the location of the quarantined bees was never provided by Agrifoods — even though the importation of any bees from anywhere in the world has the potential to affect the health of every honey bee colony on the island.

    Newfoundland beekeepers can do better than this, and deserve better than this.

    I won’t fault anyone for wanting to get into beekeeping as a commercial enterprise, but I can’t help but conclude that how Agrifoods NL allowed the importation to happen wasn’t exactly above board. It seems dishonest. The process certainly wasn’t transparent.

    The importation of any kind of bee onto the island has the potential to affect all Newfoundland beekeepers. Yet the importation of honey bee packages from Western Australia was deliberately concealed from every beekeeper on the island except for those involved in the purchase. If someone needed over 100 packages so badly, why wasn’t word put out to other NL beekeepers that they were willing to pay other beekeepers to create splits? I know people who’ve expanded from 4 colonies to 16 colonies in one year by making splits and installing queens. It’s not hard to do. Even as a hobbyist beekeeper with a relatively small number of hives, I could have created a dozen nucs for anyone had I been asked. And there are many beekeepers in NL like myself who I’m sure would have gladly embraced the opportunity to offset the financial costs of their beekeeping by selling off some splits.

    That possibility — a process that probably would have been less costly for everyone and would not have introduced any chance of importing diseased bees — wasn’t even considered. Agrifoods’ answer is that it didn’t have to consider it because there’s no legal obligation to do so. But it nevertheless paints the picture of an intentional deception, a deception of the larger community of beekeepers in Newfoundland that would have most likely and reasonably objected to any plans to import bees.

    By allowing the importation of honey bees, and specifically by allowing it to happen secretively, Agrifoods has fractured the beekeeping community in Newfoundland at a time when it was just beginning to come together.

    The importation of honey bees onto the island of Newfoundland in 2016 is questionable for many reasons. The deliberate concealment of the importation from most beekeepers on the island is just the beginning. (It’s ironic that Tuck’s Bee Better Farm uses the slogan “grown here, not flown here” to promote their products that exist precisely because they flew in most of their bees from Western Australia.)

    Now that importation has proven to be extremely profitable, it’s likely to catch on, even with beekeepers who would normally never think about importing bees. If importing honey bees from Western Australia then becomes common practice, self-sustainable beekeeping in Newfoundland will soon be a thing of the past.

    THE FINE PRINT: The above commentary, which I may edit and update at any time without notice, is my personal opinion and does not represent the views of any organization or person other than yours truly.

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