John DeFayette is the bee whisperer. Sharper than a tack, he has the laugh and the vitality of a thirty-year old and for the past eight-years he has been producing and selling the finest honey in all of Greater Victoria at the Moss Street Market. Sadly for the thriving and tightly knit community of ‘foodies’ on Southern Vancouver Island, John and his wife, have recently gotten out of the beekeeping business; by selling off their bees and beekeeping equipment. The proceeds are being used, to help finance a second retirement and move back to the picturesque Ottawa valley area, so that they can be closer with their children and grandchildren. Luckily I was able to ‘tread’ on over to Fernwood, before they left. I was able to ask Victoria’s most iconic beekeeper about the ins and outs of a diminishing, but vastly important trade.
With arms gesturing in broad swathes, Defayette lays out the problem our generation is presently faced with, “you need younger people. It used to be, historically- your grandfather would tell you, oh you would go across Canada and what do you see? You see small farms with chickens and eggs and sorts, but… in the war they wouldn’t worry about honey or sugar rations, because they had a beehive. Almost every home had a beehive or the neighbour had one. And now what do you see, all the big farms have come out and the multinational farms are running it.” In Defayette’s mind the ascendancy of the industrial farming system, has contributed to the free fall of bee colonies around the world. With only a fraction of farmers working worldwide today, compared to fifty years ago, many family farms have disappeared do to financial pressures, allowing for the consolidation of huge tracts of farmland, under the control of the multinational farming companies, something Defayette detests, “they are doing monoculture and the bees are saying, ‘hey where is the variety?’ We like to eat different things, just like you or I do.” This same industrial farming complex, churns out livestock in factory farms, which is contributing to alarming increase in the output of greenhouse gases into our fragile atmosphere. Methane, an extremely potent form of greenhouse gas, is often produced from the rearing, slaughter and transportation of cattle to market.
Increasing climatic instability, is something that we haven’t been faced with locally until recently, but which is now unavoidable and truly transparent laments Defayette, “so it was happening right here and now, not some other place in the world, but here in Victoria. I said well we’ve got cold weather and the chemicals and such [has lead] to a 90% loss of bees on the Island last year; it’s because the cold wind was blowing in. So I got Styrofoam and put it on top [of the hives] but I still lost four hives.” He asks me to sympathize with the bees, “think like a bee and act like human, [about] what are we doing,” Defayette continues, with a piercing stare and a disapproving nod; we are unintentionally killing off the bees by polluting our environment beyond repair, in his opinion.
The future is uncertain when Italy, Japan and China are now forced to pollinate crops by hand, because the bees are so seldom seen. The implications of a world without bees, is even more frightening than any Hollywood disaster movie, “now never-mind honey, we can live without honey, but we cannot live without pollination of different plants and honeybees do a fabulous job,” warns Defayette. Honey bees pollinate 30% of all the fruit, nuts and vegetables we eat.
When I point the finger of blame, at the baby-boomers for the degradation of the environment, Defayette is quick to correct me. Everyone is to blame, my generation included and especially the BC government for lifting a quarantine, that until recently prevented the importation of bees, from elsewhere to Vancouver Island. If everyone is to blame for the ongoing collapse of bee colonies worldwide, then we all need to take collective action to repair the damage that has been done; the solution, I discover is regional.
To begin with, homeowners need to stop buying and using pesticides and herbicides for use in their yards and in their gardens. Also this same purchasing power can be a tool for positive change, as it speaks volumes, by opting for organic instead of conventional produce at the grocery store, this will send demand signals reverberating back up the supply chain to conventional farms. It will demonstrate to these companies, that there are greater profit margins to be made, by switching to organic crop cultivation and production. Organic, can now even be done on a large commercial scale; Earthbound Organics in California is an exceptional business model that should be emulated by other farms of a similar size. Local governments can also take on initiatives to legislate against pesticide use in their own jurisdictions. If you don’t already have a bylaw against the use of pesticides and herbicides in your community, contact your local city councilor and ask them why not? The next step, one that I am seriously considering, after spending an afternoon chatting with John Defayette, is to become a beekeeper myself.
It is the initial investment in the hive equipment and bees, which is the biggest financial burden, but when you begin harvesting pails of honey at the end of your first bee season, you can easily sell your honey to friends or acquaintances, or even at a farmers market if you are so inclined. This is a great way to recover your sunk costs. Defayette goes into detail about the prerequisites, that are required to set-up your own hive-box, “a hive box sits on a landing board and usually has a mouse guard as an entrance. There are different sizes of boxes with the most common being a Dadant. Inside the box are 10 frames [like rooms] with wax foundation.” A single bee box, with all its internal parts, will cost between $250-$300, but he advises on purchasing or building two, to avoid swarming, which is what happens when the bees outgrow their existing hive and half of the colony is forced to leave to find another hive elsewhere. A single hive can accommodate up to 80,000 bees; the work load of a single bee hive is mind bogglingly burdensome according to one website that I stumbled across, “A bee must collect nectar from about 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey. It requires 556 worker bees to gather a pound of honey. Bees fly more than once around the world to gather a pound of honey.”
As a service to all new beekeepers, the provincial government provides free hive inspections and registration; most municipal governments are also very accommodating of new beekeepers as well, but advise your neighbours of your plan to keep bees, because they maybe concerned about their personal safety. Something that is a common misunderstanding, bees aren’t aggressive, they are a very passive species and will only sting you, if you threaten them. Acquiring the bees can be difficult, that is why it is advantageous to join one of the many professional organizations, which have been set up for amateur beekeepers. It will cost approximately $150 to $175 for a nucleus of live bees; each ‘nuke’ includes one queen and is easily inserted into most hive boxes. Locally in the Greater Victoria area bee boxes can be bought or ordered from farm supply stores such as Borden Mercantile or Buckerfields.
So for such an amazing species, one that has as much tenacity as our own, they need as much help as they can get and this is why I am hopeful that future bee enthusiasts will carry on the torch, to keep the bees alive and producing delicious honey well into the future.